It's been a tough stretch in Toronto, where Leafs fans have seen their team miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last three seasons. The team's roster is due for a shakeup, especially if captain Mats Sundin doesn't come back, but it seems apparent from the offseason moves and from the comments of Director of Amateur Scouting Dave Morrison that the Maple Leafs won't not rush their prospects to the NHL.
The signing of free-agent goaltender Curtis Joseph to be the backup to Vesa Toskala is a case in point. Justin Pogge, a 2004 third-round pick, went 26-9-5 with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage in 41 games this past season with the AHL Toronto Marlies. Pogge will return to the Marlies and the plan is for him to play the overwhelming majority of games. Look for the Maple Leafs to pick up another veteran goalie to back up Pogge with the Marlies.
Here's a look at the Maple Leafs' top prospects.
Tyler Ruegsegger -- Don't be surprised if the University of Denver wins the NCAA Frozen Four in one of the next two seasons. The reason: Team leader Tyler Ruegsegger wins everywhere he goes.
Ruegsegger led the Littleton (Colo.) Hawks AA PeeWees to the national championship in 2001, the first national title for a Colorado youth-hockey team. After that, he led Shattuck St. Mary's to a national title while playing with Taylor Chorney and Jonathan Toews. Ruegsegger then become one of six Coloradans on the University of Denver's roster and had 15 goals and 19 assists in 40 games as a freshman.
Named an alternate captain as a sophomore, Ruegsegger had a difficult season while battling an abdominal injury but still managed to post 10 goals and 12 assists for 22 points in 31 games.
Ruegsegger appears to have added about 25 pounds since he was drafted in the sixth round (No. 166) in 2006. He weighed 170 then, but now is listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. That's good, because Morrison thinks he needs to be bigger and stronger to play center in the NHL.
"Tyler is a tenacious kid, a very good checker. He's the kind of player who wants to make things happen. He gets very involved."
-- Leafs director of amateur scouting Dave Morrison
Whatever message Morrison or Denver coach George Gwozdecky are trying to impart, Ruegsegger is likely to get it. He's one of the smartest hockey players in the NCAA, carrying a 3.8 grade-point average.
"Tyler got hurt last year, an abdominal strain in the middle of the season," Morrison said. "Otherwise, he had a good year. He went to the World Junior tournament, which was good experience for him. I saw him play there. Tyler is a tenacious kid, a very good checker. He's the kind of player who wants to make things happen. He gets very involved."
Chris DiDomenico -- DiDomenico went undrafted by Canadian junior teams after playing for two years with the North York Rangers of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, one of the top Tier II leagues in Canada. He had 28 goals and 35 assists in 36 games, but still there were no takers, based on an evaluation that he had sub-standard skating ability.
DiDomenico tried out and made the St. John's Fog Devils of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and has led the team in scoring the past two seasons. He had 25 goals and 50 assists for 75 points in 70 games in his first season in Newfoundland and 39 goals and 56 assists last season. He is likely to return to his junior club this season, but it will be moving to Verdun, Quebec.
DiDomenico, chosen by the Leafs in the sixth round (No. 164) in 2007, has excellent puckhandling skills and is a good shooter. He did well on St. John's power-play and penalty-killing units. His skating has improved.
"DiDomenico is a diamond in the rough, a typical late-blooming kid, and we were lucky to get him with a sixth-round pick last year," Morrison said. "We liked a lot of things he brought to the table. Some kids develop later than others. He came out of obscurity to get invited to Canada's World Junior team camp. That's a tribute to how far he has come."
Nikolai Kulemin -- The door is wide-open for Kulemin to make a serious bid at training camp to join the Maple Leafs' roster. He is a big, rugged, power-forward-type right wing who combines fine skating and puckhandling skills with physical play. The left-handed shooter is comfortable on either wing.
Kulemin was the Maple Leafs' second-round pick (No. 44) in the 2006 draft. He has completed three full seasons with Magnitogorsk Metallurg in the Russian Elite League. He was the team's second-leading scorer two years ago when he had 27 goals and 12 assists in 54 games. He had 21 goals and 12 assists last year in 57 games.
"Kulemin had a very good year, for the Russian League, for sure," Morrison said. "They don't get as many goals and assists there, partly because they don't play as many games. Kulemin is a strong kid with good size. He plays a direct game, no shortcuts. He drives the net. He's smart and he has good hockey sense. He moves the puck well, drives to openings and takes his shot. He has the ability to read the play and as he gains more experience, his mental process will go faster. To this point, we are really pleased with how well he did over there.
