In the words of Freddy Mercury: "another one's gone, another one bites the dust." The 2009-10 season ended on a partially high note and the Leafs concluded things the way they couldn't begin them by defeating Montreal in OT. While the game itself didn't really assuage the hopes of Leafs Nation, it did provide some interesting fodder for analysis when looking at the Leafs' forward situation in future seasons.
Besides picking up another meaningless 2 points while surrendering a far more meaningful singleton to the Habs, the game showcased yet another potential player who may fill the role of power forward in the future in Christian Hanson. Hanson scored his first 2 goals of the season in its last game - so he showed up a little bit late to the party - but he showcased some solid skills in his efforts. This was particularly obvious on his short handed rush in the third period where he used his speed and protected the puck well on the rush before firing a backhander under the glove hand of Jaroslav Halak.
Christian Hanson 2nd Goal - Leafs 3 vs Habs 3 - Apr 10th 2010 (HD)
The fact that Hanson skated through two Montreal defenders before potting the goal leaves some hope for the future that his hands are not in fact made entirely of stone. His first goal on the night also showcased some good speed for a big man as he outraced the Montreal D in order to beat Halak to a dump in that he swept into the net. Two goals and two excellent showings, more of which will be needed in the future. At this point Hanson is an RFA so Burke will likely re-sign him to a reasonable contract for $1 million or less per season based on his production this year.
Also scoring on the night was fellow NCAA product Viktor Stalberg. Stålberg has shown great flashes of speed and a solid shot off the wing with regularity in his brief work with the Leafs this season which saw him put up 9 goals on the year, which is solid work from a rookie. He also seems to be slowly figuring out that his size and speed are a huge asset on the forecheck as his physical play has kicked up a notch in recent outings.
Viktor Stalberg Goal - Leafs 2 vs Habs 2 - Apr 10th 2010 (HD)
Stålberg's goal against the Habs was more of a beautiful set up by line-mate (and roommate) Tyler Bozak but his finish was top notch. The Leafs lack forwards who seem capable of potting a one timer with regularity so if Stålberg can finish in that fashion in the future, he'll be more likely to push for a spot up front next season.
To finish up the year the Leafs now have Nikolai Kulemin (6'1", 225 lbs), Viktor Stålberg (6'3", 210lbs) and Christian Hanson (6'3", 202lbs) in the mix as well as Luca Caputi (6'3", 200lbs). Brayden Irwin (6'5", 215lbs) made a couple of appearances and down on the farm with the Marlies there are the likes of Ryan Hamilton (6'2", 219lbs), Alex Berry (6'3", 215lbs), and Robert Slaney (6'2", 204lbs). Also in the system are Kenny Ryan (Windsor Spitfires - 6'0", 200lbs), Mikhail Stefanovich (Quebec Remparts - 6'2", 202lbs), Joel Champagne (Victoriaville Tigres QMJHL - 6'4", 215lbs), and Jimmy Hayes (BC Eagles NCAA - 6'5", 210lbs).
That's a collection of 12 forwards who are 24 or younger all of whom stand at least 6' tall and over 200 lbs. They also boast another 10 forwards who are 6' plus and 200 or more lbs. Out of that group, five or six could legitimately be considered prospects to play in the Leafs top 6 forwards. Compare that with some of the top NHL teams including Brian Burke's former clubs Anaheim and Vancouver and you begin to notice something. The Leafs are making a huge push to get bigger, younger, stronger, and more skilled.
Detroit only has 3 roster forwards that are 6' or taller and over 200 lbs as well as another 4 players that big in the AHL (one of whom is Brad May). On Vancouver's current roster and in their system there are only 10 players who fit that mold. On Anaheim's NHL roster and in their system there are 13 forwards who fit that description. San Jose has 9 forwards who make that cutoff and another 4 in their system for a total of 13.
Now again, think about the fact that the Leafs currently have 22 forwards who meet those criteria, 10 of whom were playing in the NHL this season. This is a very explicit example of grabbing as much as you can of one type of player and hoping that one or two of them develop into something you need. That need is a power forward with net presence that puts the puck in the net.
