A Year on: Draft Class of ’09


Brian Burke must have felt a lot like the eponymous Old Mother Hubbard when he first reached into the Leafs prospects cupboard. Of course, unlike the elderly dog-mistreating crone of the rhyme, Burke already knew what lay in stock prior to his arrival in Leafs country. In short: a few notable exceptions to a decade of draft property mismanagement.

Subsequently, the draft of 2009 looked to be a vital cornerstone in Brian Burke’s rebuild. The first chance for the Leafs to restock in a new, finally directed era.

To say the initial post-draft reactions were subsequently ones of disappointment would be putting it mildly. With everyone and their dog anticipating some Burke muscle on the floor of the Bell Center (much as Cliff Fletcher had managed a year earlier), the Leafs GM failed to polish the now tiring enigma of Tomas Kaberle’s contract enough to shift it anywhere.

With the Bruin’s negotiators doing their utmost to delay trade negotiations concerning the Czech defender, the Leafs found themselves iced in seventh and forced to watch as Evander Kane, and perhaps more significantly, Brayden Schenn, were whisked onto the draft podium by Atlanta and LA.

Meanwhile, in an act of supreme mic’ed up and clearly rattled bravado, Burke baulked Ottawa GM Bryan Murray informing him that the Leafs were about to take Nazem Kadri, the player the Senators were coveting, with the next pick. For all the breath-taking gamesmanship, Kadri was seen as an unexpected, and to many, uninspired selection with a number of notable European prospects still on the board.

While Kadri would light up the Leafs pre-season in much the same way he lit up the OHL, quashing the initial doubt in short order, the overall collection of players brought into the organization were met with an almost instantaneous tepidity.

In many ways the disappointment was spawned by expectations of stocking the prospects charts with scoring type players as opposed to following the blueprint Fletcher set out the previous year selecting imposing, bodyguard style “pick and axe men” (albeit, a blueprint that acknowledged the upper echelons then-ongoing courtship of Brian Burke). Going off the board early to select little-known Jaime Devane in the third round did little to lighten the mood of many around Leafs nation who had penned fleet-footed 50/50 European winger types into their mock drafts.

Burke would relent from the big and physical mould in the sixth round stealing Jerry D’Amigo with the one deep selection that has garnered momentum throughout the season. Taken from the oft prominent US National Development team, D’Amigo went from exciting depth draftee, to an 18 year old offensive team leader on a US junior team that ousted Canada in Saskatchewan.

While Burke’s, Morrison’s and Nonis’ first brain trust entry draft may have drawn the collective mid-summer disappointment of a Leafland constantly expecting more, the waxing of this past season has demonstrated the potential of the majority of the 2009 draft class to contribute some way throughout the organization in the near future.

2009 may have failed to light the lamp in the same way Burke succeeded in 9 years earlier with the Sedin coup, but it has proved to be an extremely solid, if unspectacular, stockpiling of pro-potential talent nevertheless.

Nazem Kadri
Selected: 1st Round, 7th Overall
Position: Center
Junior Team: London Knights (OHL)
2009-’10 Team: London Knights (OHL)
GP: 56 Goals: 35 Assists: 58 Points: 93 PIM: 105
Born: October 6th 1990 Birthplace: London, ON
Height: 5’11” Weight: 177lbs
NHL Projection: First line center

If Kadri was seen as a derivative selection to Brayden Schenn last June he certainly isn’t now. In fact, depending on how the players selected above him pan out in the big leagues Kadri could turn out to be one of the best players selected in Montreal last summer.

Kadri lit up the Leafs pre-season with his deft hands and eye for goal but the right decision was made keeping him in the juniors, especially considering the struggles Luke Schenn has faced as a second year pro.

Considering he still lacks size, Kadri is by no means a shoe in with the Leafs next season but there are few commentators who doubt the entire Kadri package of speed, stickhandling and goal scoring touch won’t find a comfortable, point-scoring home in the NHL within the next couple of years.

Indeed, there are not enough superlatives for how Kadri racked up the points in the OHL after a jaded and slow start fresh from his maiden NHL training camp.

There are concerns about Kadri’s discipline and his penchant for trying to win the game himself and ultimately his progression in the NHL will rest on his humility amongst exacting veteran defensemen but his chippy play, when tempered, is a another desirable facet of his game. Whether he will be able to utilise it in the NHL is another matter.

Regardless, Kadri is shaping up to be one of the best first round forwards the Leafs have selected since Wendel Clark and that’s not hyperbole.

Kenny Ryan
Selected: 2nd Round, 50th Overall
Position: Right Wing
Junior Team: US National Development Program (NAHL)
2008-’09 Team: Windsor Spitfires  (OHL)
GP: 52 Goals: 14 Assists: 21 Points: 35 PIM: 33
Born: July 10th 1991 Birthplace: Franklin, MI
Height: 6’0” Weight: 209lbs
NHL Projection: Third Line grinder/ two-way forward

In many ways with the fanfare surrounding Kadri and the hype that followed fellow second rounder Jesse Blacker resulted in Kenny Ryan becoming the forgotten man in the Leafs 2009 draft class and he is lucky that was the worst thing that happened to his prospects.

Bailing from his commitment to Boston College to play Major Junior with the imperious Spitfires didn’t earn Ryan too many fans and was rash considering he would have earned more ice time with an excellent NCAA championship team; but it has nonetheless meant Ryan will be able to attend the Leafs camp this fall.

Looked slow transitioning from NCAA, Ryan was poorly conditioned for the early part of the season but did improve as the year wore on to be a very rounded harrying forechecker who earned his place and worked hard on the penalty kill.

Seems to have transitioned into a two-way utilitarian forward built on a foundation of solid fundamentals and operates well as a grinding type forward along the boards but needs to work on getting himself involved more frequently and would have benefited from being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Will be interesting to see how Ryan develops when many of the Spitfires more notable players graduate to the pro ranks next season, was probably disappointed with his contribution to this seasons Memorial Cup run. Will need a better second season in the OHL to demonstrate his value to the Leafs.

Jesse Blacker
Selected: 2nd Round, 58th Overall
Position: Defense
Junior Team: Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
2008-’09 Team: Windsor Spitfires (OHL) Owen Sound Attack (OHL) Toronto Marlies (AHL)
GP(OHL): 57 Goals: 6 Assists: 27 Points: 33 PIM: 74
Born: April 19th 1991 Birthplace: Toronto, ON
Height: 6’1” Weight: 190lbs
NHL Projection: Puck carrying 2-4 defenseman

For many, Blacker should have been pressed straight from camp into the Leafs blue and white but in reality that would have been like feeding him to the wolves. Also, amid the froufrou of some impressive darts up ice was the evident naivety of Blacker’s play which still relies too heavily on heart in mouth dashes into the offensive end.

An unquestionable talent reminiscent of Johnny Oduya, Blacker was bounced around the OHL, in the process becoming the Attacks most productive blueliner, before landing in the Marlies dressing room for some much needed pro-schooling. The hope is Blacker will not enter the NHL playing an OHL game.

Here and now Blacker is still extremely raw, a descent but not amazing skater, good but not amazing hands and an innate ability to read the offensive game… but not pick his spots. This was still evident throughout this year in the OHL, although his drive cannot be faulted. Worse he can be prone to brain fades in his own end resulting in costly turnovers and, to add one more criticism, his penchant for abandoning his defensive responsibilities often threw his teammates off like an early season Francois Beauchemin.

Still despite all this there is enough to show Blacker is a tantalizing prospect whose best defensively when he isn’t visible on the ice. Ultimately his fate lies in becoming a better decision maker, too often his game seems to be based on the rush-and-to –hell-with-it plan with no contingencies or options, whilst he can lay the body well, his blinkered play is both exciting and frustrating.

One element of his game that is particularly worthy of praise was his ability to quarterback the Owen Sound powerplay bolstered by his excellent passes.

Will be interesting to see how he develops after some AHL seasoning.

Jaime Devane
Selected: 3rd Round, 68th Overall
Position: Left  Wing
Junior Team: Plynouth Whalers (OHL)
2008-’09 Team: Plymouth Whalers (OHL)
GP: 51 Goals: 6 Assists: 8 Points: 14 PIM: 84
Born: February 20th 1991 Birthplace: Mississauga, ON
Height: 6’5” Weight: 212lbs
NHL Projection: Fourth line enforcer type

The uh-oh factor concerning the 2009 draft was really ratcheted up when the nameplate-less Jaime Devane was selected in the third round. If it seemed like the Leafs were stretching early on the second day, Devane has turned out to be an extremely astute off-the-board selection whose potential seems to have been capped by his enforcer tag and lack of offensive smarts.

Indeed his offensive numbers really don’t do the Whaler justice, a supremely solid skater for his size; Devane is a puck eater when it comes to shot blocking and whose defensive responsibility is far beyond that usually attributed to pugilists. His positioning and strength means he could be a valuable PKer and his intelligence when it comes to the physical games is surpassed by few at 19.