"Will he be on our roster this year? I think at this point, the door is open for him. Nobody has penciled him in but the door is open. The opportunity is there. If he is ready, and he looks like he could be ready, we are a team in transition and trying to create a new culture and style of play. It's going to be up to him, if he is ready. He has already taken some of the steps he needs to take."
Dale Mitchell -- The Maple Leafs are justifiably excited about Mitchell's development. He is a short, powerfully built player who won't back down, and his offensive prowess is increasing. Mitchell just completed his third OHL season with the Oshawa Generals, scoring 24 goals and adding 36 assists while playing behind stars like John Tavares and Brett McLean. Mitchell had only three goals in his first 24 games last season, but scored 18 in the Generals' final 30 games.
"When he is on his game, he can score and he brings good speed. Dale is not tall but he is not a small player. At 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds, he is a very stocky guy with a low center of gravity. When he is going hard, he is difficult to contain."
-- Dave Morrison
Mitchell was the Maple Leafs' first pick (No. 74) in the 2007 draft, a year in which they didn't pick until the third round due to trades.
"Mitchell has speed, he has a shot and he is an aggressive player with a good work ethic," Morrison said. "When he is on his game, he can score and he brings good speed. Dale is not tall but he is not a small player. At 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds, he is a very stocky guy with a low center of gravity. When he is going hard, he is difficult to contain."
Matt Frattin -- Frattin was the Alberta Junior Hockey League's rookie of the year in 2006-07, when he had 49 goals and 34 assists in 58 games. He also had 75 penalty minutes. He parlayed that into a spot on the roster of the University of North Dakota. Frattin's role there was that of a third-line checker, and his production fell to four goals and 11 assists in 43 games, while going plus-11.
Frattin is not a strong player at 5-foot-11 and 187 pounds. He was told by the Maple Leafs that he needs to get stronger. Team officials were very pleased when he reported to prospects camp in peak physical condition.
"Frattin had a very modest year on the score sheet," Morrison said. "He was on the third line for most of the year. That's not untypical for a freshman as they get used to college life. He was also facing an increased pace of play and opponents with greater strength. Hopefully, he is poised to go back and have a breakout year. He is a shooter and we hope to see him on the score sheet more this year, helping his team win.
"We're looking for him to get more ice time and be a top-six forward on a regular basis. We'd like to see him get some power-play time. That is probably within his grasp."
Jeremy Williams -- Williams is a good example of the Maple Leafs' patience with prospects. Toronto selected the former Swift Current Broncos' scoring star in the seventh round (No. 220) in the 2003 draft. In the following season, after he had 52 goals and 49 assists, Williams was selected to the WHL East First All-Star Team and the Canadian Major Junior First All-Star Team.
Williams has played the past three seasons with the Marlies and was called up each season. He has played in 20 NHL games so he still has rookie status.
Williams may be the only player in NHL history to score in his first three NHL games although each of those goals was scored in a different season. In 18 Maple Leafs' games last season, Williams had two goals and was minus-3. His progress was retarded by a serious leg injury suffered in 2006-07. He was out from Nov. 17 to Feb. 10 and was limited to six goals and nine assists in 23 games. He had 18 goals and 15 assists in 49 Marlies' games last season.
"Williams has the ability to score. He is certainly a shooter with a knack for scoring goals," Morrison said. "If he puts in a really good summer, I don't know what his limits are. He had a nice scoring streak earlier in the season and then he kind of slowed after that. He can play the power play because he has offensive ability."
Robbie Earl -- Earl doesn't lack confidence. When the Maple Leafs selected him in the sixth round (No. 187) of the 2004 draft, he told them that they'd gotten a steal. Earl has long been on hockey's radar. He played two seasons with the U.S. National Development Program Team before playing three seasons at the University of Wisconsin. Earl was the second-leading scorer on the 2006 Badgers team that won the NCAA championship. He made the WCHA All-Rookie Team in 2004 and was a Second Team All-Star in 2005.
In his first season with the Marlies, Earl had 12 goals and 18 assists in 67 games. He improved greatly last season to 14 goals and 33 assists for 47 points and was plus-15 in 66 games.
Earl's strength is his speed -- he is one of the fastest players in hockey today. He has shown he can play with highly talented players and make them better. He is also willing to go into the dirty areas but the Maple Leafs have concerns about his consistency. This is his year to impress the brass at training camp and make a place for himself on the Maple Leafs' roster.
