Re: Toronto’s First Round Pick

“Toronto is proud to select, from Rimouski in the CHL, Frederik Gauthier.”

And that was it. Terse and to the point, nothing else would come out of the mouth of Dave Nonis as he made his first ever selection as General Manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, 21st overall. For those who don’t actively follow junior hockey, the story went: tall, two-way centre. He scored 22 goals, 38 assists for 60 points in 62 games with Rimouski in the QMJHL this year, as well as leading all first-year players in faceoff percentage (46.6%). For fans that wanted one of the more dynamic forwards still available at that position, like perhaps, Hunter Shinkaruk, this pick may have come as a bit of a surprise or even disappointment. However, Frederik himself provides a few reasons that we should be excited about this pick:

1. He’s big.

At a gargantuan 6’4” and 215 lb., Gauthier was the tallest and heaviest centre taken in the first round, edging out Florida’s 2nd overall pick, Aleksander Barkov. Good move on Nonis’ part to bring in a centreman with size this team hasn’t seen since Mats Sundin; after all, as the old adage goes, “you can’t teach size”. So we’ve got a big centre, what can we expect? Jordan Staal? Ryan Getzlaf? Or perhaps you subscribe to the school of thought that we shouldn’t bog prospects down with constant comparisons to current NHL players.

2. He’s fast.

Even with all that size, he manages to maintain a lot of speed. At the combine at the CHL’s Top Prospects Game this year, he was one of only four skaters to clock in at under 4 seconds while skating 30 metres, joining 1st overall pick Nathan MacKinnon, Samuel Morin and Nikita Zadorov.

3. These are the picks you have to make.

Yeah, yeah, it hurt when Mantha went the pick before, and it hurts to see Shinkaruk slip just a few spots further. But as a future, reliable middle-six two-way centre, Gauthier is one of the picks you just have to make when you pick late in the first round.  Sure, you might be able to pick up a dynamic scoring forward this late, but probability is against you at this point. And perhaps Frederik’s offensive ceiling could be higher than previously thought; after all, there’s a reason we develop our prospects.

Mid-season Thoughts: The Toronto Maple Leafs

What’s that? The Leafs are in a playoff position? This must be our year! Plan the parade! Alright, alright, perhaps it isn’t time for histrionics (yet) but for now, the Leafs are in top 8 (6th, to be precise) and life is good. However, if we’ve learned anything from last season’s catastrophic late-season spin-out, it’s that we shouldn’t be holding our breaths just yet. Still, the Leafs have done a good job staying in the top 8 throughout most of the season and so, barring disaster (knock on wood) they should be in a position to make the playoffs this year. Let’s take a look at how they got there:

1. Nazem Kadri

The biggest story of the pre-season must have been Nazem Kadri heading into training camp with “unacceptable fat levels”, as Marlies coach Dallas Eakins was criticizing his conditioning. Fast forward a couple of months, and nobody’s calling the talented young forward chubby. His 25 points in 28 games are good for second on the team, and his +12 rating is first among forwards. The hat trick he scored against the New York Islanders on Feb. 28th epitomizes the breakout season he has been having, as he is consistently creating chances and being rewarded.

2. James van Riemsdyk
As the 2nd overall draft pick of the 2007 Draft, right behind Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk has been burdened with high expectations. Aside from a few bursts of brilliance, he never really found his game in Philadelphia. However, after a trade sent him to Toronto in exchange for Luke Schenn, he was given a new lease on life, and has responded by scoring a team-leading 14 goals in his first 28 games as a Leaf.

3. Matt Frattin
Although injuries have kept him out of the lineup for over half of the Leafs’ games, Matt Frattin has collected 7 goals and 11 points in 13 games played. His shooting percentage is at an astronomically high 35.0%, however, so it remains to be seen if he can keep up this kind of production.

4. The Penalty Kill
Since the lockout, the Leafs’ penalty kill has been, to say the least, atrocious. Over the last 6 seasons, the Leafs’ penalty kill has been perennially sub-80%, putting them among the bottom-3 in the league each year (with the Leafs’ PK taking dead last in 2008-09 and 2009-10). However, so far in this abbreviated season, their penalty kill has been successful 84.4% of the time, good for 6th in the league. Recent additions Jay McClement and Mark Fraser can definitely be credited for this improvement.

1. Mikhail Grabovski & Nikolai Kulemin

Two short seasons ago, a troubled, talented centre, a promising young power winger and an enigmatic free agent were placed together on a line. Thus the “KGM” line was born, the “M”, of course, standing for Clarke MacArthur. The line, which combined for 177 points that season, was one of the bright spots of the Ron Wilson era, at one point being considered by the coach as the team’s top line. MacArthur has since found his place on a line with Kadri and Leo Komarov, but his former linemates have just 11 and 13 points, respectively, across 28 games each. In addition, they each have just 1 point and no goals in March, and their +/- ratings of -7 and -6 place them both below the oft-criticized Phil Kessel. Although Kulemin may just be proving that his 57-point season was an anomaly, the Leafs cannot afford this level of production from Grabovski, who is signed for 4 more years at a cap hit of $5.5 million.

Meanwhile, as the Leafs’ defense have been playing as a cohesive unit, there has been one man who has been sitting quietly from the outside looking in: Jake Gardiner. Coach Randy Carlyle simply could not find a place to put him as he recovered from a concussion, and so he was sent down to the Marlies. However, with the Leafs’ recent slump, Gardiner’s agent has taken to Twitter to plead for his client. Thursday’s 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh, in which defensive lapses caused the Leafs to relinquish three unanswered goals late in the 3rd period, had fans questioning the revolving door that is Dion Phaneuf’s defensive partner. With inexperienced blueliners such as Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer sharing time with the captain on the top pairing, one has to wonder if it’s time to free Jake Gardiner.