Maple Leafs Top 20 prospects, Fall 2007

By Scott Mitchell

The Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to add another elite prospect to their increasingly impressive stable this past summer, but they dealt their first and second round picks to San Jose in the Vesa Toskala trade. The Toronto system is very top heavy with goaltender Justin Pogge, center Jiri Tlusty, winger Nikolai Kulemin, and defenseman Anton Stralman all blue-chip prospects who could start contributing in the next year or two. After that it gets dicey with every prospect having major question marks. Toronto Marlies winger and former NCAA standout Robbie Earl has a chance to provide the Leafs with a dynamic, goal-scoring winger but needs to improve on his inconsistent first AHL season.

A lot of the organization’s defensive depth has graduated in the past two seasons with Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo now NHL regulars and Staffan Kronwall and Jay Harrison now in their mid-20s and no longer considered prospects. Of the Leafs’ top 20 prospects, only four are defensemen.

The NCAA and the Marlies will be the places to watch for Leafs prospects this year as they will have four playing in the NCAA and could have up to eight players from this list playing with the top farm club.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Justin Pogge, G
2. Jiri Tlusty, C
3. Nikolai Kulemin, RW
4. Robbie Earl, LW
5. Anton Stralman, D
6. Jeremy Williams, RW
7. Dmitri Vorobiev, D
8. Dale Mitchell, RW
9. Tyler Ruegsegger, C
10. James Reimer, G
11. Matt Frattin, LW
12. Ben Winnett, LW
13. Phil Oreskovic, D
14. Brent Aubin, RW
15. Leo Komarov, C
16. Chad Rau, C
17. John Mitchell, C
18. Konstantin Volkov, RW
19. Juraj Mikus, D
20. Chris DiDomenico, C

1. (1) Justin Pogge, G, 21

Acquired: 2004, third round, 90th overall

Pogge began his pro career last season splitting time with minor league veteran J.F. Racine. Like many young netminders, Pogge struggled to adjust to the pro ranks, posting a 5-9 record with a 3.23 GAA in 15 games before Jan. 1. Pogge would improve as he garnered more playing time as the season went on. While the Marlies team finished below .500, they did play better down the stretch and Pogge was a big reason why. The tall, lanky goaltender posted an 8-8-1 record in the last two months of the season, including a sparkling 2.13 GAA in six games in the month of April. After playing in 48 games a year ago, 2007-08 will be a big development season for Pogge with him likely seeing action in 55-plus games.

2. (2) Jiri Tlusty, C, 19

Acquired: 2006, first round, 13th overall

If there was a true indication of the kind of talent Tlusty brings to a team, it was shown at the very beginning and the very end of his 2006-07 season. Playing in six games with the Marlies to begin the season while Leafs’ brass decided what to do with their prized first rounder, Tlusty scored three goals in six games. When the Leafs finally decided to send him to Craig Hartsburg’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League to learn not only the North American game, but the culture, as well, Tlusty had the misfortune of suffering an ankle injury that hurt his development throughout the regular season. The Czech pivot still managed to post 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in 37 OHL regular-season games, but it was the playoffs where he really shined. With the ankle injury behind him, Tlusty moved his game to a different level. He brought his whole arsenal of skills in a six-game upset of the Saginaw Spirit and nearly led them to another upset of the London Knights. Tlusty was all over the ice, winning faceoffs, scoring goals and, more importantly, playing a physical brand of North American hockey. He finished the playoffs with 17 points in only 13 games. The sky is the limit for Tlusty this season as he could challenge for a spot with the Leafs or play top-six forward minutes with the Marlies.

3. (5) Nikolai Kulemin, RW, 21

Acquired: 2006, second round, 44th overall

The debate rages over who is the better prospect – Tlusty or Kulemin. Only time will tell, but there is no doubt that Kulemin is a world-class talent and was a second-round steal. As a 20-year-old Kulemin led his Russian league team in goal scoring with 27 goals and, really, it wasn’t even close as the next player had only 17 tallies. He also added 41 penalty minutes in his 51 games played. He then proceeded to add 10 more goals in 15 playoff games. Just for the sake of comparison, Alexander Ovechkin’s best season in the same league was a 13-goal season – which he did twice — albeit at the ages of 18 and 19 years old. Kulemin possesses a rare package of speed, power and hands that has Leaf fans drooling, but he is not expected to make the trek overseas until 2008. He signed a new one-year deal with Magnitogorsk Mettalurg for the 2007-08 season, but is expected to attend Leafs training camp this fall. Listed as No. 3 on this list, Pogge, Tlusty and Kulemin could easily be seen as 1a, 1b, and 1c.