"Sometimes, it takes some time to become a professional and learn the pro game," Morrison said. "Robbie has taken some strides. He played in nine NHL games last year. He uses his speed as a weapon. He has world-class speed. In today's game, that's never a bad thing. Robbie got hurt at the end of the season. He would have been a big help when the Marlies went to the conference final."
Luke Schenn -- The Maple Leafs traded up to select Schenn with the No. 5 pick in the 2008 draft and many observers thought it was an excellent pick. At 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, Schenn is a physical defensive defenseman with some offensive skills. Toronto traded the No. 7 pick and a third-round pick this year plus a second-rounder next year to the New York Islanders for the chance to take Schenn.
Schenn played for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, where he was often paired with Tyler Myers, who was taken with the No. 12 pick by the Buffalo Sabres.
Schenn was Kelowna's first-round pick in the 2004 WHL Bantam Draft and lived up to his billing. He had 12 goals and 68 points in three seasons, posting seven goals and 21 assists last season in 57 games. Schenn also has extensive international experience for Team Canada. He won gold medals at the 2008 World Junior Championship, the 2007 World U-18 tournament and the 2007 Canada/Russia Super Series. He was captain of the CHL Top Prospects Game in January.
Schenn's success stems from his excellent skating. He also has an excellent shot and makes precise passes. Toronto envisions developing Schenn into an all-round defenseman while continuing to benefit from his physical play.
"We are as thrilled with his off-ice demeanor, personality and character as much as we are with what he can do on the ice," Morrison said. "Anytime you can get that kind of character and leadership, it's a big plus. Whether he makes it onto our roster this year or next year, he will definitely be an asset to a winning organization.
"Luke is a big, rugged, physical defenseman. When he's playing his best, he's a very reliable player who does what it takes, defensively. He has good hockey sense and positions himself well. He moves the puck well. Luke is not a big-time offensive guy but he has good hands and he plays smart and simple. He's not a dipsy-doodle kind of player, definitely not fancy. He makes a good first pass, he's good defensively and he's physical."
"(Pogge) needs to mature as a goalie and has definitely made big strides in that part of it. He obviously has talent. His positioning was much better this year and his composure and patience has improved. That's a big part of goaltending. It's important not to overplay the puck and he made strides in that area."
-- Dave Morrison
Justin Pogge -- Pogge continues to build on his brilliant junior record. In his second season with the AHL's Toronto Marlies, Pogge went 26-9-5 with a 2.34 goals-against average and .908 save percentage in 41 games. He was 19-25-2 with a 3.03 GAA and .896 save percentage in his rookie season. With the departure of Scott Clemmensen, Pogge will be the undisputed No. 1 goalie on the Marlies this fall.
Pogge was drafted in the third round (No. 90) in the 2004 draft after his first season with Prince George of the WHL. He was traded at the deadline the next season to the Calgary Hitmen, where he was named the WHL's top goaltender and MVP. He was also named the Canadian Major Junior goaltender of the year. Pogge was named Team Canada's MVP after leading the Canadians to the gold medal at the 2006 World Junior Championship.
"Becoming a professional goalie is not an easy thing, and Justin is certainly well on his way to becoming one," Morrison said. "He needs to mature as a goalie and has definitely made big strides in that part of it. He obviously has talent. His positioning was much better this year and his composure and patience has improved. That's a big part of goaltending. It's important not to overplay the puck and he made strides in that area."
James Reimer -- The Leafs will have a tough decision to make with Reimer, who has played three seasons with the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL and has over-age eligibility there for another junior season. Another alternative would be to send him to the AHL's Marlies, where he would be the backup to Pogge. That option wouldn't give him enough playing time to continue his development. A third option could be to send him to the ECHL, where the Leafs' fourth-round pick (No. 99) in 2006 could play a lot and adjust to the speed and strength of older players.
The junior option might be the wisest because Reimer played in only 30 games last season, going 8-15-4 with a 2.73 GAA and .916 save percentage. Those numbers say Reimer stopped a lot of shots for a team that allowed a lot of shots. The Rebels were the last-place team in the WHL's Eastern Conference.
"James had a tough injury, a high ankle sprain, and missed the last half of the year," Morrison said. "He was well on his way to a very, very good season. Reimer is another young goalie who has shown a lot of maturity. We really like his approach to the game and his maturity. I just saw him at prospect camp and he is fitter and trimmer this summer. He looks like a man."