As the former Leafs writer for Hockey's Future, I can't pass up an assessment of the Leafs top prospects after watching two games at the 2009 Leafs Rookie Tournament in Kitchener this week.
There were endless surprises, not the least of which was finding out after the fact that Christian Hanson scored three goals against Boston on Monday, Sept. 7th. He must have taken the next two nights off as he was hardly noticeable in a Sept 9th, 4-1 loss to the Penguins and a Sept 10th, 7-1 pasting at the hands of the Senators. Hanson 6'3, now weighs in around 227 pounds which makes him big but little else as far as I could tell. For someone who played five games in a Leafs uniform last season, he was awfully quiet in what were essentially AHL games. He received lots of quality ice time with quality linemates but showed little. Knowing Leafs GM Brian Burke likes to go with a clearly defined top-six and bottom-six, pencil in Hanson for perennial bottom six duty on this Leafs team.
Tyler Bozak was more intersting and tougher to guage. Bozak, 23, signed with the Leafs as a free agent last season out of Denver University. I expected more offense out of Bozak but his gorgeous rush and high stick side goal against Ottawa late in the third period showed me something. Bozak has some speed, but whether that translates into NHL-caliber speed remains to be seen. One thing that impressed me immensely was his defensive game. This is clearly a player who takes his defensive responsibilities seriously and who appears willing to get his nose a little dirty despite his average frame. Bozak comes as advertised - a third line centre with some offense who has some upside as a second liner. He doesn't have the puck skills to be a first line centre.
A third round pick in 2007, Dale Mitchell has fought hard for everything he has. A member of the Memorial Cup winning Windsor Spitfires, Mitchell played a crucial second line role in the Spitfires victory. His performance agains Pittsburgh and Ottawa just confirmed that he will do anything he can to play in the NHL. Mitchell is only 5'9 but weighs 200 pounds and has decent wheels. He was one of the few Leafs who showed up in the first period against Ottawa and had a couple of good chances late including ringing one off the post. He was used a lot on the second line with Bozak.
Goalie James Reimer was absolutely horrific against Ottawa. Normally, it's tough to judge goalies but it was so obvious Reimer had no glove hand that the Senators kept exploiting it until the game was theirs. The second, third and fourth goals were all high glove side with only marginal screening. It was obvious the Senators were told where to shoot and the scouting report was accurate. You can't blame Reimer for the fifth, sixth and seventh goals because they were caused by huge defensive breakdowns.
Undrafted Andrew Engelage was extremely solid in net despite allowing four goals against Pittsburgh. The 6'5, 210-pound goalie for the Windsor Spitfires also shut out the Senators for 10 minutes in relief of Reimer. One game isn't enough to pass judgement on a goalie but it appears Engelage did a lot to earn a serious look at the Leafs camp.
I didn't like defenceman Jesse Blacker one bit. A classic Brian Burke pick, taken a full round (58th in 2009) ahead of where he should have been drafted, Blacker was directly responsible for the first three goals against Pittsburgh. I'm not sure what game the TV announcers were watching because they kept heaping praise on Blacker despite his frequent miscues. Against Pittsburgh, Blacker lost his man who scored on a partial breakaway on Engelage. Pittsburgh's second goal came when Blacker chased his man behind the net on a power play only to have the puck centered to an open man who beat Engelage. On the third Penguins goal Blacker again lost Dustin Jeffrey who scored on another breakaway. Blacker was also horrendous in the first period against Ottawa, falling once at a crucial time, going offside on another and giving away the puck to cause a breakaway. I could go on, but you get the idea. I didn't like the pick at the time and I don't like what I've seen from the kid so far. He's still very, very young so it's far too early to give anything but first impressions.
I'm not sure what people were expecting from Viktor Stalberg? All accounts were glowing after his first two rookie games and he certainly didn't disappoint in the last two, but Stalberg was a dominant college player last season. I got what I expected. A big, fast winger with decent puck skills and a booming shot. He did have moments when he looked like he was more than just fast. There were a few Teemu Selanne moments where you could see an elite first step that might make him a star.
Mikhail Stefanovich was excellent against Pittsburgh and mediocre against Ottawa. One can hardly blame him as the whole team didn't show up for Ottawa. I would have liked to see him play a few more times against similar competition because the gap between the two performances was huge. He seemed really skilled with the puck against Pittsburgh but stood around far too much in the Ottawa game. The Belarusian definitely has a tonne of potential, especially considering he's two years younger than most of his competition.
The biggest surprise for me was Nazim Kadri. I didn't expect much from Kadri in this tournament because of his age and his relatively slight 170-pound frame. I thought the 18-year-old would get pushed around in what is essentially a tournament for 21 and 22 year olds. Not only did Kadri not get pushed around, he was the only player to push back against Ottawa in the embarassing 7-1 loss. Kadri threw himself at everyone in the third period, despite being by far the most skilled Leaf on the team. Kadri's puck skills made Bozak and Stalberg look ordinary. Either the Leafs have a star on their hands, or Bozak's and Stalberg's hand skills will be exposed at the NHL level. Kadri reminded me of former Leaf Doug Gilmour.
Leafs Rookie Tournament Results
Sunday, Sept 6th vs. Pittsburgh's prospects W 3-1
Monday, Sept 7th vs. Boston's prospects L 6-5
Wednesday, Sept 9th vs. Pittsburgh's prospects L 4-1
Thursday, Sept 10th vs. Ottawa's prospects L 7-1