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Sacrificed On The Altar of Youth and Depth

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Juraj Mikus and Korbinian Holzer are a pair of 23 year old defenders with the Toronto Marlies. Mikus was drafted in 2007 in the 5th round, 144th overall, 50 picks before Carl Gunnarsson. Holzer was drafted in 2006, in the 4th round, 111th overall, 12 selections after James Reimer and 50 selections before Viktor Stalberg.

Both have developed reasonably sound games at the AHL level, and both are consistent, reliable, and reasonably skilled performers as professionals. Holzer actually has Olympic and World Championship experience on behalf of his native Germany, and appears to possess a large amount of defensive poise against fairly tough competition. In many senses he is following a similar path to that laid out by the slightly older (yet later drafted) Carl Gunnarsson.

Mikus is 9 months younger, and the more offensively inclined of the two, but he is also less polished defensively. He is also an inch taller, and prior to this season had yet to really stake a firm claim to a job on the Marlies blue line. So far this year he's off to a solid start though, as he went +4 in the Marlies two game series against Lake Erie last weekend.

On the subject of Holzer, it's interesting to note that the guy only crossed to North American shores for his first AHL season last year after three seasons suiting up for the DEG Metro Stars of the German Elite League (DEL). Over time his role with the Stars increased to the point that he was playing a very significant role on their team at the age of 21. This was a team littered with North American players well over the age of 27, many of whom had NHL experience including Patrick Traverse (279 NHL games), Jamie Storr (219 NHL games), JS Aubin (218 NHL games), Jamie Wright (129 NHL games), Peter Ratchuk (32 NHL games), Brandon Reid (23 NHL games), Rob Collins (8 NHL games), and Ryan Caldwell (2 NHL games). In other words, he was playing with and against men, typically a few years older than him, who he could learn the pro game from over time.

He suited up for 73 games as a Marlie last year and posted 13 points along with a +10 rating as an AHL rookie. He also played in his first two NHL games with the Leafs in early November when the team was beset by a significant injury to Dion Phaneuf.

It is interesting to consider that at the time of Holzer's promotion in early November, the Leafs coaching staff was far from happy with the play of the Leafs D. Beauchemin was playing huge minutes, as were Schenn and Kaberle. Komisarek's minutes were floating down around 15-16 minutes a night, and Brett Lebda was in the midst of an atrocious streak of hockey that included some of the worst luck to ever appear on NHL ice. Carl Gunnarsson was the victim at that point, dropping from 17+ minutes in October down below 8 minutes on multiple occasions in November and the press-box while Holzer auditioned. Any of this sound familiar to Leaf fans?

Holzer didn't particularly struggle or shine in his brief appearances, but the Leafs decided to demote him back to the AHL in order to get more playing time. In addition to his 73 game stint with the Leafs AHL affiliate, Holzer also suited up for Germany at last year's World Championships playing in all 7 games, alongside fellow Leafs/Marlies prospect Marcel Mueller. Holzer led the German team in penalty minutes and plus/minus rating (+2), despite finishing the tournament with only 1 assist. He played on the team's top defensive pairing, and was 2nd in average ice time with 19:08 per game. In the first four games of the tournament, Holzer led Germany in ice time with over 20 minutes in each game, pacing them to a 3-0-1 start with victories over Russia (2-0), Slovakia (4-3), and Slovenia (3-2) and a hard fought shootout loss to the eventual Gold Medal winners Finland (5-4). In those four games, Holzer had a combined +4 rating, and definitely looked prepared to play a more significant role in the NHL against superior competition.

Before anyone raises the point that the early World Championship teams are largely littered with non-playoff players, I'll give you a brief list of some of the names he was facing up against: Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexei Morozov, Alex Radulov, Maxim Afinogenov, Nikolai Kulemin, Vladamir Tarasenko, Pavol Demitra, Jozef Stumpel, Marian Hossa, Miroslav Satan, Marian Gaborik, Michal Handzus, Richard Zednik, Ladislav Nagy, Mikko Koivu, Tuomo Ruutu, and Niko Kapanen.

That's pretty damn close to a relatively All-Star cast of NHL forwards, including a 50 goal scorer (Kovalchuk), three 40 goal scorers (Satan, Hossa, Gaborik) and three 30 goal scorers (Kulemin, Demitra, Zednik), this along with a smattering of 20 goal guys and very skilled puck distributors. Obviously considering Holzer finished even or better in every game, and Germany was 3-0-1 through 4 games, he wasn't particularly over-matched by those skill players on a game to game basis.

Juraj Mikus on the other hand, seems to have struggled to this point to stay in Dallas Eakins' day to day lineup. This may reflect poorly on Mikus' defensive skill set, or it may just be a question of number of guys in the system playing on the back end with the Marlies. Generally speaking though, Mikus is an offensive defender, and that has been shown through his play with the Marlies. In his rookie AHL season, Mikus only played in 68 games, producing 5 goals and 23 points for 0.34 ppg. He actually had the most points of any Marlies D man overall, and the 2nd most points per game after Ducks prospect Brendan Mikkelson (who is now in the Flames organization).

His defensive miscues showed through in his -13 rating as a rookie, but that was superior to the likes of Mikkelson, and Phil Oreskovic who both finished -19, and Josh Engel who finished -20. Last year those numbers improved, as he finished even on the year, while skating in a pared down 56 games as a second year 21 year old. His offensive production dipped to 4 goals and 16 points for 0.29 ppg. He was playing behind new additions Jeff Finger, Matt Lashoff, Danny Richmond, and Simon Gysbers on the power play though, and Holzer and Keith Aulie went into the top 4 at even strength also, so his opportunity suffered a tad as the older D men pushed him down the depth chart.

So far this season Mikus finds himself back in the mix with the core group of D. He's 22 years old and he's developing a solid all around game. Richmond left as a free agent and Jesse Blacker has been brought in from junior, so the remaining top six for the Marlies includes Holzer, Finger, Aulie, Lashoff, Gysbers and Mikus. There remains a decent chance that the defensive roles could shift if anyone from the Leafs is demoted, or if any of the guys playing on the Marlies blue line are called up. Mikus is making the most of his opportunity so far early in the season, producing 2 assists, and a plus 4 rating through the first four games of the season.

He's about 6 months older than Keith Aulie, so he's far from a completely developed prospect at this point, but if he continues to improve steadily under the tutelage of Dallas Eakins, Gord Dineen, and Derek King there's no reason Leaf fans shouldn't keep closer tabs on the big kid from Trencin, Slovakia in the future.

Working against these players may be the fact that they were draft picks of the JFJ regime, and the current front office group may seem more attached to pick ups like Gysbers, Aulie, Gardiner, and Andrew MacWilliam (who is plying his defensive skill set in the NCAA) that they were actually responsible for. That being said, the reality is Brian Burke likely doesn't care who drafted these kids, if they can make the team better he'll keep them developing. They seem to be headed in the right direction and that's all that matters.

My suggestion to most of you is pay close attention to the Marlies whenever you get the chance (starting tomorrow on LeafsTV since today's game isn't televised), because frankly how that team produces and plays could go a long way to determining the Leafs' future. We're going to see more of these kids in the years to come, and the quality of their development should present an interesting glimpse of what we have to look forward to.