While it has long been thought that pre-season is an irrelevant showcase and tune-up for 19 out of 22 players and an intense battle between some 30 others for the last 3 spots, I find myself thinking it to be a little more important. In particular, for the Toronto Maple Leafs after 4 seasons of non-playoff hockey!
With the Leafs, the obvious logjam at defense has been a big story since July 1st. This is an intriguing storyline but what happens with the rest of the roster is quickly becoming equally dramatic.
Last night the Leafs opened their pre-season schedule with a 3-2 loss to Boston. While I certainly advocate that the wins and losses aren’t important, the individual performances of the players certainly are.
Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Victor Stalberg, Francois Beauchemin, and others were all quite impressive.
Kadri, the Leafs first round pick in 09’ was everything promised, feisty, fast, skilled, and still in need of some seasoning for at times overhandling the puck or getting lost defensively. In general though, Leaf fans can get excited about a first round pick that despite a large crowd and lots of pressure isn’t afraid to still showcase his talents.
Bozak will undoubtedly be glorified by Leaf fans after scoring a spectacular shorthanded goal but his performance was more than that. He played the point on the PP, won faceoffs, hustled back defensively, killed penalties aggressively, and battled with players like Patrice Bergeron all night. While he may not make the team this year, Leaf fans can finally be excited about a college free agent signing who thus far appears to have the toolkit to succeed. As Brian Burke stated last night he has a “high hockey IQ”
Hanson played strong, big, and powerful, he lived up to his billing as a power forward and like most he certainly needs more seasoning but the raw materials are there. Power forwards notoriously require a little more time to develop than others so the jury is still out a bit on him but he certainly didn’t look out of place.
For my money, there was not a better forward on the ice for either team than Victor Stalberg. This guy could end up being the steal of the 6th round in 2006. For starters, he’s a big boy at 6’3” 210 lbs. In addition to that, the guy can flat out fly. He was the fastest player on the ice last night and might be the fastest Leaf we’ve seen in a long time. He handles the puck well, is creative, hard working and as mentioned in the broadcast last night his forechecking/backchecking closing speed is unbelievable, he created so many turnovers last night due to these unique gifts. I watched him in the rookie tournament and tried to temper my excitement as it wasn’t real NHL competition but last night he was blowing by top pair NHL defenseman like Dennis Wideman with ease. He may end up being the steal of the bunch.
Finally, Beauchemin while not a rookie is new to the organization and did not disappoint. He logged a ton of minutes, looked good on the PP and PK and assisted on both Leaf goals. While not as heralded as Komisarek he may end up being the best Burke acquisition thus far. During Anaheim’s cup run he led the playoffs in ice time and played largely with Scott Neidermayer. There is even speculation he may challenge for an Olympic team spot if he has a great first half.
In conclusion, how can all of these guys make the team? They can’t! Beauchemin is a lock but the 4 young forwards will be hard pressed to play on a team with a depth chart showing:
Ponikarovsky- Grabovski – Kulemin
Hagman – Stajan – Blake
Stempniak – Mitchell – Wallin
Orr – Primeau – Mayers
Hanson – Bozak – Stalberg
Tlutsy – Kadri – Stefanovich
The only way one of these kids makes the team is if a trade happens or they play so well through pre-season (why it’s important) that they outplay a Mayers or Stempniak and force Burke to deal them or bury them in the minors.
With the Phil Kessel rumours still hanging…it will be hard to predict the opening night roster or even the November roster as Kessel is not due to play until then.
Kadri is best off heading back to London in the OHL, scoring a ton (he had 1.4 PPG last year) as one of the premier talents in the league and playing on the WJC team.
Bozak because of the number of centres is going to have a really hard time making this team unless a centre above him gets traded, injured, or he just outplays them by leaps and bounds.
For these reasons it would seem like Hanson and Stalberg have the best chance at cracking the team. Both penalty kill well, are big and physical so can play bottom 6 and not be hurt in their development. In fact, for Hanson that might be his sweet spot as a third line winger with some scoring upside. Stalberg I have to think could be an elite penalty killer!
We’ll have to see how the rest of the pre-season plays out both from a performance and chemistry perspective, but for die-hard Leaf fans this is why pre-season may or may not be so important….