In The Interim

Between long weekends, the end of the school year, my wedding, the start of summer school, and the general hustle and bustle of life, I haven't had much time to sit down and reflect upon what the Leafs have done over the past week and a bit.  Since I'm not likely to have a lot of time to contribute regularly on here during this summer, I'm going to go through a few of my concerns and interest points right now.  Hopefully the discussion leads some of us somewhere, or else entertains on the basis of creating debate if nothing else. 

So without further ado, here I go! 

The NHL Entry Draft

The Leafs made a bit of a splash at the entry draft, making a couple of trades.  One was for Anaheim tough guy Mike Brown who will assist Colton Orr in protecting the smaller skilled forwards on the Leafs.  The other deal involved trading away the Leafs' Boston College prospect, and relative of Keith Tkachuk, Jimmy Hayes to the Blackhawks in order to pick up the 43rd overall pick at the draft.  I find it difficult to question the dealing of a 60th overall draft pick for a 43rd overall draft pick.  Hayes has loads of upside, good hands, and his size, at 6'5" and 210 lbs is something the Leafs need sorely up front.  That being said, his tendency was not to be overly aggressive around the net, and questions around his work ethic have arisen in the past.

From the Leafs perspective, picking up the 43rd overall pick allowed them to select Lethbridge Alberta native Brad Ross, who played the role of energizing feisty winger on the top offensive unit for the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL last season.  With 27 goals and 68 points in 71 games to go along with 203 penalty minutes, the slightly undersized Ross should contribute significantly to the Leafs in the future as an agitator.

He has already been compared to Darcy Tucker for obvious reasons and will probably have to live up to that type of billing if he is to be considered a success by Toronto fans.  Unfortunately, few NHL fans realize that Tucker was FAR more productive offensively in his junior years, producing seasons of 140 and 137 points consecutively in seasons of only 66 and 64 games, leading Kamloops in scoring for both seasons as he led them to the Memorial Cup.  Tucker outscored Shane Doan consistently in junior on the same team by over 40 points.  In Tucker's last year in Kamloops he added 16 goals and 31 points in 21 playoff games.  Suffice it to say, if Ross is to pan out into a 60 point, 100 penalty minute player for the Leafs, he's going to need to show some more offensive flair.

I would expect him to work out into more of an energy/agitator on the 3rd line as it stands right now as he hasn't shown enough offense for me to expect him to do much other than generate power plays for the opposition.  He DID lead the WHL in penalty minutes this past season so hopefully he can tone that down a tad this upcoming year.

Offensively the Leafs 3rd round draft picks have a higher upside in my opinion.  Greg McKegg was taken 62nd overall (2 picks after where the Leafs selected Hayes originally) and the Erie Otters centre may yet turn out to be the highlight of this Leafs draft.  With 37 goals and 85 points in 67 games, McKegg finished 3rd in scoring for the Otters, and 3rd in the OHL for scoring amongst all players under the age of 18, and 6th in scoring amongst OHL draft eligible players.  McKegg was ranked as high as 47th in some mock drafts and this was SOLELY due to his offensive instincts as his physical attributes are not particularly overwhelming.

That means he was slightly behind the likes of Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin but he produced around the same amount as the likes of Hurricanes' 7th overall pick Jeff Skinner of the Kitchener Rangers, Predators' 70th overall pick Taylor Beck of the Guelph Storm, and Thrashers' 45th overall pick Jeremy Morin of the US who also played for Kitchener this past season.

Expect McKegg to develop into one of the Leafs top 2 centres longer term.  Assuming his offensive skill continues to flourish, and he gets to continue to test himself against top flight competition, he should improve as his strength and skill work to his advantage.  He finished the world U-18 tournament this past year with the best faceoff win percentage at 70.83%. He's been to both the U-17 and U-18 championships so he'll likely be in the mix for the World Juniors in the next year or two.  He needs to improve his foot speed and his strength in order to contribute at the NHL level but barring serious injury that should develop with energy, effort, and time.  Solid pick by Burke and his scouting staff.

With the 79th overall pick the Leafs went away from the board quite a bit and picked up Norwegian rising star Sondre Olden.  Sizable at 6'4" but thin enough that he still needs to fill out quite a tad at only 176 lbs, Olden has an offensive skill set and contributes consistently on the power play (which is something the Leafs need going forward).