4. (3) Robbie Earl, LW, 22

Acquired: 2004, sixth round, 187th overall

While at first glance, Earl’s 2006-07 season could be considered a disappointment, digging a bit deeper reveals a solid first pro season for the Marlies. The shifty winger played in 67 games and posted 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points. He also held a respectable minus-6 rating on a team filled with minus players. Earl’s situation dictated his season more than his talent, as he was forced to play middling minutes on a team devoid of offensive talent. Earl brings a dynamic offensive game to the table and the ability to change the game on every shift. This season is seen as a big year for Earl development-wise, as a solid season would likely give him a look with the big club this season when the inevitable injury bug strikes.

5. (16) Anton Stralman, D, 21

Acquired: 2005, seventh round, 216th overall

Stralman’s ascension into the ranks of the world’s top prospects has been swift and virtually unforeseen. After going from a late-round afterthought, to logging heavy minutes on the Swedish National Team, Stralman has proved he is the real deal on a world stage. Armed with a hard, accurate point shot and playing a game similar to Leafs stalwart Tomas Kaberle – smart, puck-mover who takes good angles defensively – Stralman is expected to challenge for a spot on the Leafs crowded blueline this fall. The big question is whether Stralman would be better served being worked into the lineup after a stint with the Marlies or playing immediately as Kaberle did back in 1998. Although 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points in 53 Swedish Elite League games may suggest he is ready to play in the NHL right away, a roster move may have to be made to accommodate the phenom, which suggests a likely AHL debut this season.

6. (6) Jeremy Williams, RW, 23

Acquired: 2003 seventh round 220th overall

Not much can be said about Williams’ 2006-07 season. After starting the season in the AHL, Williams suffered a leg injury in a Nov. 17 game and did not return until Feb. 10. He finished the season with six goals and nine assists for 15 points in 23 games. In an ironic twist, Williams also got the call to the big club for one game, and as he did in 2005-06, played one game and tallied one goal on one shot. While Williams has produced for the Leafs when called upon, it is unclear why he has not been given an extended look. Whether the Leafs are waiting for him to produce and stay injury-free with the Marlies for an extended period of time, or they just don’t see him having a future with the team, is uncertain. Williams’ skill-set is that of a top-six forward. He has produced at every stop in his hockey career; however, he is of no use on the third or fourth lines when he is expected to play a grinding role. Williams will be given a long look this fall, and he could be one injury away from securing a regular spot with the Leafs.

7. (7) Dmitri Vorobiev, D, 21

Acquired: 2004 fifth round 157th overall

Vorobiev broke out in his third full season with Tolyatti Lada of the Russian Super League. First and foremost thought of as a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman, Vorobiev scored 10 goals and added seven assists for 17 points in 54 games. At 6’2 and over 200 pounds, he relies on his size in the defensive zone to play a sound positional game. As has become chic in today’s NHL, Vorobiev is a solid puck-mover who tends to make the right decision with the puck. After adding a little offense to his repertoire last season he could be ready sooner, rather than later.

8. (NR) Dale Mitchell, RW, 18

Acquired: 2007, third round, 74th overall

Mitchell makes his debut in the Leafs top 10 after being selected with the team’s first pick this summer. Mitchell is a bulldog on skates, using his stocky 5’8 210-pound frame to drive the net and do a tremendous job on the cycle. Mitchell did not have the good fortune of playing with OHL phenom John Tavares this past season, as he spent most of his time toiling on the Oshawa Generals second line. It is a testament to Mitchell’s skills that he was able to bury 43 pucks and add 37 assists, playing on the second unit. Mitchell is a good skater, who, based on his production and work ethic, would have gone much higher in the draft if he had an extra few inches. Mitchell will continue to develop with the Generals this season and there is no telling the kind of numbers he could put up if he were to secure first-line duty. Nonetheless, there will be many eyes on him this season as the scouts continue to closely monitor Tavares’ progress.

9. (8) Tyler Ruegsegger, C, 19

Acquired: 2006 sixth round 166th overall

The Leafs didn’t quite know what to expect when they selected Ruegsegger late in the 2006 draft. They knew he could be a dynamic offensive player but there were obvious shortcomings. His skating checks in as just average and there are the size drawbacks at 5’11 and 175 pounds. But after one NCAA season, one in which he did nothing but impress, the Leafs may have found a gem. Playing in 40 games as a freshman at the University of Denver, Ruegsegger scored 15 goals and added 19 assists for 34 points, playing on a young team. He finished fourth in team scoring and was third in goals. He will likely spend four full years in Colorado, desperately trying to add strength and improve his skating.  His skating is becoming less of a hindrance as he translates his terrific hockey sense and playmaking ability to each level.

