It's no secret that the Leafs contain a very limited number of promising prospects. However, it wasn't long ago that Alexander Steen and Kyle Wellwood were compared to the Flyers' young duo in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Three years into their respective NHL careers, the Leafs youngsters find themselves on the backburner after promising seasons.
While the difference between both team's youngsters may not seem large, it is gradually getting stronger with the progressive developments from Carter and Richards. The Flyers duo combined have compiled 273 points and 115 goals in 436 NHL games, while Wellwood and Steen have garnered 230 points and 79 goals in 422 games.
When all of these players started their NHL careers in the 05-06 season, Wellwood and Steen ended up leaving better impressions than Richards or Carter. It must be said, however, that the Leafs youngster encountered problems that Richards or Carter did not. For one, the Leafs were preaching to Leafs fans that they would fight for the playoffs, basically leaving the Stanley Cup as a far and distant dream. Not only was this a foolish objective, but it snubbed the development of their few young players.
After another rocky start this season, Steen was practically hand-cuffed with 3rd line duties, rejected from top line minutes. Had this been a rebuilding club, Steen would be given the opportunity to play through his struggles and learn how to overcome them, making him a better player as a result. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the kid has hands. He plays the puck with precision, dangling the puck and using his body in the process. At 6'1 and 205 pounds, Steen isn't exactly a pushover, and he's capable of playing the defensive side of the game. Personally, I think Steen is capable of some very good things. His offensive awareness is capable of making him either a filler on the 1st line, or a perfect 2nd liner. However, Steen has not yet been given the opportunity to thrive under that situation for a full season. After a fairly consistent rookie season, Steen had almost identical 2nd and 3rd seasons, coming up with abysmal 1st halves, only to emerge half way through the season. In fact, Steen managed to compile an impressive 27 points in 41 games during the second half of his sophomore season, garnering a +21 rating during that time.
With teammate Wellwood, the situation is little more complicated. "Welly" began his NHL career with a solid rookie campaign, compiling 45 points in 81 games. He followed that with a remarkable, but injury plagued, sophomore season. The 5'10, 180 pound center garnered 42 points in only 46 games, standing as one of the Leafs best offensive players. However, Wellwood encountered some problems last summer, injuring himself with a groin strain, enabling him to not only prepare for the next season but to play the majority of the NHL pre-season. However, the resilient forward pushed for a late return, only to re-aggravate his groin, injuring him once again. Once he returned, all was not right with the 23-year old; he struggled in the offensive zone with poor puck control and terrible giveaways. When the season concluded, Wellwood finished with disappointing 21 points and 8 goals in 59 games.
When all is said is done, Wellwood and Steen still stand as the Leafs best young players on the club. No disrespect to these two, but this clearly shows how much damage the Leafs prospects pool has taken. With the recent firing of head coach Paul Maurice, it remains to be seen if a coaching change, combined with more ice-time, will help the two players. It's very easy to assume (remember: assuming makes an ass out of u and me) that the two things mentioned above will result in better seasons for Wellwood and Steen, but it's not as if Maurice completely snubbed their development. At the end of the day, they are still partly responsible for their own shortcomings.
You can use all the injury and poor coaching arguments you want, but the fact remains that these two need to step up if the Leafs want a brighter future.
Predictions for the 08-09 season:
Assuming (I know, I know!) they play 82 games.
Kyle Wellwood: 21 goals, 68 points
Alexander Steen: 24 goals, 56 points