September 13, 2010
How the Leafs ruin prospects
By STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency
A few weeks ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs communications department sent out an e-mail announcing the roster for the team's entry in the annual NHL Rookie Tournament, which is winding down Tuesday in London.
I've been getting the same e-mail for years and every time I receive it, I can't help but think back on that classic line from the movie Animal House -- delivered by the nasty Dean of Faber College, Vernon Wormer (played by the late, great Canadian actor John Vernon).
"Every Halloween," said the Dean, "the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode."
There haven't been any reports of toilets exploding at the John Labatt Centre ... yet.
But as far as I can tell, just like goings-on at Faber College, it's the same thing, year after year, at the NHL rookie tournament. Nothing changes.
The teams involved throw their draft picks and young free-agent signings out on the ice and after each game, the coach, the GM and the scouts rave about how excited they are about certain prospects.
And the fans buy into it, especially beaten-down, gullible Maple Leafs fans.
Well, I'm here to say, no matter what you hear or read this week from the rookie tournament, don't believe a word of it (and that's not a knock at any of my colleagues, who report what the Leafs braintrust dish out).
I was at the NHL rookie tournament in Kitchener last year and was fed the same schluff. For instance, one of Leafs prospect who really turned heads last year was Swedish forward Viktor Stalberg, whom the club drafted 161st overall in 2006.
"The sky's the limit for that kid," GM Brian Burke said of Stalberg. "He's big, he can skate, he's physical, very skilled with the puck."
At the same tournament, one year before, I remember talking to some Leafs big-wigs about forward Chris DiDomenico, whom the club picked 164th overall in 2007.
They were over the moon about how much the slight forward had improved in junior and gushed about how excited they were about his future with the organization.
Fast forward to June 30, 2010. Both Stalberg and DiDomenico are traded to the Chicago Blackhawks for forward Kris Versteeg and the rights to Bill Sweatt.
Also in that June 30 trade with the 'Hawks, the Leafs sent forward Philippe Paradis to Chicago. The same Paradis who was described by Burke this way when the Leafs acquired the former first-round draft pick from the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 3, 2009 for Jiri Tlusty.
"He's a guy that can skate, go to the net and is belligerent and truculent and all the things I like," said Burke.
Apparently he wasn't belligerent and truculent enough.
Now, I'm not here to dump on the Leafs, per say. But that just proves that you can't believe anything teams, in any sport, say about their young prospects.
The question is, when management raves about guys like Stalberg and Paradis, do they honestly believe what they are saying, or is it just wishful thinking, or are they just feeding the media a load of bunk?
In Burke's case, you would have to think that he is being sincere. The Leafs crusty GM wouldn't have acquired Paradis if he didn't think the former Quebec junior standout would bring something to the organization and wouldn't have lauded Stalberg just to blow smoke up his butt. Stalberg seems to have everything needed to be a star in the NHL -- particularly speed and size -- but Leafs obviously saw something that they didn't like.
But it's amazing how quickly teams fall out of love with the very same young players that, just months before, they couldn't say enough great things about, like Stalberg.
And that's why you have to take anything the Leafs say this week at the rookie tournament in London about Jerry D'Amigo and Greg McKegg and Sondre Olden and Marcel Mueller and Simon Gysbers with a grain of salt.
By this time next year, most of those youngsters could be gone, like Stalberg, DiDomenico and Paradis.
Another bright light for the Leafs at the rookie tournament has been German free-agent signing Mueller, who is big and can skate.
Both Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, who is coaching the Leafs squad in London, and Burke, have lauded Mueller's play and spoke optimistically about his future with the team.
But if I were Mueller, I wouldn't start shopping for a condo in downtown Toronto anytime soon.
And if I were a Leafs fans, I certainly wouldn't start the 'Marcel Mueller for Calder Trophy' campaign just yet.