The Leafs have a selection of smaller skilled players either already with the NHL club, or coming up through the ranks with the likes of Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, and eventually Nazem Kadri, and perhaps Chris DiDomenico, or Jerry D'Amigo. Those guys aren't all necessarily small but they aren't likely to intimidate NHL defenders much from a size perspective.
This season Viktor Stalberg scored 9 goals and added 5 assists for 14 points with the Leafs in 40 games to go along with 30 penalty minutes as a 23 year old rookie. Christian Hanson had 2 goals and 5 assists for 7 points along with 16 penalty minutes in 25 games as a 23 year old rookie. Luca Caputi had a combined 2 goals and 6 assists for 8 points along with 12 penalty minutes with Pittsburgh and Toronto in 23 games this season as a 20 year old.
Nikolai Kulemin has been the most impressive of the bunch this season in his 2nd full year in the NHL. At the age of 23, the native of Magnitogorsk, Russia produced 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in 78 games along with 16 penalty minutes. He saw minutes on the top line along with Kessel and Bozak for an extended period at the end of the season and was far from out of place. His defensively responsible game and propensity to play cleanly, skate well, and work diligently along the boards will serve him well in the long run. Unfortunately he may lack enough of a roustabout nature to be a consistent shift disturber in front of the opposition net.
The Leafs are likely hoping that one of those four, or perhaps Brayden Irwin, Alex Berry, Joel Champagne, Ryan Hamilton, Jimmy Hayes, Robert Slaney, or Mikhail Stefanovich steps up to the plate in the future as a budding power forward. Unfortunately power forwards take an inordinately lengthy period of time to develop. Some of the most successful in recent NHL history didn't really hit their stride until they were at least 25 or 26.
Let us consider the likes of Ryan Malone, David Backes, Ryan Clowe, Ryan Kesler, Chris Kunitz, and Johan Franzen:
Malone played 4 years of NCAA hockey with St. Cloud State before jumping to the NHL with Pittsburgh, who drafted him in the 4th round, 115th overall. In his first year at the age of 24 he ripped off 22 goals and 43 points, but he was also a -23 player, and he was playing 18:54 in average ice time on a nightly basis. That's amazingly rare for a rookie, and the Penguins were so bad they could afford to let it happen. He has never greatly improved on those numbers and his best season was three years ago at the age of 28 during his final year in Pittsburgh when he produced 27 goals and 24 assists alongside Crosby and Malkin, playing 19:05 nightly on average and registering 103 penalty minutes. He has only broken the 50 point plateau that one season in his 6 year NHL career.
Backes was drafted in the 2nd round, 62nd overall by the Blues, and is currently 25. He has been playing in the NHL for 3 and a half seasons already. He played 3 years of NCAA hockey with Minnesota State-Mankato and spent part of two seasons in the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen. In his rookie season with the Blues he played 49 games and scored 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points while playing 13:25 nightly. Last season in 82 games as a 24 year old he put up 31 goals and 23 assists for 54 points to go along with 165 penalty minutes while playing 17:41 nightly. He fell off a bit this past year scoring 17 goals and 31 assists for 48 points and only 106 penalty minutes.
Clowe played in the QMJHL with Rismouski and Quebec for 4 seasons before jumping to the AHL with the Cleveland Barons. He was a 6th round pick of the Sharks and he didn't crack the NHL until he was 23. He played 2 and a half years with the Barons and was slightly less than a point per game player in the AHL when he was promoted to San Jose. In his first 18 games in the NHL he only registered 2 assists and 0 goals. 2006-07 was his first full NHL season but due to injury he only played 58 games. He scored 16 goals and 18 assists for 34 points and added on 78 penalty minutes. His next season was ruined by a knee injury that saw him only play 15 regular season games but he made it back for the playoffs and in 13 playoff games he contributed 5 goals and 4 assists for 9 points. Last year he played 71 games and put up 22 goals and 30 assists for 52 points. Then this year he played a full 82 game schedule scoring 19 goals and 38 assists for 57 points. He also racked up 131 penalty minutes for a career high in the sin bin. He didn't really hit his stride offensively until he was 24 or 25 in the NHL and physically he wasn't quite ornery until this past season as a 27 year old.
