Quinn did assemble a strong group of young Leafs

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:15 AM ET

When Pat Quinn was let go, first as general manager, later as coach, the mainstream thinking was that rather than develop a team, the Maple Leafs relied instead on trying to purchase one.

As time has proven, that was only partially correct.

If anything has been evident in the surprising start to this surprising Maple Leafs season it is that Quinn didn't leave the cupboard nearly as bare as many had assumed.

The kids seem to be all right -- virtually all of them drafted by a general manager who has been replaced and by two scouting directors who were fired.

John Ferguson should be sending out thank you notes for the players Quinn and scouting staff left behind.

From the 2001 entry draft alone, Mark Hillier's last as head scout, the Leafs wound up with Brendan Bell, Kyle Wellwood, Jay Harrison, the forever injured Carlo Colaiacovo and the temporary NHLer Karel Pilar.

Wellwood, a late pick, has found a home on Mats Sundin's wing. He may turn out to be Quinn's best pick since Tomas Kaberle.

Bell has the looks of the kind of kid every coach loves. Twice last night, he played one-on-one with Ilya Kovalchuk and wasn't undressed. That has to build some kind of confidence.

A draft producing that matter NHL players without a high pick should get a scout recognized, not necessarily fired.

Barry Trapp replaced Mark Hillier as scout in time for the 2002 entry draft.

The Leafs had three players in their lineup from that draft day -- might have had four if Staffan Kronwall had stayed healthy.

Trapp's first pick was Alex Steen, last year a sure thing, this year struggling to find his game. Later on in the draft, Trapp settled on Matt Stajan and Ian White, neither of whom got much notice around draft time.

But right after Ferguson fired Quinn last spring, he had someone in the organization fire Trapp for reasons never completely explained.

Hillier's selection of Bell and Trapp's selection of White are particularly fascinating in light of what has since occurred in the National Hockey League. Both Bell and White played for Team Canada at the world junior championships in 2003, the year after being picked, and both of them were junior all-stars. Bell, in fact, was junior defenceman of the year.

CHANGED

But the truth was, neither were considered sure things. White was too small. Bell was too one dimensional. Then the game changed.

In their favour. The new NHL is made for players like White and Bell: Suddenly, the Leafs have two young, puck- moving defencemen who can skate.

They're not perfect, not even close. But the way the game has transformed, it's built for creative defenders who can make the first pass out of their zone and get into the rush.

Of the handful of young defenceman, save for the struggling Colaiacovo, White and Bell seem best suited for NHL success.

That's five possible NHL players from the 2001 draft. Four more than the '02.

And there is a lesson in team building in all of this. Nothing comes quickly for teams that don't get the benefit of Pittsburgh or Atlanta draft picks. You have to invest in the future. And you have to be patient.

Wellwood and Bell were drafted five years ago. It took Bell four full years of junior and three full minor league seasons to get this close.

Steen, Stajan and White were drafted four years ago.

The Leafs don't have a single player on their roster from the past four drafts, three of them being Ferguson's as Leafs GM. And he may have a difficult time matching the success Quinn had at a time when he was heavily criticized from not developing players.

At least one of Ferguson's draft picks was turned into goaltender Andrew Raycroft, who looked like the real deal last night but has to be consistent enough in the Leafs net.

That's one asset for Ferguson.

Matching Quinn's unheralded draft success may prove to be a challenge.

Steve Simmons' column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.


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