Being a fan of the Maple Leafs is not exactly sunshine and rainbows right now (read: for the last five years). The state of the Leafs pro roster makes me want to challenge a grizzly bear to a boxing match, and the lack of first round picks is dreadful, but the anxiety attacks are soothed by the thought that, hey, Brian Burke may have unearthed some gems with the picks he did keep. It's the long-awaited by no one return of my look at the Leafs' prospects in the CHL. I'm a QMJHL guy, so my insight is limited since the Leafs have no prospects in the Q. Nonetheless, here's your roughly-half-way-point recap as the CHL breaks for the holidays.
Kenny Ryan, RW, Windsor Spitfires - 2nd round, 50th overall in 2009
Not surprisingly, the departure of key pieces from back-to-back Memorial Cup champs Windsor such as Taylor Hall, Greg Nemisz and Dale Mitchell has led to an increased role for Ryan. He sits sixth among Spits forwards in scoring with 27 points in 30 games, only 8 points short of what he managed in 52 games last season. His numbers still aren't overly impressive in what will likely be his last year in junior. With Zack Kassian likely to be dealt before the deadline, Ryan could be called upon for more icetime.
Jesse Blacker, D, Owen Sound Attack - 2nd round, 58th overall in 2009
Blacker has had quite an impressive season to this point. He forced a trade out of Windsor last season because of lack of ice time, and he's certainly delivered in Owen Sound with 28 points in 30 games. This puts him among some pretty elite company; he's third in scoring among defensemen, behind a likely top-10 pick in June in Ryan Murphy, and Ryan Ellis. He was a late addition to Team Canada's selection camp roster for the World Juniors, but while he never had a real chance at making it, it's certainly a good experience to get under ones belt.
Greg McKegg, C, Erie Otters - 3rd round, 62nd overall in 2010
This guy has many Leafs fans who follow the OHL salivating, and rightfully so. He sits in fourth spot in league scoring with 25 goals and 54 points in 35 games, setting him on a course for a 100-point campaign. His points progression over his junior career has been quite impressive, from 18 in his rookie season to 85 last year, with his 19-year old season still to come. If he keeps improving at this rate, he could turn out to be a big steal.
Jamie Devane, LW, Plymouth Whalers - 3rd round, 68th overall in 2009
If you weren't aware, Devane is a knuckle-chucker. He's a heavyweight, listed at 6'5 and 220lbs at age 19. He has 7 points through 28 games, but the numbers that matter are the 60 penalty minutes, with 7 fighting majors. If you're interested, check out his legacy at the fantastic HockeyFights.com. Here's one for the road... You can see that when he gets his right arm loose, he can drop bombs. Wouldn't want to get one of those flush in the mush.
Sam Carrick, C, Brampton Battalion - 5th round, 144th overall in 2010
Carrick missed some games due to injury, but hasn't been overly impressive with only 13 points in 21 games. He doubled his points from his rookie season to his draft year, but is on a worse pace than last season. That's still good for sixth among Battalion forwards, a .500 team at the holiday break. Perhaps he's still being hampered by the injury and the mini-vacation is just what the doctor ordered. It'll be interesting to see how he does in the second half.
Barron Smith, D, Peterborough Petes - 7th round, 188th overall in 2009
Smith has yet to score a goal in the OHL, registering all of one assist in 16 games this year. That streak sits at 86 games and counting. His value would be maximized in this type of capacity.
Andrew Crescenzi, C, Kitchener Rangers - Signed as free agent, 2010
You may remember that the Leafs signed this guy out of camp this year. He only put up 12 points last season and has eight in 25 games so far this year. He's been bothered by a hip injury but should be back in the lineup shortly after Christmas. I'm not overly familiar with him so I don't know what inspired Brian Burke to sign him, but he is 6'5 and I think I heard something about Burke being into that kind of thing.
Brad Ross, LW, Portland Winterhawks - 2nd round, 43rd overall in 2010
Ross is fourth in scoring on a ridiculously stacked Winterhawks team with 30 points in 33 games. This is a team that features 2010 4th and 5th overall picks Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, and a pair of draft eligibles who should be wearing jerseys by the middle of the first round in Ty Rattie and Sven Bartschi. No doubt Portland will be adding some help on the back end, and we may well get to see Ross on the big stage in Mississauga come May. He, like Blacker, attended Team Canada's World Junior selection camp, and also like Blacker, didn't make the first cut.
Josh Nicholls, C, Saskatoon Blades - 7th round, 182nd overall in 2010
Here's a pleasant surprise to cap things off; a 7th rounder scoring at a better clip than all but McKegg. Nicholls has 18 goals and 43 points in 34 games to lead the Blades, another favourite out of the Dub. He's just five points short of last season's output, and with visions of Brayden Schenn dancing in their heads, Saskatoon could go nose-to-nose with Portland for the league title, which is the best possible outcome for Leafs fans. Though, this narrative on Nicholls' season to date could have been a whole lot different if not for probably a few inches and plenty of luck. This rotten hit earned a 12 game suspension for the perpetrator, and thankfully Nicholls was left mostly unscathed.
Judging a pro career when a kid is 18 or 19 is tough, but early returns look good from some of these guys, particularly Nicholls, McKegg and Blacker. If some of these mid-to-late round picks overachieve as pros, it will go a long way towards bailing out Burke for some of his other decisions so far. Meanwhile, my Christmas wish is for Burke to acquire a kid in the QMJHL so I have something to look forward to other than stalking Sean Couturier around the Maritimes for a week. You can follow my thoughts on the QMJHL and CHL, the Leafs and more on Twitter.