Quantity v. Quality: Size in the System
From day 1, Brian Burke has advertised his desire to feature a lineup that is defined by truculence, pugnacity, belligerence and testosterone,
words that are now accompanied with derision when discussing the articulate Irishman, and with good reason. Nearly 4 years later, the GM has admitted his forward group still needs to get bigger in order to play the appropriate style as dictated by Head Coach Randy Carlyle. The Leafs passed up an opportunity to add an elite power-forward type prospect to the organization at this year’s Entry Draft when they opted to select slick mobile d-man Morgan Rielly over Filip Forsberg, a sizeable scoring Swede. The need for big bodies up front, however, has led to some pretty significant changes as Brian Burke has packaged bruising d-men Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie in separate deals to land a couple of 6’3” power-forwards in the making in James van Riemsdyk and Carter Ashton. JvR hasn’t hit his big-time upside, one that convinced the Flyers to draft him 2nd overall in 2007, so his ability to be an impact player remains in question. Nontheless, there is little doubt that that he’ll get a much better opportunity here in Toronto, as opposed to with a Flyers team that featured a veritable gold-mine of supremely talented forwards.
In addition to these trades, Burke has used the draft in an attempt to accrue what he feels are forwards that will play the game as he, and Carlyle, desire. While a pronounced lack of size, and top-end skill – particularly at the centre position – is still evident throughout the lineup, the hope is that the following players will evolve and mature into solutions that will alleviate the issues plaguing this franchise. For now, however, the overarching theme of these prospects is frighteningly similar to that of the team in general: quantity exists, but quality remains questionable. The Leafs have plenty of NHL-caliber talent, as they should, but seldom boast high-end elite-level flair at most positions. From the centres, to the wingers, to the goaltending to the defense corps, there have been flashes of brilliance but an interrogative aura in terms of sustained production seems to accompany any evaluation of the team, and overshadows the positives established. Take Nikolai Kulemin, for example. He emerged as a strong power-forward when he registered 30 goals and 57 points, but a dip in production, for whatever reason, has many questioning what his true potential is. What seemed like a ray of sunshine through the dark clouds, has quickly turned into another gloomy and dreary day in Leafs Land. Certainly, the hope for the beleaguered legions of blue-clad fans is that one, or more of the following power-forward prospects will shine in the coming months and years and part those clouds in some way.
Josh Leivo: 6’2”, 185lbs, 86th overall (3rd round) in 2011
Leivo was a surprise prospect that didn’t show any indication of offensive upside as a power-forward until his playoff run with the Sudbury Wolves (OHL) just prior to being drafted. His ability to ramp it up the following season, makes his ceiling and potential rather intriguing. Coming into his draft year, Leivo put up a pedestrian 30 points in 64 games with the Wolves, but turned heads in the ensuing playoffs by potting 6 goals and 13 points in 8 games. Leivo soon found his name on some scouting rankings, albeit near the bottom on most, heading into the draft, as teams were wary of the possibility that his post-season production was more fluke than a sign of his natural ability. Strengths of his game include board-work and using his size off the rush and on the fore-check, and it was these staples that allowed him to prove early naysayers wrong despite questions surrounding his puck skills. With added pressure and responsibility due to his playoff performance, Leivo thrived and showed that he was more than just a flash in the pan with 32 goals and 73 points in 66 contests with the Wolves this past season. Perhaps it was the potential to put up these kinds of numbers, or better, that convinced the Leafs to select Josh in the 3rd round, and if he gets stronger, he could be a diamond in the rough for the Leafs. Don’t worry, Don Cherry…he’s from Ontario, too!
Tyler Biggs: 6’2”, 210lbs, 22nd overall (1st round) in 2011
The Leafs gave up the opportunity to draft a couple of strong prospects like Tomas Jurco, Rickard Rakell, Brandon Saad and Ty Rattie in 2011 by trading up to draft Tyler Biggs. Ironically, the Detroit Red Wings who traded down to draft the aforementioned Jurco – a puck-wizard with high skill – reportedly did so because they wanted to draft Biggs with their original pick at 24, but the Leafs made their move first. What attracted the Wings and Leafs to Biggs was his size, physicality, determination and leadership, but the level of skill and his offensive upside remains much foggier than his unmistakable in your face game-style. Biggs is set to play with the Oshawa Generals (OHL) after getting his feet wet in the NCAA, but it would appear that at this point he seems more bruiser than point-producer. While he can certainly bury pucks around the net and use his big frame to plant himself in front of opposing goaltenders, there is still much to be sorted out potential-wise. Needless to say, 2012-2013 will be a telling season for the young prospect as he aims to carve out a role.
