When the Maple Leafs dithered over their first-round pick at the 1998 draft, then took an unknown kid at 10th overall from a country barely on the map, many wondered about their sanity.
Mike Smith, the Leafs' "associate" general manager, called Nik Antropov a long-term project that day, but almost a decade later, the controversial kid from Kazakhstan is at last paying dividends.
On Saturday against Pittsburgh, Antropov drove to the net and stuffed in a goal, leaving three Penguins and goalie Dany Sabourin at his feet like bowling pins. He made a similar play Monday in Buffalo, added a picture assist on Chad Kilger's first goal and, entering play last night, was in the NHL's top 10 scorers with nine points.
"It was the days of the old CBA and big men were still attractive," Smith recalled yesterday on the phone. "Nik was a highly skilled player, who had an edge, who had come from near-poverty and badly wanted to make it in the NHL."
Smith, who runs a hockey consulting business and still lives in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., hasn't spoken to Antropov in years, but has kept in touch with his agent, Don Meehan.
"We knew he had lots of skill," Smith said. "I remember the first day of camp when he passed a puck by batting it in full stride. The question was whether he had everything else."
It turned out the Leafs were not alone in willing to gamble on Antropov. Edmonton and Detroit were poised to pick him if he fell any lower. Antropov made the Leafs a year later, a little earlier than some would have liked. But he didn't play a full season, a harbinger of an injury-plagued career that continued up to the start of this season.
But on a team that has to work hard down low to score, Antropov, in concert with Mats Sundin, is giving the Leafs the kind of muscle that Cup-champion Anaheim employs through all four lines.
"It's early," Antropov said. "I'm trying my best and things are working for me. I just want the team to do better."
Antropov was shifted to centre from right wing the past two games, the first time he has been in the middle in five years.
"Faceoffs are very hard for me," he admitted. "But once you see who the other centre is after four or five times, it gets easier."