Leafs prospect McKegg has a bright future

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:32 PM ET

ERIE, Pa. — It’s a cold, snowy spring night outside Louis J. Tullio Arena and the mood inside the barn isn’t particularly cheerful either.

The hometown Erie Otters, fighting to climb back into their opening round OHL playoff series against the defending Memorial Cup Windsor Spitfires have out-played their visitors in every aspect during the first period except one. Erie coach Robbie Ftorek has changed goaltenders twice, substituting starter Ramis Sadikov for Chris Festarini and then putting the Russian back in later in the game when Festarini falters.

In the end, the Spitfires skip town with a 7-4 victory to take a 3-1 series lead and Otters’ GM Sherry Bassin sits in his office afterwards shaking his head.

“Goaltending is 70% of the game, unless you lose, then it’s 100%,” said Bassin, half in jest.

But when asked about his captain, Greg McKegg, Bassin’s mood lightens and a smile comes across his face.

“This kid’s on a heckuva curve, the right kind of curve when you’re looking at a prospect for the bigs,” Bassin said.

McKegg in the bigs? When the St. Thomas native was drafted by the Leafs in the third round, 62nd overall last year, nobody was necessarily predicting an NHL career for the lanky winger.

But the situation has changed considerably.

McKegg is a bonafide prospect, and not just because he scored 49 goals in the OHL this season — the most goals this season by any Leafs prospect in pro, junior, college or European hockey.

He’s got decent size (6-foot, 195), his skating has improved to the point where he certainly wouldn’t be a liability on NHL ice, he’s not afraid of physical contact and he sees the ice well. In Erie’s Game 4 loss to Windsor, McKegg scored once but also set up his linemates on a couple of occasions and rammed a few Spitfires into the boards (legally).

“He understands the game and he’s not a player who runs around,” Bassin said. “He’s a guy who moves to the area he has to move to and moves to whatever speed of the game. But that’s probably the thing he has to work on the most. He’s a good skater but he just has learn to keep his feet moving, because he’s not going to get that time and space (in the pros).”

Though he’s not particularly out-going, McKegg does possess leadership qualities, which is something the Leafs considered when the took a chance on him in the third round.

“We’re pretty careful about who we name captains here,” Bassin said. “And for us to name an 18-year-old captain tells you a lot.”

McKegg might turn out to be one of the great finds of the 2010 draft. There’s nothing spectacular about his game, but he does almost everything well, and one thing exceptionally well — score goals.

“You give him a chance, he’s going to puck in the net,” Bassin said.

It’s likely that McKegg will remain in Erie for one more season. But his improvement during his three years in Erie has been dramatic.

In his rookie season with the Otters, McKegg played 64 games, but managed only eight goals and 10 assists and wallowed mostly on the fourth line. He finished a minus-13 and wasn’t exactly bursting with confidence.

“I wasn’t used to something like that, getting shifts here and there,” said the former Elgin-Middlesex minor midget, who posted 73 goals and 53 assists in 64 games in his final year before joining Erie. “But I learned a lot that year and I think the experience helped me.”

Bassin said Ftorek pushed McKegg hard on his two-way play the first season. It was a tough slog for the low-key McKegg. But he continued to work hard and it paid off. His 37 goals and 48 assists in 2009-10 marked the biggest point improvement by any player in the OHL. This season he bettered that, recording 92 points in 66 games and was a stellar plus-20, crediting his linemates, Mike Cazzola and Shawn Szydlowski.

“We’re very, very pleased with Greg’s development,” said Dave Poulin, the Leafs’ VP of Hockey Operations.

Poulin compares McKegg to Nazem Kadri in terms of their offensive upside, though Kadri is a flashier player and a couple of years ahead of McKegg in his development. But they both possess skills you can’t necessarily teach.

“The better players Greg plays with, the more his skills are appreciated,” Poulin said. “These types of players think differently. I played 13 years in the NHL and I couldn’t play with some of those offensively minded players. I couldn’t think like that.”

Poulin credits Ftorek and Leafs development coach Jim Hughes with keeping McKegg on the right track. The kid also has a new and improved attitude, so to speak. He grew up a huge Detroit Red Wings fan — as many hockey fans in southwestern Ontario do, but has seen the light (for obvious reasons).

“My whole family were Wings fans,” McKegg said. “I used to go down (to Joe Louis Arena) for a lot of games — it’s easier to get Wings tickets than to get Leafs tickets. But now my dad follows everything the Leafs do.”

Though McKegg has struggled somewhat in Erie’s playoff round with Windsor (Game 7 was Tuesday night in Erie), he is a proven winner, and not just on the ice. The kid’s a tremendous golfer and has even won a couple of junior tournaments, including a Tyson Tour stop last summer at his home course, the St. Thomas Golf and Country Club, where he shot a 71.

“That shows you what kind of hand-eye coordination he has,” Bassin said.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: beezersun


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