Carter Ashton: 6’3”, 215lbs, 29th overall (1st round) in 2009
Burke acquired Ashton from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2011 deadline in the aforementioned Keith Aulie deal. A defensively responsible winger that battles hard along the boards, Ashton could find himself earning a spot in the Leafs’ top-9 forward group soon, particularly if first impressions mean much to Randy Carlyle. While he didn’t notch a single point in 15 games down the stretch with a sinking Leafs team last season, Carlyle used the forward a fair bit. His AHL numbers indicate an improving offensive game, and Rick Dudley’s parting comments revealed confidence in the young Winnipeg, Manitoba native. As Ashton continues to add muscle and become more comfortable with the pro-game, the Leafs will benefit from his understanding of and attention to the defensive details of the game. Should his offensive game continue to take steps forward, there’s no reason that – thanks his determination and net-drive – Ashton won’t be a top-9 contributor in the near future, with the ability to jump up or perhaps even stay in the top-6.
Joe Colborne: 6’5”, 220lbs, 16th overall (1st round) in 2010
Staples of Joe’s game are skating, vision, soft-hands and great shot. Add to that the fact that he’s a monster at 6’5” and Colborne has plenty of potential. Despite his many talents, it is his work ethic that has come to define the young prospect. “I don’t have to tell him to work harder, or anything. He is extremely motivated,” said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins. Talent evaluator Rick Dudley also didn’t mince words when it comes to Joe’s potential in saying that if his quickness improves a bit, then he could become a top-two centre in the NHL “for sure.” An up and down season had some questioning where Colborne fits in, but Eakins reassured the masses saying he was battling injuries and knows he can and will be better. Let’s hope he’s right.
David Broll: 6’2”, 215lbs, 152nd overall (6th round) in 2011
An out-and-out beast on the ice, Broll is hard-hitting forward whose offensive ability hasn’t panned out as projected thus far. Once seen as the prototypical power-forward being drafted 10th overall in the OHL to the Erie Otters, Broll had skill and power; a lethal combination. His skating, however, has suffered a bit, and he was ultimately dealt to the Soo Greyhounds (OHL). He has a knack for using his frame to help cycle the puck, something I’m sure endears itself to the current coaching staff, in addition to the penchant of intelligently using a physical presence to open up space for line mates on the ice. Broll’s lack of a breakout season, thus far, has led to a comparison to Shawn Thornton in that he brings character to the dressing room and will stand up for teammates, rather than a typical power-forward that contributes offensively and shows adequate defensive posture.
Jamie Devane: 6’5”, 220lbs, 68th overall (3rd round) in 2009
With a massive frame, Devane is an imposing physical force on the ice. His offensive game has taken significant strides since his draft year when he potted just 17 points in 64 games with the Plymouth Whalers (OHL) to last season where he registered 23 goals and 45 points in 59 contests. His penalty minutes – mostly accrued due to his immediate response in protecting teammates – have also increased. Perhaps most encouraging, Devane has emerged as a “plus player” on stats sheet, as he looks to continue improving his overall game. Once viewed as just an enforcer, Jamie’s versatility as a centremen or a winger, and responsible play could earn him duties on a checking line in the future.
Tyler Brenner: 6’2”, 200lbs, Signed as Free Agent in 2011
Brenner boasts a heavy shot, and is, before anything, a scorer. His strength is finding the back of the net, as evidenced by potting 26 goals in 37 games with R.P.I (AHA) in 2010-11, but his game is fairly limited to this offensive aspect. Already a 24 year old, Brenner will look to develop some consistency as he was relegated to the ECHL after 21 games with the Marlies last season. As of this moment, Brenner projects as little more than a depth scorer with size.
Will passing up Filip Forsberg, or Mikhail Grigorenko prove costly down the road for the Leafs? The opportunity to add a blue-chip forward prospect doesn’t come along very often, and while adding a prospect of Morgan Rielly’s ilk sure has its benefits, the Leafs will be forced to make do with what they have in terms of big forwards in the system. As of right now some options exist, but overall the list isn’t overwhelmingly promising.