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Leafs Hoping for Lucky 13

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs


Wayne Karl is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. With a specialty in sports and sports business, particularly hockey. Karl publishes Hockey Business Report, a newsletter for the hockey industry. His freelance credits include The Hockey News, The Toronto Sun, The Globe and Mail and other publications.

June 12, 2006

(TORONTO) -- If you were to ask Mats Sundin, there's no reason at all to fear 13 - the jersey number the Leafs captain has worn throughout his career in Toronto, and the day he was born in February, 1971.

Leafs management hopes the number will be similarly favourable to them, as they hold the13th pick overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, taking place in Vancouver on June 24.

Chris Stewart is one of the possibilties for the Leafs with the 13th pick.
(Getty Images)

General manager John Ferguson has said the Leafs are willing to explore options of trading up or down off that pick, though he has also said the club would be satisfied to hold onto the 13th spot.

Obvious top picks such as Americans defenceman Erik Johnson and centre Phil Kessel, as well as centre Jordan Staal of the Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes, are generating most of the attention. And besides a handful of other potential top prospects, some observers say this year's draft is not as deep in talent as in previous years.

Assistant GM Mike Penny, who will run the Leafs' draft in Vancouver, insists otherwise.

"I've heard that every year," he says. "I've heard it for 30 years."

Ferguson, Penny and the rest of the Leafs' scouting staff had a chance to preview some of the prospects during the combine in Toronto the first week of June. The team interviewed about 75 North American and European players in total, then brought 20 of them to Air Canada Centre for a closer look and further testing.

While Penny declines to divulge specifically who the Leafs might be looking at for their first round pick, he says the team's draft strategy is very simple.

"Take the best player," he says. "Just take the best player with the best chance to play in the NHL and you won't go wrong."

Leafs fans might cite immediate needs on defence or offensive support for Sundin, but Penny points out that draftees are usually two or three years away from competing for a spot on the big club. Almost all of them are destined for further seasoning with their junior clubs or in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies.

"It's very rare today that guys step out of junior hockey and play in the NHL. For the most part, these guys all have some developing, maturing and learning to do."

This year's draft also seems to be abundant with forwards. In Central Scouting's final rankings, only one of the top 10 North American skaters is a defenceman, and just five of the top 20. For European skaters, two of the top 10 and six of the top 20 are d-men. In The Hockey News' draft preview combining North American and European skaters, one of the top 10 and five of the top 20 prospects are defencemen.

That being the case, and knowing the Leafs' plan to chose the best player available regardless of position, it's quite likely their 13th pick would be a forward.

"We've circled around four or five guys who we think we have a legitimate chance at, so if one of them pops up we'll be in good shape."

Well, since Penny can't tell us who the Leafs have in mind, let's examine some speculative selections, assuming they keep the number 13 pick.

Chris Stewart: The Toronto-born younger brother of 2003 Florida first-round pick Anthony Stewart, the 6-1, 228-pound right winger played his second season with the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs in 2005-06. He's ranked eighth among North American skaters by Central Scouting, but 14th by The Hockey News amalgamated list - right in the Leafs range. He improved on his 30 points in 64 games in 2004-05 to score 87 points in 62 games with Kingston last season, second in team scoring and good enough for, guess what, 13th spot in OHL scoring.

Constant comparisons to Anthony, who played four seasons in Kingston, created pressure for Chris Stewart. He quit hockey for a year when he was passed over in the 2003 junior priority selection. He then made the Frontenacs as a walk-on in 2004-05.

"He's played extremely well for us," says Frontenacs GM Larry Mavety. "He kills penalties, plays the power play, he's physical and he gets involved.

"Anthony was a fist-round pick, whereas Chris had to fight his way," Mavety adds. "He's put himself in positions to be put on the top line. He should be awfully proud of himself. He's come a long way and overcome a lot of adversity.

"All of that speaks for itself."

The Stewart family, with seven kids in total, grew up in a tough, low-income part of Toronto. And wouldn't that make for a great story?: Local boy makes good with hometown Leafs.

Other possibilities:

James Sheppard: Ranked ninth among North American skaters by Central Scouting but number 13 overall by The Hockey News, the 6-2, 204-pound centre scored 84 points in 66 games with Cape Breton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Nigel Williams: A defenceman with the U.S. National Team Development Program, blessed with size - 6-4, 226 pounds at 18 years old - and speed. Ranked 13th among North American skaters by Central Scouting.

Bob Sanguinetti: Another American defenceman, who played with the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL last season. At 6-1, 174, he's smaller than Williams but is said to have an all-around game with an offensive bent. His 65 points in 68 games in Owen Sound speak to that.

And worry not, Leaf fans. Penny assures there is no chance of Toronto signing unrestricted free agent Bryan McCabe to a long-term contract, only to turn around and trade him, like the Ottawa Senators did with Marian Hossa last year.

"Bryan McCabe has been great for us," says Penny of the defenceman who the Leafs are reportedly close to signing to a five-year contract. "He's worked hard, he's been a good guy, he's a wonderful person and hopefully everything will work out."

Wayne Karl can be reached at wkarl@rogers.com

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