At the start of the Top 25 Under 25 series, I dug up a quote from Assistant GM Dave Nonis. The quote, from this past September, was talking about the necessity, as an organization, to always have prospects in the system, constantly challenging for jobs at the NHL level. Nowhere in the organization has this been demonstrated more clearly than on defence.
Dion Phaneuf has evolved into a veteran defender capable of playing at both ends of the ice, and a leader on and off of it. Carl Gunnarsson is maturing into an invaluable commodity and has taken on any role asked of him. Today we learned John-Michael Liles has re-signed with the club for four more years. Mike Komisarek is... under contract. After those four, three young defenceman (whom we've yet to introduce on this list) all fight for a fixed amount of ice time that is never enough to keep all parties happy.
Beyond them, two more blueliners (Keith Aulie & Korbinian Holzer) have been shuttled back and forth between the NHL and the AHL, biding their time and working on their games to become full-time NHLers. This past summer the Leafs also added Stuart Percy who they hope will enter into the conversation a few years down the road.
In the meantime, another young defender is in the middle of a strong first professional season on the Toronto Marlies, making his case to be the next defender in line to get the call to the NHL. Jesse Blacker has grown exponentially as a player over the last two and a half season, and as early as next season Leaf fans could be seeing him pushing for a place on the Leafs blueline, forcing management into a few difficult decisions.
This impressive rise sees Blacker land at #9 on our Top 25.
Blacker was part of Burke's inaugural draft class in Toronto, chosen in the 2nd round, 60th overall, the result of a deadline deal that sent Dominic Moore to the Sabres. (Thanks, guys!) At the time, Blacker was a member of an incredibly strong Windsor Spitfires defence corps, led by Nashville first-rounder Ryan Ellis that had won the Memorial Cup. Rather than return to Windsor and play behind Ellis and future Anaheim first-rounder Cam Fowler, Blacker requested a trade and was sent to Owen Sound. Eight months later, Windsor would capture its second consecutive Memorial Cup. Blacker played 48 games for the Attack and scored six goals and 24 assists.
The following year Blacker returned to Owen Sound and was their top defenceman, with 10 goals and 44 assists in 62 games. He would also contribute 16 points in 22 playoff games as the Attack won the OHL Championship, but were unsuccessful in their bid to win the Memorial Cup.
Blacker has spent this season getting accustomed to the professional game, playing with the Toronto Marlies, and the first year pro has been making a rather seamless transition. Primarily playing with Korbinian Holzer, Blacker has quietly been one of the Marlies more consistent performers this season, going under the radar while prized prospects such as Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne have grabbed most of the headlines. His play this season (12 assists in 37 games) has led to buzz that the Leafs management sees Blacker as "NHL ready" as early as next season.
Blacker's probably the last true "prospect" on this list, by which I mean that he is a completely unknown quantity at the NHL level. He doesn't have one characteristic that truly defines his game, but he does almost everything very well. He has very strong skating and loves to rush the puck up the ice, but he also has great on-ice awareness and isn't often found out of position. Since being given an opportunity in Owen Sound, his offensive game has improved by leaps and bounds and he has taken his turn through the year on the Marlies power play.
Now that we are starting to venture into the upper tiers of the Top 25, there is less variance from voter to voter. The players that are remaining are well known to virtually all Leaf fans, so we are in a position to come to more of a consensus regarding where they are on the Leafs' depth chart. Blacker's ratings were fairly consistent, but with all votes coming between 9 and 12, everybody seems to see Blacker (right now) as on a lower tier than the next few guys ahead of him.