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Lots Riding On Leafs NCAA Prospects

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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Tonight highly-touted defenceman Jake Gardiner makes his debut for the Toronto Marlies against the Syracuse Crunch. That means his first pro strides will be taken at the War Memorial Arena at Oncenter, a 6,320 seat-rink throwback born 31 years before he was.

For three years, Gardiner’s on-ice home was the Kohl Center, a glittering 15,000-seat palace in Madison Wisconsin that served as a launching pad for NHL stars Jonathan Toews, Dany Heatley and Brian Ralfalski.

Syracuse, Gardiner will find, is different from what he is used to.

Just 20, Gardiner knows the game is the same.

“The biggest thing is to work hard no matter where you play,” he said and there is no lie in that.

Still, the career arc of NCAA prospects is anything but certain, hard work or not. While usually older than major junior graduates, college players life an existence far removed from the NHL existence. While their schedule is usually less than half of the 68-game schedule faced by OHL players and the often excruciating bus travel WHL players endure hardens players for the plush but still exhausting life of an NHLer.

Small wonder that Leafs GM Brian Burke considers the Canadian Hockey League the fastest, most dependable conduit to the NHL.

The two most impactful call-ups from the Marlies, goalie James Reimer and defenceman Keith Aulie played major junior in Western Canada. Captain Dion Phaneuf came out of the Western League. The team’s best all-around forward, Nikolai Kulemin is a graduate of the Russian development system.

Nine Leafs, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur, Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tim Brent, Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri, Jay Rosehill and Aulie graduated from major junior. Another player, Darryl Boyce played university hockey in Canada.

The team’s best offensive player, Phil Kessel, played at Minnesota. Regina native Tyler Bozak spent most of the season as Kessel’s centreman. He played at the University of Denver.

For every Kessel who stepped right into the NHL after just two American Hockey League games, there is a Christian Hanson who finds himself a Marlie three years after signing with the Leafs. Bozak’s AHL apprenticeship lasted only 32 games but he struggled mightily in his second season with the Leafs and had the team owned any depth at centre, Bozak might have been returned to the Marlies for more seasoning. The rest of the NCAA grads, Mike Komisarek, Mike Brown, Joey Crabb and Brett Lebda work hard but are not headliners.

Where the NCAA-CHL divide becomes paramount is in the future of the club, not the present.

Three of the Leafs top prospects played NCAA hockey. Calgarian Joe Colborne starred at the University of Denver.  As mentioned, Gardiner, a Minnesotan was a Wisconsin Badger. University of North Dakota senior Matt Frattin, an Edmonton native the NCAA with 33 goals and is one of 10 candidates for the college hockey’s top prize, the Hobey Baker award.

While Kadri played in the OHL with London, how well the Leafs develop in the next couple years will be tied, at least in some measure, into Gardiner, Frattin and Colborne.

The six-foot-five Colborne is back in the Marlies’ lineup after a head injury and his progress has been steady. The Leafs still have to sign Frattin, whose team is playing in the WCHA Final Five. 

Gardiner’s first stride as a pro marks the transition between a fine university career and a fledgling pro one. How well he manages that jump will determine in some measure how well the Leafs manage to replace Tomas Kaberle as the team’s power play quarterback and best offensive defenceman.
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