Toronto Maple Leafs Leafs Prospect Roundup
Here's a look at the Leaf's top 5 prospects, in order...mine, that is:
1. Joe Colborne:
2. Nazem Kadri:
3. Jake Gardiner:
4. Ben Scrivens
5. Jesse Blacker
Brian Burke's acquisition of Joe Colborne fills a massive hole in the Leaf's development pipeline. Scouts unanimously conclude that 'Jumbo Jr.' has all the makings of a top 6 NHL centre. His enormous frame, expansive wingspan, and high hockey IQ, as well as his smooth skating skills and soft hands make him the kind of prospect Gms and coaches become giddy over. A playmaking pivot at heart, Joe also has a fierce puck-release and some crafty in-tight skills which he exploits with confidence and control. The knock on him is that he can be a tad invisible in terms of physicality at times, but that's a maturity thing. Expect a full season with the Marlies as their 1C, with a teaser or two with the the Leafs thrown in. Who knows, he may even get a quick look this spring depending on the standings...
Nazem Kadri has excelled in junior, yet has fallen short at the NHL level thus far. I have said from the day he started his pro career that the biggest factor here has been a lack of confidence. In junior he exploits his full arsenal, which consists of equal measures of snarl and skill. He can throw hits, drop the gloves, and score big goals at the junior level, but the minute he crosses the NHL threshold, he becomes a boy among men. The skill set is sublime. What's lacking is the mental edge that he willingly demonstrates in the AHL. As soon as he finds that level of confidence at the pro level, he'll be a handful...
Jake Gardiner was drafted 17th overall, coincidentally just one spot behind Joe Colborne, by Brian Burke while still with Anaheim. That the Leafs could acquire this gem by parlaying a marginally effective acquisition in Beauchemin, which cost them nothing but money, is to their credit. Gardiner is a big body with a fantastic ability to anticipate the flow of play, and react quickly, with poise. He's positionally aware, and he has a nice set of hands as well as decent wheels. As he begins his pro career, he'll go from strength to strength with the Marlies, and could be the future PP QB the organization currently lacks. If you're a Leaf fan, you're happy he's in the system...
Ben Scrivens has quietly claimed the starting gig with the Marlies, due to both the injury to Jussi Rynnas, and the promotion of James Reimer to the bigs. The former Reading Royal has earned the confidence of his coach and teammates with his steady performances, which have produced a very solid 9.27 save percentage, and an impressive 2.27 GAA in 26 starts. The 6'2 keeper is the prototypical Burke keeper-- a big body with the ability to block and scramble as needed. Burke's confidence in the youngster has led to a couple callups to the bigs where he has backed up. Some even contend that a Reimer/Scrivens duo might be in the works for next season, but we'll see how it all shakes down over the summer. Suffice to say, he's making noise...
Jesse Blacker first caught my attention in 2009-'10 during the rookie tourney. I wasn't the only one, either. The 6'2 Blacker has put up 53 points in 61 contests with the Owen Sound Attack, 43 of those being helpers. He's an impressive +17 with 80+ PIMs this season, and has all the tools to be a top 4 D at the NHL level within the next couple seasons. While still a work in progress, he's a bona fide blue chip prospect with every intangible you want to see in a top prospect, and with the potential graduation of Matt Lashoff, there could be room on the Marlies blueline for him next fall...
Honourable mentions got to the following, in no particular order:
Brad Ross (rugged, agitating power forward...think Kyle Beach minus the loose-cannon liabilities)
Fabian Brunnstrom (skilled winger with size, needs to show some consistency)
Marcel Mueller (big skilled winger also needing to show consistency)
Greg McKegg (big point producer in the OHL, nothing but upside...92 points in 66 games with Erie Otters)
Jussi Rynnas (future NHL calibre goalie with size and the tools to make the leap)
Each of the above bring a lot to the table, with the potential to become legitimate NHL players over time. What they certainly bring right now, is a higher compete level in the junior system, which is so critical in getting the best efforts out of your best talent. Just as Colborne and Kadri challenge each other to push their own limits, these guys collectively raise the bar, forcing the cream to rise to to top.
Without internal pressure, prospects may never truly realize their own thresholds or push through to that next critical level. It's a completely different kind of pressure than the kind placed on former Leaf busts like Pogge and Tlusty, who were hailed as future saviours, and then collapsed under the weight of unrealistic expectations. It's how former 2nd rounder Nik Kulemin quietly crept up the depth chart and became a potential 30-goal 2-way workhorse by his third season. It's how the Leafs will ultimately move the needle from being a mediocre franchise to perennial playoff contender, if you believe in Burke's methods.
When guys are forced to compete for their ice, we see the very best they have to offer. James Reimer is a prime example. With a swelling goaltending stable, he certainly stepped up and positioned himself well going forward. That's the beauty of internal pressure, and that's what will make the difference with Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, Scrivens and Rynnas in ultimately becoming boom or bust prospects.
In conclusion, the Leafs now have a well-rounded prospect pool with depth at all positions as well as a pair of first round picks to play with come draft day, unless Burke sees a chance to convert them into a top centre. Either way, the groundwork has been laid for a team looking to build on the fly, as opposed to tanking and leaving it to rookies to do the heavy lifting in a notoriously volatile market.
And that's the best news we've heard here inside the Blue and White Bubble in years...