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Maple Leafs Watch: How does the future look?

With THN’s annual Future Watch special issue about to be unleashed on the streets, I thought it would be prudent to give readers a sneak peak of how the Toronto Maple Leafs rank in the youth department:

Not well.

Is that a shocker? Not particularly. With the exception of draft-dandy defenseman Luke Schenn and hopeful goalie of the future Justin Pogge, the Buds are devoid of young high-end talent, compared to the rest of the league. In fact, only New Jersey – they of the veteran-laden and playoff-bound Devils – ranked lower.

A revolving door of team brass in the past couple seasons played a big role in this. Though so far none of the GMs have done the team any favors by stocking up on draft picks, let alone high draft picks, in an attempt to restock what was pretty much always an empty cupboard. As of today, the Leafs head into this summer’s entry draft with just five selections (in the first, third, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds), the second-least amount of picks in the NHL, tied with a cluster of teams and one better than San Jose, a team that will contend for the Stanley Cup this year.

Naturally, the goal of this year’s trade deadline should be to recoup some of those draft selections lost in recent trades, especially since this year’s crop of 18-year-old wunderkinds is particularly deep. Acquiring a second first-round pick and at least one second-round pick should be the highest of priorities next week.

Of course, not all is lost on the farm, either. Lately left-winger Jiri Tlusty, himself a first-round pick in 2006, has been on fire for the American League’s Toronto Marlies. He has tallied 45 points in 46 games, many of those coming recently in multi-point bursts. Gelling with the team’s top scorer, Tim Stapleton, Tlusty is getting lots of ice time and lots of opportunity to grow as a player.

If only he had been doing that last season.

The Maple Leafs have an infamous history of crushing young souls by mishandling them in a variety of manners, from Jeff Ware and Jeff Farkas all the way up to Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen, the latter two of which are now finding room to breath in St. Louis.

Tlusty was also heading down this path, as the Buds pulled him out of the OHL in favor of a stint with the big club and Marlies one year removed from being drafted. What followed, up until his recent longer demotion to the AHL, was a roller coaster of first-line to fourth-line duty with the Leafs and time with the Marlies. Neither allows a young player the necessary time to develop his game. As he probably should have been right away, Tlusty is getting used to the North American pro game in the continent’s second-best league and having success in the process.

The fact Schenn was able to step right into the Leafs’ lineup this year was certainly a blessing, but at least new coach Ron Wilson was pragmatic about expectations and consequences should the blueliner’s play have faltered. If this is the philosophy going forward regarding Toronto prospects, it’s a sound one.

This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.

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