Maple Leafs 2007 draft preview

By Scott Mitchell

Leafs Top 10 prospects

1. Justin Pogge, G
2. Jiri Tlusty, C
3. Robbie Earl, LW
4. Nikolai Kulemin, LW
5. Jeremy Williams, RW
6. Dmitri Vorobiev, D
7. Tyler Ruegsegger, RW
8. Staffan Kronwall, D
9. Jay Harrison, D
10. James Reimer, G

There is a certain school of thought that says the 2007 NHL Entry Draft on June 22-23 in Columbus, Ohio could be the most important draft in a long time for the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

Currently, the Leafs are on the brink of becoming a playoff team. But as everyone knows, without a solid core of players coming through the pipe every couple of years, it can turn ugly very quickly – just ask the Carolina Hurricanes.

Over the last 15 years the Toronto philosophy has always been to draft players and use them as bargaining chips to secure veteran players for a playoff drive. Or worse, trading high draft picks and then sitting back each summer and watching the good, young talent snapped up before they even step to the podium.

For all of GM John Ferguson Jr’s detractors, what he has provided is an element of patience when it comes to making decisions on the future. After a very solid 2006 draft that yielded the likes of Jiri Tlusty and Nikolai Kulemin, who both could be in Toronto to start the 2008-09 season, the Leafs need to continue to add to the farm system in a big way.

The Leafs hold their own full complement of picks in Rounds 1-7, plus an extra fourth-round selection that was picked up in the Mikael Tellqvist trade with Phoenix.

Dave Morrison, head of amateur scouting, will preside over his second draft, although he couldn’t have had much influence last year after being promoted to his current position one week before the draft in Vancouver.  Morrison had been an amateur scout with the organization since 2004 before replacing Barry Trapp last June.

With the 13th selection in the first round for the second year in a row, Ferguson and Morrison will look to continue the Leafs’ new philosophy in the new NHL.

Team needs

Four players on the current Leafs’ blueline have big, long-term contracts – Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill – meaning there is not much room for movement over the next few years barring a trade or two.  With the defensive corps looking relatively set heading into the season, Ferguson will be looking for help up front, and lots of it. A scoring winger to go with Mats Sundin has been on the team’s wish list for the last 10 years and that will be the priority again this summer. Ferguson will go shopping with about $10 million looking for a couple of wingers, possibly a second-line center depending on where they feel Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood fit best, and a backup goaltender. A shutdown checking-line center is also a possibility with Mike Peca still on the radar. A top-six forward unit of Sundin, Steen, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Wellwood and Darcy Tucker would be complemented well by a skilled winger who could play on the top line.

Goaltender J.S. Aubin is an unrestricted free agent, so a veteran goaltender who can buy another year or two before Justin Pogge is ready is a need, as well. The Leafs have done a good job over the past two years of allowing the young players to develop with more playing time and adding pieces around them. After building the blueline and solidifying the goaltending last year, it is time to take care of the offense.

Organizational strengths

If there is a strength in the organization, it is on the blueline. The Leafs were in the enviable position of having a handful of youngsters battling it out for only two spots last year. In the end, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo were able to step up and make the most of the opportunity and look set heading into camp this fall. Also, the depth is there along the Marlies’ blueline, as well, as the organization must feel good about having Staffan Kronwall, Jay Harrison, Phil Oreskovic, Andy Wozniewski, a healthy Karel Pilar, and top prospect Anton Stralman all on hand if injuries strike.

Organizational weaknesses

There is no question the Leafs will be looking for help up front in this draft. Before last year’s draft there were no blue-chip forward prospects in the Leafs system and they need to continue to build the depth as well. While the Leafs have some decent talent under the age of 28 to build the current roster around in Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Steen, Wellwood, and Matt Stajan, there needs to be more young talent stockpiled, a la the Buffalo Sabres, to stay competitive each and every year.

Adding another goaltender is also a need, albeit minor compared to the forward situation. With the unpredictable nature of goaltending and the amount of time some players take to develop, the Leafs would do well to add another body to go along with prospects Pogge and James Reimer. The Leafs had a great start in both areas last year in Vancouver and they will look to build upon that again this year.

Draft tendencies

If you look over the Leafs’ failed draft picks of past years – and there are a lot of them – they seemed to strike out on every big, strong defenseman they chose. The names Ware, Posmyk, and Doherty do not elicit fond memories. A league-wide shift over the past few years to more mobile defensemen, whose first job is to move the puck rather than bang bodies, has been kind to the Leafs. They have found late-round blueline gems in Kaberle, White, Stralman and Staffan Kronwall. Look for that trend to continue.

Drafting goaltenders has long been a difficult task for anyone making picks for the organization. Felix Potvin was drafted 31st overall in 1990 and Pogge was selected 90th overall in 2004. Between them the Leafs selected 11 goaltenders, all with varying degrees of disappointment. The most successful was a blown first-round pick on Eric Fichaud. With Pogge, Tuukka Rask and Reimer having been chosen over the last three drafts, they will look to continue to improve that dubious track record.

The Leafs tendencies up front have been harder to pinpoint. Lately they have been looking overseas and to the NCAA ranks with some success and shying away from Canadian Hockey League prospects. While they been successful with Europeans Tlusty, Kulemin, Leo Komarov and a couple others who are developing nicely, the Leafs may look to North America this year for a couple of players who they can watch more closely and not have to worry about signability issues.

The picks

Toronto has eight picks in the 2007 Entry Draft, including Phoenix’s fourth-round choice either No. 99 or 103.

No. 13
No. 44
No. 74
No. 99 or 103 (from Phoenix)
No. 104
No. 134
No. 164
No. 194

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft selection:
Angelo Esposito, C

Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future.  Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.