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Is The Cupboard Really Bare?

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

The NHL draft is June 26 and 27 in Montreal, but it’s not too soon to begin assessing the Leafs’ choices.

Let’s start with a look at the recent drafts and the unacknowledged successes of two former Leafs GMs.

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History is about to come around to John Ferguson’s point of view. His kids are knocking on the door.

Ferguson has been labeled the GM who rendered the Maple Leafs’ cupboard of prospects bare.

But the facts don’t bear that out, especially when you compare Ferguson’s performance to his predecessors.

Ferguson is no longer the GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, of course. His last day on the job was in January 2008, but his imprint on the organization remains a potent one.

Jiri Tlusty, chosen 13th overall by Ferguson in 2007, scored 25 goals for the Marlies this season and will be given every opportunity to make the Maple Leafs next season.

Russian forward Nikolai Kulemin turned in a satisfying 15-goal rookie season and seems set to mature into a top-six forward. Ferguson and his staff, headed by director of scouting Dave Morrison, snagged Kulemin in the middle of the second round of the 2006 draft. The Bruins' Milan Lucic, chosen six spots further down the line is the only other player from the second round to make a splash in the NHL.

Chris DiDomenico, chosen by Ferguson and his staff in the sixth round of the 2007 draft played for the champion Canadian World Juniors and continued to progress with Drummondville where he has a staggering 33 points in 12 playoff games. He has jam by the boatload and while lacking size and skating ability, he has increased his stock dramatically. He could play.

The Leafs found fast-skating defenceman Anton Stralman 216th in 2005. Stralman has been bumped between the Marlies and Leafs and he struggles mightily with consistency, but he is only 22 and has already played 88 NHL games.

Tuukka Rask, chosen in the first round in 2005 has solidified his standing as a future NHL star but is locked out of the league by the spectacular play of veteran Tim Thomas. Ferguson unwisely traded Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft who won 37 games one year and then was bought out after the next. It will be the deal that haunts tarnishes’ Ferguson’s legacy the most.

Under Ferguson’s watch the Leafs picked Justin Pogge in the third round in 2004. Pogge had a spectacular performance in the 2006 World Juniors but has been largely disappointing since.

If Pogge returns (the club has to render a qualifying offer), he will find himself competing with another Ferguson pick for the starter’s job with the Marlies. James Reimer graduated from the East Coast League and coaches love his size, athleticism and mental toughness.

Ferguson’s masterstroke may turn out to be winger Victor Stalberg. Stalberg played two games with the Marlies and the University of Vermont star has NHL skills, size and speed. He could play with the Leafs next season and eventually materialize into a top-six forward. His 24 goals were the fourth-highest total in the NCAA last year and the Swede led his University of Vermont team to the Frozen Four tournament. The Leafs got him in the fifth round in 2006 and he blossomed in his third year of college hockey.

Don’t forget defenceman Phil Oreskovic, a six-foot-four favourite of coach Ron Wilson. Oreskovic played only 10 Leaf games but he impressed the coaching staff with his toughness and his improved skating. Oreskovic was Ferguson’s second-round choice in 2005 and while it’s anybody’s guess whether he will eventually hold down an NHL job, his prospects improved dramatically this season.

The Leafs have four prospects playing in Europe. Of the group, Carl Gunnarsson, a Swedish defenceman drafted 194th by Ferguson in 2007, seems to have the inside track.

Cliff Fletcher enjoyed one last stint in the driver’s seat at the 2008 draft. Drafts are about hindsight but it’s not too soon to declare the Leafs decision to trade up to draft Luke Schenn a success. The club is convinced the 19-year-old Schenn has the stuff to be a shutdown defenceman for years to come.

But Fletcher’s third-round choice from last year’s draft is turning heads. Mikhail Stefanovich of Belarus, just 19, scored 60 goals in playoff and regular season play with the Quebec Remparts. Patrick Roy, the Remparts’ coach and GM has stoked Stefanovich’s competitive fires but he already has NHL caliber skating and playmaking skills. He has another junior season ahead of him but his current progress could put him in the league within a couple of seasons.

If the cupboards are bare, they were rendered that way before Ferguson and Fletcher got there. Five years of drafts from 2000 to 2004 contributed only Ian White and John Mitchell to the current NHL roster. Two more, Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen went to St. Louis to bring Lee Stempniak here.

Who Leafs GM Brian Burke drafts will likely be a delightful surprise, but he has already publicly targeted London Knights forward John Tavares. The Leafs have the seventh draft choice.

He has already bypassed the draft by signing mature college players including Denver’s Tyler Bozak and Notre Dame forward Christian Hanson.
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