Few remember the promise that some scouts saw in this young behemoth when prior to his draft year, he led his country of Kazakhstan to a romp over Iceland in some international game in one of the low level groups. He scored 11 goals, 15 assists in a single game, and with that 6' 5" frame, and his youth, he seemed a sure bet for great things some day in the NHL.
Fast forward about 10 years and Nik is coming off his first good year in ages. He scored goals, played tough in front of the net many nights, and made the occasional highlight worthy pass...and biggest news of all - he stayed fairly healthy.
This year, he's wrapping up a contract with the Leafs and could be heading into free-agency. Cliff Fletcher while clearing house, has hung on to Antropov either because he likes what he sees, or because he thinks his trade value could go up, or (a skeptic might say)the timing of an Antropov trade would require other moves first.
Every year he's the center of trade rumors. Some in the Leafs' media circus label him as an underachiever, or over-valued. Yet those in the know say that other teams always bring up Nik Antropov as a name that intrigues them.
So, will Nik see a potential HUGE payday in a contract year and put it all together this season?
Here are the factors: He has the size, the skill and the opportunity. On some nights, he has the grit as well, but with such a long history of injuries, it has been common to see him holding back where other players might push things to the limit.
He has always had some success with Ponikarovsky, but another big factor has been the leadership and space provided by Mats Sundin. Playing with Mats means an extra split second to make your move, a little extra space from the defenders too. When not on the same line as Sundin, Nik found himself playing against the guys who weren't on the top checking line. Really, Antropov has never had to step out of some other player's shadow to lead a team. Unless there are changes up front, this seems like a year in which Antropov will be asked to lead and make some room and chances for other players.
With a team that is most generously labeled as "in transition" or "rebuilding", there isn't much help for the powerplay or much chance that the game plan will include chances for the style of play that would help Antropov to improve his stats.
Best guess seems to be that Nik's reach and penalty killing experience will fit well into a game plan that will attempt to cut goals against, reduce the space that opponents get and take more goals from breaks and turn-overs than set plays.
Taking all that into account, what am I predicting? Considering that major changes could be made before camp if a defenseman is dealt for a forward, or if Mats Sundin decides to return, we are basically looking at 2 or 3 different scenarios.
With no changes to the current roster (August 9th, 2008), I'd see Antropov's numbers coming in slightly below last year's levels. I'd also see him more likely to miss time due to injury as Wilson's style of game will see forwards getting more involved in situations where shots could be blocked, deflected or stray hits and hurts could more easily re-injure old wounds. He's also going to be facing better checkers most nights, with little help to dish the puck to.
If the Leafs were able to add a potent experienced forward to Antropov's line, then I would expect him to surpass last year's totals by 5 or even 10 goals. Once again - if he is able to stay healthy.
The bottom line is that the story remains to be written, and the team that goes into training camp will be the biggest factor in whether Antropov is given the chance to push for a big pay-day. Right now, the smart money would be looking elsewhere for a break-out player, but a single quality forward added to the Leaf's roster - or a trade to a deeper team, both could tilt the balance and give a much more favorable equation for Mr. Antropov.
Facing a possible big raise request, Fletcher might choose to move Nik early if it appears that his agent will push Antropov to free-agency in search of the "Mother Lode", teams like Washington, Rangers, Philly, Anaheim, and others have all been rumored to covet him in the past, and many more teams would kill for a guy who can play center and use his size to full advantage....a list of teams too long to mention may just see some potential if the Leafs are considering a move.