by Scott Burnside
Nik Antropov remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Part Bambi part ill-tempered tough-guy, part walking medical glossary part rising star, the young centre seems perpetually at a crossroads.
Immediately tabbed as one of the team's most promising prospects in his rookie year of 1999 (30 points in 66 games), he was one of the centerpieces of a proposed trade that would have brought Eric Lindros to Toronto two years ago.
But twin knee surgeries derailed Antropov's development and fractured his confidence. Especially after the first surgery, Antropov said, "it was in the back of my mind."
| Nik Antropov blames his increased penalty minutes on his much smaller opposition. |
Graig Abel Photography
After spending all of last season in St. John's and enduring a second knee operation, Antropov arrived in training camp this fall displaying a similarly tentative style of play, seemingly unsure of his resiliency or his abilities.
Antropov's game, or rather lack of same, left the Leafs with a dilemma coming out of camp. They could try and send him back to St. John's but he would have had to clear waivers and in all likelihood been lost to another team.
But by keeping Antropov on the main roster, coach and GM Pat Quinn had to hope the 22-year-old would rebound and not end up occupying a roster spot better utilized by someone more productive.
Just past the quarter-pole of the 2002-2003 season and Quinn's confidence and patience have been rewarded in spades.
Antropov has not just returned to the lineup, but he is once again displaying that tantalizing mixture of size (6-foot-6, 220 lbs) and soft hands that made him such a sought-after commodity two years ago.
With his power play marker Friday in Philadelphia, he now has 11 points in 19 games including four points in his last three games and, like a recharging battery, seems to see his confidence level growing with each shift.
"He's been slow to come back but he's resuming his development," Quinn said Monday. "He's missed some important years for him. He's not going to become a star overnight. But he's going to be a good player."
"What he's capable of, we don't know," Quinn added. "He's got to learn about himself. He's got to learn about the assets that he has."
Playing with Alexander Mogilny and either St. John's call-up Paul Healey or Darcy Tucker, Antropov has been in the thick of battles in the corners and in front of the net and may be the partner Quinn has been searching for to compliment Mogilny's vast offensive skills.
"He's a big strong man," offered captain Mats Sundin. "He and Alex are really clicking well."
A native of Yst-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, Antropov recalled being put on skates at the tender age of three by his father and skating at a rink a few short steps from the family home, sort of a Walter Gretzky for the Soviet hinterlands.
The Leafs made Antropov their first pick, 10th overall in the 1998 draft after which he starred for Kazakhstan at the World Junior Championships. He has added more than 25 pounds to his lanky frame since his rookie season and continues to work on his upper body strength although he doesn't expect to bulk up significantly.
"I think I'll be fine with this," the soft-spoken Antropov said.
If there is one quibbling drawback to Antropov's current game, it's that he occasionally appears on the ice without his brain. He is third behind Tie Domi and Wade Belak in team penalty minutes, with 30, almost all of the retaliatory or mindless variety.
Quinn has been reluctant to criticize Antropov for fear of seeing him back off on his play. But Quinn acknowledged Antropov needs to be more of a protagonist than a reactionary player.
"He's been the retaliator. Retaliators go to the box," Quinn said.
Antropov chalks it up to being too tall. Sometimes, he said, other players only come up to his elbows, hence the disproportionate number of penalties.
"It was always tough for me because I'm a tall guy," he said. "If I bend my knees sometimes my elbow hits them in the head or chest."
"There's nothing that I can do about that." Look back at other Scott Burnside columns: