After stockpiling up on picks during the past couple drafts as well as cornering the European and college free agent markets, the Maple Leafs’ farm system is beginning to reap the rewards of unprecedented depth and talent. In the first installment of our MLHS “Prospect Season in Review” series, I’ll be taking a look at three of the team’s top prospects: Kenny Ryan, James Reimer, and Joel Champagne.
Kenny Ryan: Forward, Windsor Spitfires
Drafted: 2nd round, 50th overall in 2009 by Toronto
The Good: During Toronto’s first draft under Brian Burke’s tenure, you could see a clear shift in the organizational draft strategy: a primary focus on character, toughness, and size. Kenny Ryan fits this bill perfectly.Â Described by scouting director Dave Morrisonn as a “linebacker on skates”, Ryan is built for the aggressive, physical forecheck style of play Burke has been famous for implementing in Anaheim. Much like Kulemin, Ryan puts a lot of work in the the dirty areas, consistently winning the battles in the corners and along the boards. He doesn’t have what you would call high hockey IQ, but he’s a responsible role player who can be counted on to perform whatever task you assign to him. In that sense, he’s the kind of grinding workhorse all good teams need, especially come playoff time.
The Bad: Ryan drew much criticism from the NCAA ranks when he decided to forgo his Boston College commitment in order to play for the Windsor Spitfires. At first glance, it seemed like a great fit. Kenny would have the opportunity to play alongside fellow 2009 Leaf draftee Jesse Blacker as well as suit up for one of the most explosive junior offenses in the country. Alas, it didn’t work out quite as well. Ryan spent much of this past season in a support role, struggled with consistency, and just couldn’t find a way to put it together on the scoresheet. Ryan produced an underwhelming 35 points in 52 games, and just 5 points in 19 playoff games. He was never billed as a future high scoring NHL’er, but he does have strong offensive instincts and a hard, accurate shot.
The Future: With several prominent offensive players graduating from Windsor this season, it’s likely that the Maple Leafs will use the opportunity to send Ryan back for one more junior season with the hope that he can benefit from the increased ice-time. For Kenny to find himself donning a Maple Leaf jersey within the next few years, he will have to work to improve his skating a little bit but more importantly, he needs to find a way to be consistently productive every night. That doesn’t necessarily have to be in the offensive end of the ice, but he cannot allow his scoring struggles to dictate his play in the defensive zone. With that said, there is a lot to like about Ryan’s game and the upside is there for him to become a two-way winger who can chip in about 20 goals a year at the NHL level.
James Reimer: Goaltender, Toronto Marlies
Drafted: 4th round, 99th overall in 2006 by Toronto
The Good: After he led the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup and earning a Finals MVP award in the process, I took notice of Reimer as a dark horse breakout candidate in the 2009 Maple Leafs Annual. It was the first time in his career that Reimer had the luxury of playing with a half decent team in front of him, and he flashed some considerable upside. He plays a very simple style, displaying good understanding of angles and positioning, using his entire 6’3 frame to line up pucks without a whole lot of movement in the net. This season, James took advantage of the Justin Pogge trade by grabbing the reins as the Marlies’ top goaltender with an outstanding 2.25 GAA and 0.925 SV%. Unfortunately, his breakout season was shortened to just 24 games due to injury.
The Bad: Honestly? There’s not a whole lot negative I can say about how Reimer performed this season. The biggest knock against him might just be the lack of professional experience, but that’s hardly a red flag. He doesn’t have the pure athleticism of a guy like Luongo or Gustavsson in terms of agility and reflexes, so skeptics might be a little tough on him when it comes to projecting his ultimate upside at the NHL level. But once again, goalies like Tim Thomas, Chris Osgood and to an extent even Jimmy Howard have shown that the mental aspect and understanding of the game may be just as important, if not more so, than the god-given physical gifts.
The Future: With the recent signings of Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas, it’s a little unclear what the immediate future holds for James Reimer. He’s by far the most seasoned and polished of the group, so it stands to reason that he would be the Marlies starter going into next season with one of the two as his backup, and the other down in the ECHL. However, there has been speculation that Burke may use his new-found goaltending depth to dangle Reimer as a trade chip either in a multi-player deal or to recoup a draft pick in one of the first two rounds. Wherever he eventually lands, the potential is there for Reimer to be at least an excellent NHL backup with an outside chance at being a quality everyday starter in the right defensive system.
Joel Champagne: Forward, Victoriaville Tigers
Drafted: 5th round, 129th overall in 2008
The Good: Another product of the team’s recent “the bigger the better” draft motto, Champagne is an imposing physical specimen standing at 6’4 220 lbs. Joel is an excellent on the draw, spending the majority of the past three seasons among the league leaders in faceoff percentage. Offensively, he took a step forward late last season after coming over to the PEI Rockets via trade, and carried that momentum over into the ’09-’10 campaign. He scored 79 points in 65 games split between two teams, and followed that up with an impressive 13 points in 16 playoff games, something that he couldn’t do last year.
The Bad: Despite decent offensive totals, Champagne doesn’t possess the hands or skill he would need to become a top six forward at the NHL level. He is being groomed as a shutdown centre for the bottom six group, but still has a lot to learn. He needs to use his body more effectively along the boards and to play with a sustained level of physical intensity. Joel’s skating is also below average, so he will have to make his living in the dirty areas during offensive zone setups, but at this point in his career, he isn’t overly effective in front of the net.
The Future: At the time of the draft, scouts raved about Champagne’s size and faceoff ability, explaining that those two skills alone should be enough for him to carve out a role as a defensive faceoff specialist ala Joel Otto. Champagne will likely spend the next couple seasons on the Marlies, and if the coaches there can succeed in helping him round out the rough edges of his game, we could see him become a fixture on the roster as the team’s third or fourth line centre of the future.
A big thanks to everyone for their kind wishes and comments in the previous thread. Despite the increased workload and responsibility, I will definitely remain a regular around these parts. You can’t get rid of me that easily!