A top offensive contributor at the World U-18 Div 1 championships (not the top level), Olden is being touted as the best Norwegian prospect since Espen Knutsen, a 10th round pick of the Hartford Whalers in 1990 that played in parts of 5 seasons in the NHL, achieving a career high of 53 points in 66 games for the Columbus Blue Jackets in their inaugural season.  Unfortunately Knutsen's career was derailed by a tragic accident in which a 13 year old girl was struck by a puck shot off his stick resulting in the only recorded death by an NHL fan arising from a play on the ice.  He never really recovered so it's unclear how much more Knutsen could have developed in the NHL.

The most recent Norwegian prospect to attract NHL attention is the Hobbit aka Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, who most recently led the SEL in scoring, producing 23 goals and 64 points in 55 games with MODO.  MODO is the club that Olden currently plies his trade for, playing for their J20 Elitserien side.  Olden finished 15th in scoring amongst players under the age of 18 in the J20 last season, producing 7 goals and 27 points in 32 games.  He finished third on MODO J20 in scoring.  Expect him to be a bit of a project but if the Leafs like his development on the MODO senior side he will likely cross to North America in a year or two.  Leafs top European scout Thommie Bergman's fingerprints are all over this selection.

Sticking with Europe for the 116th overall selection, the Leafs selected a big stay at home blueliner from Sweden in Petter Grandberg, who played for Skellefteå in the J20 SEL for the most part last season.  He'll never really be a scorer but he does play the body relatively well and his size will be an asset.

With their fifth round selection the Leafs took Sam Carrick, the second leading scorer for an underwhelming Brampton Battalion side from this past season.  He produced 21 goals and 42 points in 66 games to go along with 92 penalty minutes.  Hopefully he continues to develop an all around game while playing top line minutes in Brampton.  A Leafs fan growing up, and regular attendee as a season ticket holder, Carrick knows he'll be in tough to make the Leafs.  His skating needs a lot of work according to his OHL coach Stan Butler so expect that to be a key focus of the Leafs development team as he progresses next year and beyond.

With the 146th overall pick the Leafs selected Daniel Brodin from Sweden, a hard working energy type winger.  Brodin is unlikely to develop into much of a scorer but he definitely brings a physical edge to his game and he works his butt off in every game.

The final pick of the Leafs draft was Josh Nicholls 182nd overall.  He plays for the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL.  Nicholls has some size at 6'2", but needs to fill out his 170 lb frame. His point production increased drastically in his second season in the WHL as his ice time and responsibility increased.  He was the leading point producer of all of Saskatoon's players under the age of 18 this past season with 18 goals and 48 points in 71 games.  He has offensive skill and decent speed, so skating shouldn't be a problem.  He also plays a sound defensive game, regularly skating on the PK for Saskatoon and finishing with a +19 rating.  He is also fairly versatile, being able to line up at centre or on the wing.

In the off season Nicholls has been working out with the likes of Milan Lucic and Colten Teubert, so he should be seeing what it takes to develop significantly during those workouts.  He has also been working specifically at his all-around play without the puck, focusing on his coverages in transition defense.  On offense, he works hard at his cycle game and considers his skating to be his strongest asset.  If Nicholls can add to his core strength and add weight this off-season, expect him to take on a more offensive role, and his numbers to take a jump for Saskatoon again next season.  He's probably at least 3 years from contributing at the NHL level at this point but anything we can get out of a 182nd overall selection is a bonus frankly.

Trades and Free Agency

So Burke's moves didn't finish with the entry draft as he dealt Viktor Stålberg, Chris DiDomenico, and Philipe Paradis in exchange for Billy Sweatt and Kris Versteeg of the Chicago Blackhawks.  Some corners of the internet have had things like this to say:

"...with people still insisting that Burke's decision to trade two first rounders for Phil Kessel was pure insanity, what does the Leaf general manager do but go out and buy another player at the cost of more futures...

Forget patiently stockpiling picks and prospects. Burke says he wants to win now with a team that finished 29th out of 30 NHL clubs last year and isn't particularly interested in whether you or I or anyone thinks he's doing it properly."

So Damien Cox may not think much of the move, but if you think about the following info, this deal makes a lot more sense.

Viktor Stålberg was selected in the 6th round, 161st overall, and was born on January 17th 1986.  When Stålberg was 19 he was still playing in Sweden for the Frolunda J20 side, scoring 27 goals and 53 points in 41 games, finishing third in scoring for the Swedish J20 SuperElit league.  He moved to the NCAA at the age of 20 rather than continuing in the Swedish Elite Serien system.  He played three seasons with the University of Vermont, and broke out in his final year.  Eventually producing 24 goals and 46 points in 39 games, Stålberg was named one of the final 10 players in the running for the Hobey Baker award as top NCAA player.  His Vermont side made the Frozen Four, though they lost out before Stålberg jumped to the pros, signing on with the Leafs prior to this past season.  In one season split between the NHL and AHL, Stålberg played 39 AHL games producing 12 goals and 33 points, and 40 NHL games producing 9 goals and 14 points.  He also displayed some edge to his game, racking up a combined total of 66 penalty minutes in his 79 pro games.

