A team’s fortunes can be decided on the shoulders of their young players, be it their rookies or their sophomores. Â There are plenty of examples of young players who can help their club catch lightning in the bottle, and help them surpass the expectations set earlier in the offseason by the majority of pundits.
Of course for every example of that, there are also counter examples of teams who perhaps relied too heavily on rookies, or second year players, to help pace the offense, only to have things not go according to plans. The young players coming into the league, and into your team, can mean a very exciting time. Â Everyone wants to see their young draft picks and prospects make the jump to the National Hockey League, and be a competitive, effective player. Â It can be a very exciting time, but a stressful one at that, due to the nature of the unknown.
It could be argued that there is no tougher place in the NHL for a player to play than in the hockey centric market that is Toronto. Â Add the stress of being a rookie or young player still trying to make his mark in the league on top of that, and it can be a turbulent road.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in the midst of a rebuild-or retool if you prefer-will go into the 2010-2011 NHL season seemingly ready to rely on rookies and sophomores, players who’s roles and output may be the difference between making the playoffs, or sitting on the sidelines for the post season once again in 2010-2011.
And while Brian Burke and Ron Wilson will certainly be doing their best to insulate the young kids with the veterans on the team, it is an inevitable fact that these young players will need to step up if the Leafs have any ideas of playing past April.
While the Maple Leafs have a bevy of young players who are not rookies or sophomores (guys like Luke Schenn, Kris Versteeg and Phil Kessel among them) but will still be counted on heavily, it can be argued that they will go into the 2010-2011 season with potentially eight rookies or sophomores who will make the NHL roster.
Nazem Kadri, of course, is one of these young players who the Leafs will count on, should he make the roster, to make solid contributions. Â However, after spending all of yesterday’s 12 burning questions speaking about Nazem Kadri’s chances of making the team, and what sort of impact he will have if he does, we will shift our focus to the other seven players who may need to play a big role with the Leafs this season.
Tyler Bozak may be among the most important young player who will need to have a solid second season if the Maple Leafs have designs to have a successful season that results in going to the post season for the first time since 2004.
Bozak, a former college free agent who was lured to Toronto by Brian Burke, started last season in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies, honing his skills and getting acclimated to the NHL game, all the while getting his feet back under him after a lost season due to knee surgery.
After a brief call up in October, Bozak was once again brought back up to the big club on January 12th, and never looked back.
He immediately found chemistry with Phil Kessel, and proceeded to net 27 points in 37 games, a pace that would have likely grabbed him the rookie scoring title had he played a full season. Â Bozak used his fast skating and incredible hockey vision to compliment Kessel perfectly, which considering how important Phil Kessel is to the future success of the Leafs, may have been the best friendship Bozak could have made.
The Leafs are hoping, and likely banking on, Bozak being able to bump the sophomore slump. Â Is will be absolutely integral to any success the Toronto Maple Leafs have, that Tyler Bozak be involved.
There were rumours earlier in the summer that the Leafs were looking into acquiring a top six forward, and even separate rumours that Kessel’s old linemate Marc Savard was among them. Â The Leafs stood pat, however, likely a vote of confidence to Bozak, who will be given every opportunity to continue his string of success he and Kessel began to establish last season.
If there is one sophomore who is more important to the success of the Leafs than Tyler Bozak, it is Jonas Gustavsson.
While we spoke about Gustavsson briefly in part two of the series, it has become painfully important to anyone who has followed the Leafs in the years since post lockout 2004, that goaltending will be absolutely crucial if the team hopes to win important games and earn valuable points.
Gustavsson battled health and personal issues last year, and while his record was a little inconsistent, he proved on many nights to be up for the task, and finished the year with a save percentage over .900. Â He is a big goalie and seemingly gave the Leafs confidence as he played with calm and poise in between the pipes.
Gustavsson had a good season, but will need to continue his improvement in year two for the Leafs to have success. Â The only thing that perhaps makes Tyler Bozak’s sophomore campaign more important than The Monster’s is the fact that he will be insulated by Â Jean Sebastian Giguere, the former Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe winning goaltender.
With Giguere in a contract year, many expect him to be playing well more often than not.
Carl Gunnarsson is a player who is looking to continue his progression upwards with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, and is currently pencilled in to be among the top six defenseman the team will use when the season starts.
Despite an elbow injury that limited him to 43 games, Leafs fans and management had seen enough to know that they had another potential late round gem on their hands.
Drafted by Toronto in 2007, Gunnarsson made the jump to the NHL this season and contributed 15 points in those aforementioned 43 games, and was also a plus 8 on a team with not a lot of players in that side of the column. Â His swift skating and smart first pass will be key for the Leafs in moving the puck out of their zone quickly, and up to their speedy forwards.
Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi will also likely be counted on to fill a role for the Leafs this year, although both are hardly pencilled in at this point.
Caputi had an okay season with the Leafs once he came over in a trade with Pittsburgh. Â He will need to use training camp and the preseason schedule to establish himself as a player who can bring speed and skill to the Leafs lineup.
Other potential young players who could help the Maple Leafs make an impact in the Eastern Conference this season are the recently signed Marcel Mueller and Jerry D’Amigo.
While neither have a spot reserved for them on the Leafs roster, one has to believe that they will make things interesting at training camp this season, and one has to also believe that both didn’t leave comfortable settings to not make the team, although there is nothing wrong with starting the year in the AHL, as Tyler Bozak will surely tell you.
While they didn’t have a first round pick this past draft, and likely will not in the upcoming draft following this season, the Maple Leafs have rookies and young players in their system who are slated to play a bigger role than ever before with the club. Â It can be argued that never have this many young guys been counted on at the same time, the fate of the Toronto Maple Leafs resting on their shoulders.
What type of impact they will all have remains to be seen, but as I said yesterday, there is something to be said for youthful excitement, and hopefully the Leafs can be the next team to catch the proverbial lightning in a bottle.