A Dynamic Duo on the Horizon – Part One

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    When was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs produced a bonafide star calibre forward through their development system? Sadly, the only one in recent memory, Brad Boyes, doesn’t even play for the Leafs, but rather for the St. Louis Blues (where Toronto 1st rounders go as they mature). Aside from Boyes, you’d have to go way back to the ’98 draft when Toronto took Nik Antropov 10th overall to see the last time they actually developed a true top six forward. Two top six forwards in a decade of drafting is downright pitiful. But as always, I’m here to inspire a little hope.

    For those that follow Quebec Major Junior or American League hockey, you’d know that a pair of young Leaf forwards are creating a ton of buzz around their respective leagues: Mikhail Stefanovich of the Quebec Remparts and Jiri Tlusty of the Toronto Marlies.

    Let’s start with someone we’re all quite familiar with in Tlusty. Back in an article I wrote in late December, we reminded ourselves that he is a young kid who entered the draft with a lot of promise, and that we mustn’t be hasty in dismissing him as a non-prospect simply because he was brutally misused by one Paul Maurice. At that point, Jiri was in the process of turning around his season by putting together a solid streak of 15 or so games, and we hoped that it was a sign of him turning the corner and would be able to sustain that level of play. Has he? Let’s find out.

    After getting sent down to the Marlies early on during the season, Tlusty struggled through the month of November with just 5 points in 10 games and seemed a tad lost out on the ice. He didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in his game and it reflected in his play as he would disappear for long stretches at a time. But then something just seemed to click for him. A couple lucky bounces here and there, a stronger effort, a little extra push and then things started to turn around. He started to warm up and finished the month of December with a respectable 11 points in 14 games and then backed that up with 7 points in 10 January games. And then he just went off. As soon as calendar turned to February, Tlusty began to light up the AHL to the tune of an astounding 23 points in just 11 games played, highlighted by a franchise record setting 5 goal performance against Syracuse. It was like watching an entirely different player out there: he was fast, he was dynamic, he was assertive, and he played like he had something to prove. After winning AHL player of the month honours, Tlusty’s strong play has continued to carry over into March with 12 points in 7 games played. And now for a little perspective.

    Here are the age 20-21 stats for a trio of young players:

    Player A: 60 points in 55 games played = 1.09 PPG

    Player B: 49 points in 48 games played = 1.02 PPG

    Player C: 64 points in 80 games played = 0.80 PPG

    Player A is Jiri Tlusty, Player B is Bobby Ryan, and Player C is Brad Boyes. Hmmm. Stats aren’t everything, but they can certainly make you pause and at least give it some thought. Compare those AHL numbers to some of the Leafs top forwards:

    Alexei Ponikarovsky (age 21): 36 points in 49 games played = 0.73 PPG, has turned into a useful 20+ goal scorer

    Nik Antropov (age 22): 35 points in 34 games played = 1.02 PPG, former top prospect has turned into a reliable 25+ goal scorer

    Matt Stajan (age 22): 66 points in 80 games played = 0.83 PPG, 25 year old currently on pace for 55 points

    So not only is Tlusty statistically comparable to some of the AHL’s top young snipers of recent years, he’s also outscored Toronto’s entire ’08-’09 1st line when he was their age or even younger.

    You can dig through as many statistical databases as you like, but you aren’t going to find a whole lot of 20 year old point-a-game scorers in the AHL who did not become at least a legit NHL top six forward. Folks, this kid’s the real deal, and probably the top forward prospect in the entire AHL. When he makes a big impression at training camp next fall, don’t be surprised.

    Look for a piece on Mikhail Stefanovich to follow in the next days.

    Always a pleasure,

    Alex Tran

    [email protected]