Throughout much of this off-season, the bulk of the media-generated discussion surrounding the Maple Leafs rebuilding has focused on the solid moves of GM Brian Burke, and rightfully so. For the hard-core members of Leaf Nation, the internet blog discussions have covered a variety of areas, but when the discussion turns towards the Leafs young 'top six' potential for the upcoming season, the names of Tlustly, Grabovski, Kulemin, and Bozak have been prominent.
This group represents Leafs Nation's minor glimmer of hope when it comes to finally developing a young core of skilled players, with Kadri, Stalberg, Hanson, Stefanovich, and DiDomenico in the pipeline right behind them. However, the lack of electronic ink dedicated to the upside potential of John Mitchell -after a very solid rookie season - has been somewhat puzzling.
Mitchell finished the season with 12g, 17a, for 29 points placing him 10th overall on the team and 15th overall among NHL rookies (ahead of highly touted Mikkeal Boedker and Josh Bailey). Kulemin meanwhile, finished a strong rookie season with 15g, 16a, for 31 points. This placed him 9th overall on the Leafs and 13th overall among NHL rookies.
While Kulemin has the perception amongst Leaf Nation of a potential top-six forward, most line-up prognostications have Mitchell penciled in as the 4th line center or even the extra forward (re press box). As noted above, their statistics are comparable but the discrepancy in perception persists - Kulemin has the offensive potential to be a top-six forward, whereas Mitchell seems to labeled far too early in his career as a role player.
Mitchell provided glimpses of his potential early in the season, with a couple multi-goal games and gradually increased his ice-time as Ron Wilson grew comfortable with the improvements in his defensive game. The trade of Domenic Moore at the deadline led to Mitchell assuming 3rd line duties and the emergence of his offensive game.
Over the final quarter of the season, Mitchell demonstrated a strong ability to control the puck in the offensive zone, creating time and space where very little existed. A pattern developed, where he would control the puck swinging from hash-mark to hash-mark behind the net, feeding a pass into the slot (Blake) or unleashing his 'heavy' NHL caliber snap-shot from the top of the circle. The statistics bear this out. Mitchell finished 10th overall among NHL rookies in shooting percentage and 5th overall on the Leafs (removing Williams & Devereaux due to lack of games played). Kulemin finished 11th overall among NHL rookies and 6th overall on the Leafs - again very comparable.
In addition to his offensive upside, Mitchell has good size, is very strong on his skates - take note Matt "I can't stand up Stajan"- and has a competitve edge to his game. He needs to continue improving defensively and add a consistent 'urgency' to his game. If he does, Mitchell has a chance to be a very good player for the Leafs.
Kulemin, Tlustly, and Grabovski merit their inclusion as potential top-six forwards, however Mitchell also deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.