10. (11) James Reimer, G, 19

Acquired: 2006 fourth round 99th overall

Playing for Brent Sutter’s Red Deer Rebels, Reimer snatched the starting job early in the season and ran with it. A year after splitting time in the Rebels crease, Reimer played in 60 games, resulting in a 26-23-7 record and a solid 2.66 GAA and .912 save percentage. However, the Rebels were ousted in a first-round seven-game series, which featured some spotty play by Reimer. When he is on his game, the lanky netminder uses his size to cut down angles and plays a controlled game. At 6’3 and over 200 pounds, he is able to take away a lot of the net when he is focused. He also displays decent puckhandling skills. There is no telling how Sutter’s departure to the New Jersey Devils will change the Rebels philosophy or mindset going into the season. With the severe lack of depth in the organization at the goaltending position, Reimer is expected to take another big step this season into the upper echelon of goaltenders in the Western Hockey League.

11. (NR) Matt Frattin, RW, 19

Acquired: 2007 fourth round 99th overall

Frattin is committed to attending the University of North Dakota in the fall after winning AJHL rookie-of-the-year honors with 49 goals and 34 assists for 83 points in 58 games. Frattin spurned many WHL teams last year after indicating that he wanted to go the NCAA route and ended up playing the season with the Fort Saskatchewan Traders of the Alberta Junior “A” Hockey League. Born in Edmonton, AB, Frattin uses his excellent shot to back defenders off down the wing and shows good hands when opportunities arise in close. He had a squatty build at 5’11 and 185 pounds. He is not afraid to do the dirty work in the corner but is at his best when posted up in the slot. He needs to work on his skating, which is considered just average. Frattin will spend at least two seasons toiling with what could be a very young North Dakota squad.

12. (NR) Ben Winnett, LW, 18

Acquired: 2007 fourth round 104th overall

Another of the Leafs 2007 picks who will toil in the NCAA ranks this year, as Winnett will attend the University of Michigan. Drafted out of the same league that produced third overall pick Kyle Turris, the BCHL, Winnett’s game is based on speed. At 6’0 and 175 pounds, Winnett will need to get stronger over his college tenure in order to better adapt to a more physical game. He managed quite well in his second season in British Columbia’s top Junior A league. After posting 18 goals and 31 assists for 49 points in 60 games in 2005-06, Winnett progressed as most scouts hoped by scoring 27 goals and 30 assists for 57 points in only 39 games last year. He also had 58 minutes in penalties. Winnett plays a well-rounded game in that he can finish, as well as set up, in addition to playing a gritty game when the need arises. Winnett’s goal will be to become consistent and take time to add strength and bulk to his wispy frame. He could become a steal over time.

13. (12) Phil Oreskovic, D, 20

Acquired: 2005 third round 82nd overall

Oreskovic posted his best offensive totals of his OHL career last year in his final kick at the OHL can. He split the year between the Brampton Battalion, the team which he spent his first three OHL seasons with, and the Owen Sound Attack. In 62 games he scored three goals and added 19 assists for 22 points. He also continued to add to his healthy penalty minute resume with 179 minutes in the box. The towering rearguard is an exceptional stay-at-home defenseman, and an outstanding bodychecker but does not provide much else. The 6’4 220-pound blueliner excels at clearing the front of the net, playing a punishing corner game, and is able to lay a devastating bodycheck every couple of games. He struggles when he is forced to carry the puck but is capable of making the first pass out of the defensive zone. He is destined to play second fiddle to an offensive defenseman, providing the defensive conscience. He will suit up for the Marlies this year and should play a regular role in first AHL season.

14. (13) Brent Aubin, RW, 21

Acquired: Signed as free agent in 2006

Aubin was plucked out of the free-agent pool by Ferguson after impressing during a camp invite last year. The shifty winger has scored over 40 goals the past three seasons, including over 50 in the past two. Although a little on the small side at 5’9 and 180 pounds, Aubin uses his intelligence and knack for being in the right place at the right time to post big numbers. Skating is the one aspect that has always been the knock on the Aubin, and was probably the reason he went undrafted. There is no doubt Aubin has natural goal-scoring instincts and he will put them to the test this season on a revamped Marlies squad. In an eight-game audition late last year he garnered two assists. This will be a telltale year as to whether or not Aubin is a legitimate prospect or will spend the majority of his career in the AHL.