Kesler was drafted by Burke and Nonis in Vancouver in the 1st round 23rd overall. He was a player in the US-NTDP and spent one season playing at Ohio State in the NCAA. He only put up 11 goals and 20 assists for 31 points in 40 games. He jumped to the Canucks for 28 games as a 19 year old but he only scored 2 goals and 3 assists for 5 points. The following year was the lockout so he suited up in a full AHL season for the Manitoba Moose and in 78 games he produced 30 goals and 28 assists for 58 points. As a 21 year old in his first full NHL season, he produced 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points along with 79 penalty minutes in 82 games. The next season he only skated in 48 games due to injury scoring only 6 goals and 10 assists along with 40 penalty minutes. At the age of 23 he improved the following year putting up 21 goals and 16 assists for 37 points while taking on greater responsibility and averaging over 19 minutes of ice time per game. Last year at the age of 24 he broke out a bit, scoring 26 goals and 33 assists for 59 points to go along with a slightly more tame 61 penalty minutes. This year he finally came of age at 25 and put up 25 goals and 50 assists for 75 points to go along with 104 penalty minutes.
Franzen was another later round pick, being selected in the 3rd round 97th overall way back in 2004. He played in Sweden for Linkopings HC from the age of 22 to 25 before coming across to the NHL with the Red Wings in 2005-06. In his rookie NHL season, as a 26 year old, he produced 12 goals and 4 assists in 80 games to go along with 36 penalty minutes while playing 12:27 in ice time per game. Not so earth shattering. Each of the following 5 years have seen his ice time go up and his production has improved to match. He scored 27 goals as a 28 year old and then broke out the following year to score 34 goals and 25 assists for 59 points when he reached the age of 29 last year. He really hit his stride in the playoffs when the Wings last won the Stanley Cup though as he produced 13 goals in 16 games in 2007-08. This year due to injury he only played in 26 games but he scored 10 goals and 11 assists for 21 points in those games.
So where does that leave the Leafs prospects? Well Stålberg and Hanson both played NCAA hockey and both were roughly point per game players at the AHL level immediately. On that front, they're not dissimilar to the majority of those listed above. Stålberg as a rookie averaged 14:37 in ice time and as that increases his point totals likely will also. Hanson similarly only saw 13:22 in average ice time. His confidence and responsibility will likely improve with time. His offensive skill set is less apparent than Stålberg's but he has some skills in the offensive zone and good speed for a big man.
Caputi is not as good a skater as the other two but he is solid down low and appears more inclined to mix it up physically. He has a pedigree of point production in the OHL and AHL, producing a 50-61-111 season for the Niagara Ice Dogs and a 23-24-47 season in 54 games for Wilkes-Barre Scranton this year. He's also younger at only 21 years of age so he likely has more room to develop. With the Leafs at the end of the year he was averaging 14:38 in ice time nightly and that will likely remain at a similar level next season.
Of the group currently with the Leafs, Nikolai Kulemin is the most polished from a developmental perspective. He was selected in the 2nd round by the Leafs having already won a goal scoring title in the Russian Super League and playing alongside the likes of Ovechkin and Malkin. He has a history of playing well alongside other super skilled players. He skates extremely well, has no problem doing the grunt work and being responsible defensively, and his offensive skills are highly under-rated. He is 23 years old and his production increased noticeably this season when he was given more ice time. Going forward, he is likely to receive even more of an opportunity to display those skills and hopefully the Leafs will show progress as well.
Another promising prospect is Jimmy Hayes, who just won a national championship at the NCAA Frozen Four tournament in Michigan on Saturday playing with Boston College. He has only completed two full years of NCAA hockey and is still only 20 but in 42 games he produced 13 goals and 22 assists for 35 points as a sophomore on a team full of high end talent that won it's 2nd national title in three years. He had more points than any other 19 year olds on the team and will likely play an increased role with the team alongside top prospects Cam Atkinson, Ben Smith, Chris Kreider and Philip Samuelsson. It's fairly safe to assume Hayes will play at least another full season at BC before jumping to the NHL as there is no reason to rush the development of a power forward like him.
The Leafs may want to hold off on signing a forward to fill the breech in their skill set as it may stunt the development of the many prospects they have aiming for that gap in the line up. Unfortunately Brian Burke may not have the luxury of waiting on that development and the Leafs may make a move either way. I personally hope the development of these many Leaf forward prospects continues and am curious to see how it takes shape.