Nik Antropov was a surprise, high first round pick at the age of 18 by the Toronto Maple Leafs out of Kazakhstan after having been one of the most dominant players in the world junior championship tournament (granted, on a very poor squad). Often ridiculed in the media and by fans, it is ironic that each and every General Manager and Coach that walked through the doors of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment all refused to give up on this talent. Having only played a handful of games in the minors (other then mostly rehab starts), Antropov showed signs of brilliance early in his career, only to be replaced by a rash of injuries and ultimately, disappointment. Antropov is most famous for being cheered loudly at the ACC for being announced as a scratch - my how times have changed. The change in rules were supposed to have made players like Antropov obsolete - Ironically enough, the new rules have done nothing but help Antropov, as players can no longer clutch, grab and hold him down. He is effectively using his size, strength and reach to create time and space with the puck and time and space for his line mates (I will never forget Antropov driving the net and scoring with 4 penguins draped all over him on Saturday night - something I do not believe I have ever seen before).
The Leafs are often criticized for their lack of depth at center (which is ironic as they have 7-8 natural centers on this team - including Sundin, Wellwood, Antropov, Stajan, Steen, Tucker and Kilger). I would expect to see Maurice permanantly move Antropov to center in the not too distant future (after experimenting with this briefly over the last few games). He is exceptional in his own end, has a good first pass out of his zone, sees the ice well through the neutral zone and is a MONSTER in front of the other teams goal and in the corners. Antropov has always been blessed with soft hands, a hard, accurate shot and is a wonderful playmaker. Obviously not the swiftest skater, but, at center, he would score alot of goals trailing the play, picking up the puck from broken plays, rebounds or drop passes high in the slot. He would also benefit greatly from being removed from Sundin's line, as he is ALWAYS looking to pass to Sundin and giving up prime shooting opportunities. Expect him to be paired with speed/size (Ponikarovsky) and speed/skill (Bell, Gamache, Pohl). This would give the Leafs size, skill, speed and depth at center with Sundin-Antropov-Wellwood-Stajan - and would solve at least one of the many holes in the Leafs lineup.
Antropov has always reminded me of another power forward - and the comparisons are inescapable. Please feel free to laugh or throw a beer at me when I say this - as frankly, that is what all my team mates have been doing for the last 8 years in the change room - but, the fact remains - Antropov's career and style of play, almost exactly mirror Keith Primeau (except Antropov is blessed with more, pure, raw, natural talent then Primeau ever had).
Keith Primeau came into the league as a very high first round pick. Because of his weakness in skating (sound familiar) and defensive zone coverage (something Antropov has never lacked - he has in fact, been amongst the best of the Toronto Maple Leafs in +/- for years), he split his time in his first 2 years between the NHL and the AHL - I remember hockey broadcasters joking that Primeau looked like a deer with a broken leg when skating up the ice). Upon establishing himself as an NHL regular, Primeau was afflicted with a long and countinuous string of injuries (again, sounding familiar?). Knees, shoulders, back, ankles - all began to give him problems and he seemed to be injured every time he touched the puck. The problem you see, is that hockey executives generally have short shelf lives - and they need their picks, and "their guys" to perform and perform right away - as such, players are often rushed, and pushed into situations they just physically are not prepared for. It has always been my belief that tall, lanky power forwards should not play a day in the NHL until they are AT LEAST 24 years of age - Keep them in Europe or in Junior or the AHL and allow them to grow into men before exposing their bodies to this sort of punishment. The simple fact is that they do not have the appropriately developed musculature at the age of 18 to support such lengths - and their joints simply cannot accomodate the tourque levels imposed upon them over an 82 game season . It is no surprise that ALL players fitting this mold suffer severe and chronic injuries to their weight bearing and force bearing joints early in their careers - and especially in hockey, where the speeds are high and skates dug into the ice can cause joints to "lock" into certain positions at moments of impact. Primeau, like Antropov, was shredded in the media and boo'ed regularly by the fans and the headlines leading up to the event were all telling:
The Detroit News -- Sept. 12, 1996
By Terry Foster
We must all take responsibility for this failed project called Keith Primeau.
The fans. The media. The Wings. Keith Primeau. His agent, Don Reynolds.
Primeau never lived up to our expectations, which right or wrong, is one of the worst sins in professional sports.
Eventually, Detroit traded Primeau. After the trade to the Whalers/Hurricanes, he began to establish himself as a true power forward - however, it was not until he was traded to the Flyers did Primeau ever reach his true potential (at the age of 27)
Although I do not agree with many moves by the Leafs management over the years, I do want to personally thank them for not giving up on Antropov. As of this very minute (last 15-20 games of last year and first 6 games of this very young NHL season), Antropov IS the best power forward in the game. IF (and this isnt as big as an IF as it was in previous years) Antropov can stay healthy, he will be the bargain contract of the year at $2M for this year and next.