15. (NR) Leo Komarov, C, 20

Acquired: 2006 sixth round 180th overall

Chosen late in the 2006 draft, everyone in Finland knows what the 5’10 190-pound center is all about and that is getting under the opponent’s skin. Komarov does not have the offensive upside of a lot of the prospects on this list, but he does provide a critical ingredient to any winning hockey club. His ability to kills penalties, backcheck and play an Esa Tikkanen-esque role, minus the offense, cannot be understated. His skating is above average, as well as his defensive game. He also loves to play the body on the forecheck. His offensive game is severely limited as evidenced by his totals of three goals and six assists in 49 games in Finland this past season. He was able to chalk up 108 penalty minutes though. If Komarov can cut down on the foolish penalties and stick to working on his defensive game, he could have a career in North America.

16. (14) Chad Rau, C, 20

Acquired: 2005 seventh round 228th overall

A dominant scorer in the USHL, Rau has continued that success at Colorado College in the NCAA. Two years ago he posted 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points in his freshman season and he followed that up last year with 14 goals and 17 assists for 31 points in 39 games, three less than his freshman season. Rau’s biggest knock is his skating. He is listed at 5’11 and 187 pounds but handles himself well in traffic and has great hockey sense. He led Colorado College in faceoff win percentage last season and led the team with 18 power play points. A very heady player, Rau has great makeup and gets the most out of his physical skills. He should spend another two full years in college before making the adjustment to the pro game. His ability to step up at critical times in the game is his best attribute, as evidenced by the fact that he factored in on eight game-winning goals (one goal, seven assists).

17. (15) John Mitchell, C, 22

Acquired: 2003 fifth round 158th overall

Mitchell progressed nicely in his second full AHL season. He improved his point total by 19 points – from 17 in 2005-06 to 36 last season. He played a checking role on the offense-starved Marlies and while that may be his calling, he also has the ability to chip in with 15-20 goals a year. His biggest asset is his good size down the middle at 6’1 and 195 pounds. He is also adept on faceoffs and is reliable in his own end. He has all the makings of a NHL third-line center, but whether or not he will ever live up to that is another question. He skates well, has good size, can take faceoffs, plays well in his own end, but he never seems to put all of those skill sets together on a consistent basis. Mitchell will again patrol the third line for what should be a much-improved Marlies team this year and may post career-best numbers with more talented players around him.

18. (20) Konstantin Volkov, RW, 22

Acquired: 2003 fourth round 125th overall

Volkov played last season as one of the youngest players with Chekhov Vityaz of the Russian League. His teammates included former NHLers Alexander Korolyuk and Oleg Kvasha. In 30 games, Volkov scored seven goals and three assists for 10 points. In comparison, former New York Islander Kvasha scored seven goals in 27 games. The 5’11 Russian is a versatile forward as he plays right wing as well as center. He has some offensive flair but rarely shows much more. He isn’t a physical player and is very streaky. He has the potential to be a goal scorer at every level he plays, but he never seems to bring the intensity and consistency needed to do it on a nightly basis. He will continue to be a project and is signed through this season in Russia.

19. (NR) Juraj Mikus, D, 18

Acquired: 2007 fifth round 134th overall

A big, imposing rearguard with all-around skills, Mikus could prove to be a steal for the Leafs if he hits his big-time upside. With an impressive reach and good puck skills for a man his size, Mikus will have to fill out his 6’4 185-pound frame in order to have any chance of success at the next level. He dominated the Czech Junior league with nine goals and 24 points in 42 games, including an impressive +32 rating with 72 penalty minutes. His all-around upside alone warrants a spot on this list, but it may be a few years before any of the results are seen. The native of Slovakia will continue to develop overseas but with good vision to play a puck-moving game and a good point shot, it may not be long before he is more well-regarded in prospect circles.

20. (NR) Chris DiDomenico, C, 18

Acquired: 2007 sixth round 164th overall

The third-leading rookie scorer in the QMJHL this past season – behind Jakub Voracek and David Perron – DiDomenico was a surprise for the expansion Saint John Sea Dogs from the get-go. The Toronto native went unselected in the OHL draft, but received a call from the Sea Dogs, who were desperately searching for talent, and never looked back. Playing a full 70-game slate, the feisty center scored 25 goals and added 50 assists for 75 points in his rookie season. On a team devoid of any scoring whatsoever – the next leading scorer had 53 points – this was quite a feat. DiDomenico is on the small side at 5’11 and only 165 pounds but has overcome his size deficiencies so far with excellent hockey sense. Though his skating is only average, he is excellent on faceoffs and is a good penalty killer. If he is able to add muscle to his frame and continue to play a smart, two-way game he could surprise. In the meantime, he will continue to guide the Sea Dogs through their expansion years.

No longer prospects by HF criteria:
(9) Staffan Kronwall, (10) Jay Harrison

Dropping off the list: (17) Alex Foster, (18) Johan Dahlberg, (19) Korbinian Holzer

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