The massive downside to Devane is his lack of offense, playing for Plmouth, Devane got a decent slab of ice time but seems to lack any kind of finish in front of net or in the offensive zone. Not much of a forechecker, Devane is a poor puck handler in almost every situation and needs to utilize his size when protecting the puck.

Devane either needs to develop his offensive instincts or consider shifting to defender full time to justify an NHL shot as a mere enforcer. Nevertheless a solid Burke-type draft pick who has passable fundamentals to make him a good AHL route project.

Eric Knodel
Selected: 5th Round, 128th Overall
Position: Defense
Junior Team: Philadelphia Junior Flyers (USMAAA)
2008-’09 Team: Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL)
GP: 50 Goals: 3 Assists: 17 Points: 20 PIM: 31
Born: June 8th 1990 Birthplace: West Chester, PA
Height: 6’6” Weight: 216lbs
NHL Projection: 5-6 big bodied d-man

Two rounds would pass before the Leafs took Eric Knodel 128th overall. Another unknown who had Leafs fans reaching for their laptops, Knodel was the biggest big boy in a draft class of sizable leviathan types, a hulking defender in the vein of Hal Gill.

Graduating from triple A in Philadelphia (obviously not the most well trodden path), Knodel plied his trade in 2009 with the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL.

Arguable the most off-the-radar pick the Leafs made on draft day last year, Knodel is the Burke stereotype in size and has a good head on his shoulders opting out of NCAA to school himself in the USHL for a season.

Plays a very reserved game for an USHL defender, surprisingly composed; not a talented skater but no worse than many of the big body types you see at the top level and an excellent first time passer. Dedicated student of the game comes across as intelligent and driven in interviews and his composure is more than evident on the ice.

Will have been disappointed he didn’t have a more notable year in the USHL but looks to join the University of New Hampshire’s program next year where he will be easier to evaluate, certainly has a lot of likeable tools in his armour and the improvements in his fundamentals have been promising this past season.

Still years away.

Jerry D’Amigo
Selected: 6th Round, 158th Overall
Position: Right Wing
Junior Team: US National Team Development Program (NAHL)
2008-’09 Team: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NCAA)
GP: 35 Goals: 10 Assists: 24 Points: 34 PIM: 37
Born: February 19th 1991 Birthplace: Binghamton, NY
Height: 5’11” Weight: 196lbs
NHL Projection: Second line winger

34 points in 35 games as an 18 year old NCAA rookie and more notably 12 points in 7 IIHF World Junior Championship games on route to gold with team USA, D’Amigo was easily the best draft selection the Leafs made on day two last year and arguably even better than Kadri when you consider he was taken in the 6th round. D’Amigo slipped a long way from his original draft ranking to be taken 158th and while much of the scepticism surrounding D’Amigo was his tendency to make bad plays as frequently as good, the talented American has made good on cleaning up the frayed elements of his offensive game.

Named ECAC Rookie of the Year, to add to a slew of honours bestowed upon him this year, D’Amigo has witnessed one of the most precipitous rises in draft stock of any player selected last season.

Sometimes described as undersized, D’Amigo is actually of a similar build to Lee Stempniak and has plenty of strength on the puck and his size is of no particular concern in the modern game.

Committed to another year with RPI, the hope is that D’Amigo will continue to develop at the college level and arrive well prepared for the rigors of pro level hockey. Unlikely to emerge as a top line winger, with improvement to his forechecking game, D’Amigo could become a valuable scoring second liner.

Barron Smith
Selected: 7th Round, 188th Overall
Position: Defence
Junior Team: Peterborough Petes (OHL)
2008-’09 Team: Peterborough Petes  (OHL)
GP: 36 Goals: 0 Assists: 4 Points: 4 PIM: 62
Born: April 2nd 1991 Birthplace: Hinsdale, Il
Height: 6’5” Weight: 210lbs
NHL Projection: 6-7 Defender

Son of former NHLer Steve Smith, Barron Smith has a total of 6 points in 70 OHL games. Bloodlines aside Smith is a very big, lolloping, physical defenseman with zero offensive upside. Handles the puck like a grenade and struggles to impose himself throughout games due to conditioning.

Extremely hard working, Smith will need to be as so much of his game needs significant development. First and foremost is skating, followed by his puck distribution and stamina. His defensive instincts are much better; good active stick, rarely lets players go around him and holds his position well; would make a good snow shovel in front of net.

Still young but needs significant improvement next season to show anything above being a career minor leaguer.