Editor's Note: Wamsley, a contributor to Habs Eyes on the Prize (don't hold it against him...necessarily) as well as the editor of Fantasy Sense Hockey, has provided his fantasy preview of the 2009-2010 Maple Leafs.
Brian Burke is the current face of the Toronto Maple Leaf and his presence bodes well for a bright future in T.O.
Starting from scratch is not easy, but with a farm system bereft of top-level talent, Burke has done the sensible thing and attempted to restock it on the fly through late blooming college and foreign prospects.
There will be growing pains, but if any fanbase can tolerate it, it is Maple Leaf fans. With Burke comes hope, and in Toronto, hope springs eternal.
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I always held the perception that Ron Wilson was a strong defensive coach and was surprised to see his defensive numbers over the first half of his career. Wilson like Jacques Martin is as successful as the talent around him. When provided with elite level talent, he has the ability to excel on both sides of the puck.
During the last decade Wilson's defensive numbers have drastically improved. Over the last five seasons, Wilson's teams cracked the top 4 on three occasions. All without the aid of elite level defensive talent. It is clear to see with the addition of Komisarek, Beauchemin, Allaire and Gustavsson where this story is going. The Leafs may struggle to score, but they will probably insulate their own end so well that Andrew Raycroft could find success.
The last link to the Sundin era, Tomas Kaberle struggled through 2009. A broken hand and a stint in Ron Wilson's doghouse saw the enthusiasm sucked out of Kaberle's performance. A strong start in which Kaberle averaged .75 PPG slowly declined per quarter, as he registered only 8 points over his last 25 games. Although the glory days of him feathering passes for McCabe one timers are now gone, he still remains the Leafs greatest fantasy option. Even with his poor 2009, Kaberle did not find himself far from his regular 50+ point pace. His offensive skill set is to strong for him to not bounce back among the fantasy elite in 2010.
The Albino bounced back in 2009 to finish among the Top 50 Roto players (43). Jason Blake found new life in Toronto when paired with center Dominic Moore. Blake scored 41 points in 41 games from Dec 1st through Moore's departure on March 4th. Blake struggled over the last 18 games scoring just 12 points. Plenty of Blake's fantasy production is based on his gaudy shot totals, as the anti-Kaberle registered 300+ shots for the 4th consecutive season. He has reached his top end, at best you can hope to milk one more season like 2009 out of the 36 year old.
Usually the best advice is "better the devil you know than the devil you don't", but when it comes to Leafs fantasy prospects the reverse is true. The "monster" has been so hyped that the consensus has him being picked far higher than his worth. The only exposure North Americans have to him is a couple of games during the World Championships last spring. In 2000, a 22-year-old goaltender took the SEL by storm. He lead the league during the regular season and posted a 1.55 GAA and a .931 SV% to lead Djurgården to the SEL title. His name? Mikael Tellqvist. Great statistics in Sweden have no bearing on future performance in North America. That being said, Jonas Gustavsson is a solid fantasy gamble. At 6'3" tall, a Leaf philosophy based around the defensive end, a struggling Toskala and the addition of Allaire, I think I would rather have his possible upside over a throng of uninspiring 50-point players. He is an intriguing prospect, with TUP (tremendous upside potential). Just don't reach to early.
Mikhail Grabovski possesses a deadly offensive skill set and is fun to watch when he has the puck. He still remains inconsistent in his compete level and discipline. That lack of discipline came in handy for Grabovski owners in January when he registered 1/3 of his seasonal PIMs during a tirade against the Montreal Canadiens. With the Leafs lack of offensive depth, the opportunity exists for Grabovski to breakout. If he manages to put together the whole package he will easily surpass the 60 pt mark in 2010.
With the departure of Mats Sundin and increased responsibility, Alexei Ponikoravsky rose to the occasion. With a career year already upon him, the departure of Antropov and Moore landed Pokahovsky on a line with Nikolai Kulemin. The result was some of the most productive hockey of Ponikarovsky's career. After the deadline he produced 22 points in 19 games including two 4 point games. I am interested to see if he can recapture the chemistry he had with Kulemin and Grabovski in 2010. I don't believe this is an indicator of a future jump to the PPG level, but at the age of 29, a repeat of 2009 is entirely within his reach.
