Leafs will mine for diamonds

LANCE HORNBY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:05 PM ET

You’ve probably noticed that Maple Leafs’ coverage has been relegated to the back pages of The Sun these days, or that it takes more mousework to scroll down through baseball, basketball, soccer and Tigermania to get your regular blue-and-white fix.

We hope that sharing space with the crossword puzzle and Adopt-a-Pet, deserved as it is for a 29th-place team and five-time playoff bridesmaid, doesn’t reflect the quality of writing.

It’s the same situation for the Maple Leafs’ amateur scouts, who as of today are in for a long wait until their first pick comes up in the third round of the NHL draft.

But that doesn’t mean Dave Morrison and his band of bird dogs will not find something of value in their reduced role.

We won’t rehash the Phil Kessel saga, except to say the Leafs gifted leading scorer picked a bad time to take a five-game scoring hiatus.

‘Deep draft’

The end of the regular season on Saturday will reignite debate for two first-rounders and a second.

Which team’s table do you think the TV cameras will zero in on the moment Gary Bettman says “picking second, the Toronto Maple Leafs, transferred to Boston.”

But Morrison and his predecessors have made do with less before and the release of NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings on Wednesday excites the entire staff.

“We think it’s going to be a deep draft,” Morrison said in earnest.

“Clearly you have the two top players (either Tyler Seguin or Taylor Hall will make Oiler fans gush), but there is good depth going into the second and third rounds.

“There will always be those players that you have ranked higher than most teams that will be there when your turn comes up.

“Some of them slide a lot further down than others. Almost every player rated highly is up there because they have a trait or two that makes them attractive as a potential NHLer, but there might be some flaw in their game that someone believes is holding them back.

“What becomes important is that your team believes they have the ability to help that player overcome that deficiency. That’s where our team has been very active,” Morrison said.

Criticize the Leafs for their drafting or trading acumen, but few teams devote so many resources to try to get the best from their lot.

There are sometimes six coaches on the ice and a small army of off-ice personnel to deal with mental and physical issues.

When smallish players such as Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri go home this summer, strength, conditioning and developmental coaches will have armed them with detailed nutritional and exercise programs designed to give them an edge.

“Take a player such as John Mitchell,” Morrison said.

“He had to really work on his game because he saw he couldn’t score as he had done in junior (more than 200 points in three year). Now he knows more about the defensive side.

“Carl Gunnarsson is another good example. He was not well known (the Leafs’ 189th pick in 2007) and now he’s a regular. If these players are ready and willing and if they have the attitude, then we have the tools to help them.”

The picture could change by June 25 in Los Angeles. Brian Burke insists he’s not having buyer’s remorse about Kessel and thus won’t try to recoup a first rounder, but he does have Tomas Kaberle’s cap-friendly contract to play with — for one more year at least — and could move up the order and break up the card game that his scouts might start while the first 60 picks are parading to the podium.

Morrison and other teams will be paying attention to some players on the Canadian under-18 team, which starts the world championships this week.

An intriguing name for Leafs fans on that list is right winger Christian Thomas of the Oshawa Generals, son of the Leafs sniper Steve in the 1980s and ’90s, a player who wasn’t even drafted and did well for himself.

The 5-foot-9 Christian, who jumped from 114 on CSB’s mid-term list to be rated 69th, could be there when the Leafs make their first selection. Niagara centre Freddie Hamilton also jumped 40 places to the high 60s.

Other names intriguing the scouts at that level are New Jersey high schooler Kenneth Agostino, a left winger, and Chilliwack centre Kevin Sundher.

The Leafs have one third-round pick, one fourth, two in the fifth, none in the sixth and two in the seventh.

“Playing for the under-18 team would afford a player such as Christian a further opportunity to expand his role,” said Morrison, who will be attending part of the tournament in Belarus.

“Size can be a factor for a lot of players at that level, but when you get down to it, they are all very good.

“You just have to work with them.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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