Kris Versteeg was selected 134th overall in the 5th round, and was born on May 13th 1986.  That makes him four months younger than Stålberg.  He played four full seasons in the WHL, starting out with Lethbridge for the first three before splitting his final year between the Kamloops Blazers and Red Deer Rebels. His career wasn't particularly overwhelming as he never led any of his WHL teams in scoring, and played in a grand total of 5 playoff games over the course of 4 years.  He went pro at the close of the 2005-06 season at the age of 19, playing the final 13 AHL games with the Providence Bruins and another 6 AHL playoff games.  So let's remember, Versteeg was playing in the AHL at the age of 19, Stålberg was still playing in the Swedish J20 SuperElit league.

The next year, Versteeg produced 22 goals and 49 points for Providence in his first 43 games of the season before being dealt to the  Blackhawks and moving over to play for their then farm team, the Norfolk Admirals.  In his final 27 games of the season, Versteeg produced another 4 goals and 23 points giving him a rookie AHL season of 70 games with 26 goals and 72 points.  He was a point per game player in the AHL at the age of 20, producing at a level similar to fellow Chicago prospect Troy Brouwer and ahead of the likes of Dave Bolland and Dustin Byfuglien.

His productive 2006-07 season was followed up with an 18 goal, 49 point season with Rockford (Chicago's new AHL affiliate) in which Versteeg also racked up 174 penalty minutes in only 56 AHL games.  Feisty and productive at the AHL level at the age of 21, Versteeg also had a 13 game cup of coffee with Chicago in the NHL, registering his first 2 goals and 4 points.  The 2007-08 Blackhawks didn't make the playoffs but they were trending in the right direction.  Luckily Rockford did and Versteeg performed well, producing 6 goals and 11 points in 12 AHL playoff games.

In 2008-09 Versteeg finally cracked the NHL full time, producing 22 goals and 53 points in 78 games as an NHL rookie. He added another 4 goals and 12 points in 17 playoff games and earned consideration as a finalist for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.  He finished the year as the 4th leading scorer on a team that made the Conference Finals, at the age of 22.  Viktor Stålberg was working on his best NCAA season at the time, but Versteeg was facing down the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the playoffs... I'm pretty sure that's a better learning experience.

This past season culminated in a Stanley Cup for Versteeg as he produced his second straight 20 goal season to go along with 44 points in 79 games for the Blackhawks.  He was a consistently productive second liner and he added superior short handed production playing regularly on the PK.  He also lined up alongside some less productive players like John Madden and Dustin Byfuglien for most of the season so his 44 point season could be considered indicative of much more potential offense.  Stålberg was working his way from the AHL to the NHL and still has yet to play in an NHL playoff game. Meanwhile Versteeg has played in the AHL playoffs on three separate occasions and has played in 7 rounds of the NHL playoffs winning the Stanley Cup once.

Stålberg may well turn into an offensive force for the Blackhawks as his size and speed down the wing will work well alongside the likes of Kane or Toews.  Even if that is the case, Versteeg's pedigree is superior at this point in the two players' development and he is 4 months younger so arguing that Burke is trading away prospects for veterans is amazingly absurd at this stage of proceedings...despite the reality of the statement.

The other three players involved in the deal shake out slightly differently.

Chris DiDomenico is working his way back into game shape following a horrific femoral fracture suffered two years ago in the QMJHL playoffs.  Prior that that injury he was one of the Leafs top offensive prospects who looked to have some large upside as an energy player with lots of skill despite being undersized.  His speed will likely take a serious hit as a result of the broken leg but that has yet to be determined. 

Philipe Paradis was taken far higher than originally anticipated in his draft year by the Carolina Hurricanes.  Eventually he was dealt to the Leafs in exchange for Jiri Tlusty but his production in the QMJHL has yet to blossom.  He hits everything that moves and has great speed so his NHL potential may top out as a 3rd line forechecker.  That being said, he likely WILL make the NHL it's just unlikely that his production will be offensively significant based on his play thus far.