Francois Beauchemin's statistical history doesn't show much of a fantasy impact player, but playing behind Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer doesn't leave much opportunity. In 2006 when given 6 minutes of PP time per game as Niedermayer's triggerman, he produced at a 45 point pace. Although Beauchemin does not have a great offensive package, he has a booming shot from the point and will likely get an opportunity to play McCabe for Kaberle's featherly feeds. 40+ points is not out of the question.
Is it wrong to refer to Jiri Tlusty as streaky? I mean he did put up 21 points in only 6 games last year. Tlusty scored 5 goals on 5 shots in a game against the Syracuse Crunch. He set a Marlies franchise record with a 6-point game against the Providence Bruins and he recorded 10 points in his final 4 AHL regular season games. Those type of performances placed Tlusty on the fantasy radar and offensive opportunities abound in Toronto, making him a solid sleeper gamble and stash in a keeper league.
It is always hard to translate scoring from the Russian league to the NHL and to anticipate a player's adjustment to North America. This was true in Nikolai Kulemin's case as he struggled out of the gate with the defensive aspect of the game. As the season progressed he looked comfortable and the offensive upside in his game began to surface. When coupled with his work ethic, Kulemin found himself developing chemistry on a line with Ponikarovsky and Grabovski leading to 8 points in his final 9 games. Kulemin should be interesting to watch in 2010.
Niklas Hagman had a career year in 2009 even though he missed 17 games. As always, fantasy production is not about talent, it is about opportunity. The Leafs lack of elite talent up front allowed Hagman to log 1st line minutes in a system that allowed offensive freedom. Freed from the Stars restrictive system Hagman was able to showcase his offensive skills. The Leafs still lack finish up front, so the opportunity exists for Hagman to push 55-60 points in 2010.
One year removed from a 33 win season, Vesa Toskala seems to be the forgotten man in Toronto. Groin injury? So, we don't need him. We have a goaltender that has never played an NHL game that I have never seen play to replace him. Toskala has struggled mightily since his arrival in Toronto, but it is not an indictment of his ability. Is Toskala really that different than the goalie that posted dominant seasons in San Jose? Or is he just a victim of a team that was horrendous in their defensive zone? Toskala has proven not to be bigger than a system, but with the Leafs investing money in their blue line this off-season, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he can return to previous form.
The Leafs organization has always been known for a couple things. The product on the ice has no bearing on their financial bottom line. The ACC is filled every night whether it is professionals, or my ball hockey men's league lacing up the skates and sporting the logo. Second, the Leafs never have a strong farm system. That may be changing. With Brian Burke's aggressive pursuit of undrafted college and foreign-born players, he has begun the process of building the foundation of a 2013 Championship run.
Kadri is fearless and possesses brilliant puck skills and strong offensive instincts. His production has increased every season, culminating in 78 pts in 56 games for the London Knights during his draft eligible season. His stock sagged because of questions about his compete level, but recovered with 21 pts in 14 playoff games, including a dominant performance against the Spitfires. He has stated that his goal is to begin this season in Toronto. With the Leafs short on playmakers upfront, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility, but this is not the Stellick era. A more realistic expectation is 2012.
With limited options on the farm, Brian Burke went hard after the top undrafted NCAA player, Tyler Bozak. Bozak gained plenty of notoriety during his sophomore season with his great instincts and passing ability. A knee injury hampered his progress and has done nothing to quell the fears that he may be fragile, but his vision and offensive upside help overlook those flaws. As the most NHL ready of the Leaf prospects, he will quickly become a fan favourite and if ever given an elite support cast could post some monster NHL seasons.
Did the Leafs take a page out of the Red Wing book and pluck a potential gem late in the draft? Stefanovich is a project pick that has all the skills and instincts to be a goal scorer down low. The biggest obstacles in his way are his commitment level, his unwillingness at his size to initiate physical play and his Antropovian stride. Although he is not as far in his progression, based on his size and skating, if Stefanovich was born in Chicoutimi and not Minsk, his surname would be Latendresse.
The Leafs hope they have discovered another late developing gem in Viktor Stralberg. A top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker, Stralberg has great speed and acceleration for a man his size (6'3"). He is very intense and possesses strong offensive instincts, but does not play to his size and needs seasoning in the AHL to refine his defensive commitment.
Jimmy Hayes and Christopher DiDomenico represent the majority of Leaf prospects, project picks with upside that possess inherent flaws. If the moon aligns with the sun, every serviceable strength improves and all questions of ability, character and physical weaknesses are answered? Then you have yourselves an NHLer.