Billy Sweatt led Colorado College in scoring in the NCAA this past season at the spritely young age of 20. He has already played four full NCAA seasons, and is going to turn pro next year.  A second round pick, 38th overall, Sweatt has loads of speed, great acceleration, hands, and a solid skill set to match, displaying a great ability to read and make plays while skating at top speed.  He plays hard shift to shift and, despite being of medium build at 6' and 180 lbs, he travels to high traffic areas.  He produced 9 goals and 26 points as a 17 year old in the NCAA, while only skating in 30 games giving him a higher ppg rate than 19 year old teammate Chad Rau (a name likely familiar to Leaf fans).  In addition to his offensive skills, Sweatt's defensive game has improved drastically in the past couple of years and he has played significant time on the Colorado College PK unit.

Sweatt was considered by some to be the top LW prospect in Chicago's system as recently as 2008  and he slots in as the top LW prospect in Toronto's system.  Assuming the Leafs can get Sweatt signed to a contract he should start this upcoming season with the Marlies in the AHL.  He projects as a top 6 forward in the NHL and there is no reason to believe at this point that he won't realize his potential. 

Following the trade, the Leafs then went out and added Colby Armstrong via a 3 year, $9 million deal.  A physical winger with a tendency to open ice hits (sometimes of a questionable nature), Armstrong will likely settle in as a 3rd liner on the Leafs for the next few years.  A $3 million seasonal cap hit is excessive for a player with Armstrong's skill set but he is versatile and his leadership qualities will be an asset.  He also has a history of playing with Dion Phaneuf in junior and playing at the same high school as Luke Schenn growing up (they seem to spend time together in Saskatchewan in the off-season also).  Armstrong is apparently a great glue guy, and he has a solid sense of humour which should balance out the deadpan tone of guys like Phaneuf.

Those additions were rounded out by the re-signing of RFAs John Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin to $725,000 and $2.35 million deals respectively.  Thus filling out the Leafs forward corps, giving them 12 forwards under contract.  They now have Bozak, Kessel, Versteeg, Kulemin, and Grabovski as top 6 forwards, and an eye on picking up one more player for the top 2 lines.  In the bottom 6 they can expect contributions from Armstrong, Orr, Mitchell, Sjostrom, Brown, Caputi, and Irwin, with Caputi, Mitchell, and Armstrong occasionally jumping up into the top 6 grouping.

The Leafs still need to re-sign Christian Hanson, who will also likely fit into their plans in the bottom 6.  Depending on how things shake out, a few of the lower bottom 6 guys may end up in the AHL (i.e. Irwin, Caputi, Hanson), while incoming top 6 prospects like Kadri, Sweatt, Stefanovich, and Dale Mitchell will be competing for ice time going forward.  Kadri, Sweatt, and Stefanovich could provide a significant dose of offense at the AHL level so it will be interesting to see how they take to the pro game.  Any of the three could be brought up to the NHL for stretches this season.  It's good to see that Burke and Wilson are maintaining their perspective on competing for slots at the NHL level.

On the blue line, the Leafs still have Tomas Kaberle in their possession though he could likely be moved for another younger top 6 forward.  Unfortunately the nature of the Leafs current contract situation prevents them from likely taking on a bad contract to make a deal happen.  They have roughly $2.6 million in cap space remaining so it will be interesting to see if they add salary to push themselves up against the cap.

Beyond Kaberle, they will likely go forward with a top 6 D of Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek, and Jeff Finger, with the likes of Keith Aulie, Jesse Blacker, Juraj Mikus, Simon Gysbers, and Korbinian Holzer potentially sliding up into that 7th defender role as the season moves forward.  There is a lack of offensive polish on that blue line group so it will be interesting to see if the Leafs make any moves towards adding another puck moving prospect if Kaberle is dealt.  Assuming they do, the market for young puck moving defenders is not amazingly wide open so hopefully Burke has something in mind.

Goaltending has been set for this season for a while with Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson taking the reins in the NHL, with James Reimer and Jussi Rynnas suiting up in the AHL.  Hopefully all of those players remain injury free for a full year so they can continue to develop or play at a level they need to.

Despite predictions of Versteeg suiting up on the Left Wing of the top line, I would like to see him play alongside Grabovski and another scoring winger on the 2nd line, while killing penalties and providing consistent production from a second unit.  A reunited top line of Bozak, Kessel, and Kulemin would also make me happy but I do realize if the Leafs bring in another top 6 talent, things may get mixed up by Wilson a fair bit.

Next year will prove to be an interesting one and I'm not sure how much change will happen between now and the start of the pre-season.  As of right now, the Leafs are an improved team over what they put out on the ice for 3/4 of last season.  They SHOULD be able to make the playoffs, but again, development will be necessary and the goaltending needs to be up to snuff.  Unfortunately there's quite a bit of time between now and then though so we'll have to keep coming up with ways to entertain ourselves.  Keep contributing to the site discussion and I'll hope to speak to you all soon.  Enjoy your summer!

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