We've needed something to hold on to.
But whether players are drafted right out of college and immediately step into a role at the major-league level (like in the NFL or NBA) or like baseball and hockey, usually take years of development to reach that level, watching a kid develop is fun for fans. Again, it’s the hope thing, especially if your team has been struggling in recent years.
Here in Leaf town, we are at a point in the recent metamorphosis of the franchise where the team actually has a number of emerging young players stockpiled in the system, most notably a truckload of defensemen who may be either within weeks—or a couple of years at most—from earning a Leaf jersey on a full-time basis.
We all know that Morgan Rielly heads the list, for reasons I don’t need to cite in detail. I’ll just say that what I’ve seen of him indicates he has poise beyond his years and a head for the game. His on-ice vision makes him special and his wheels don’t hurt what we see on the canvas, either. (I'd still like to see him play out his junior career before joining the big club, but that's Carlyle's call, it seems.)
The thing is—and this may be, for once, not simply a case of we Leaf fans being unrealistic and over the top in pumping our team’s tires when it comes to the pipeline—Rielly is not alone. I’m nowhere near as qualified to speak on this subject as those who cover the up and coming Leafs (PPP, Maple Leaf Hot Stove, Blue ChipProspects, TML Fans, Hope in the Big Smoke, Leaf Nation, Five Minutes for Fighting, etc.) on a regular basis, but I do know there are a host of young D-men who could form a pretty impressive kiddie-corps blueline if the Leafs chose to go that route. (They should at least be impressive in the upcoming prospect tournaments…)
You likely all know the names better than I do: Finn, Leivo, Blacker, Granberg, Nillson, Percy and of course the aforementioned Rielly. (Feel free to job my memory with regards to other young defenders that are on the verge of being Leafs some day.)
Now, it’s not certain that all of these will make it, of course. Some won't. Some may be stars, others may ultimately fall into the category of high-end minor-leaguers or simply serviceable NHL’ers. It’s rare that all of a team’s young prospects became impact players. In fact, I can’t recall that it has ever really happened for any team. There are always hits and misses when to comes to prospects.
That said, I can’t help but think back to a situation that still stands out as terribly unfortunate when it comes to memories of promising young Leaf defense prospects. The guy I’m thinking about today is Bryan Berard.
Here is a young man who played, what, maybe a hundred games with the Leafs during what turned out to be a twelve-year NHL career. Yet I remember him almost exclusively as a Maple Leaf. He still stands out for me in that category of “what could have been”. He was that good.
Just as we have hope that some of the youngsters I mentioned in this post today will become solid Leafs (maybe even better than that), Berard had massive amounts of potential. He really was in the Rielly category, if you will. I’m trying to recall if he was a first overall pick in the draft ('96?), but he was a very high first-round pick, I know that much. Despite his early prowess with the Islanders (40 assists as a rookie defensemen as a 19 year-old) the Leafs somehow lured him away from the Isles in a deal that sent one-time Leaf netminding hero Felix Potvin, right, the other way. (We didn’t need Potvin any more with the arrival of Curtis Joseph, but Felix remains a very popular former Leaf to this day.)
Those of you who were around at the time will recall that the Leafs were building a very good team under then new coach Pat Quinn. Berard’s arrival spurred the team to even greater heights, and he was a big part of the Leafs getting through to the third round of the playoffs in the spring of ’99 after not having even made the spring dance the two seasons prior. He was all of 21 at the time. He could skate and move the puck. He saw the ice so well. He was not Scott Stevens in terms of a physical game but he was a wonderful complement to some of the rugged Leaf defenders we had at the time. (Markov and Yushkevich come to mind, if I am remembering correctly…)
A lot of us still remember that awful game in March of 2000 when an Ottawa player’s stick came up and hit Berard in the eye. He would subsequently lose vision in the eye. While he fought courageously to make a comeback and play on (and he really did have a remarkable career in the end, despite playing with such an obvious limitation, right through to the end of the 2007-’08 NHL season.) Bu sadly, he had played his last game for the Leafs.
What could he have been? And what could the Leafs have become with a brilliant young defenseman like Berard quarterbacking their offensive game, including their power play, as he gained NHL experience over the years. Remember what we accomplished in 2002? What if we had had Berard?
Again, Berard played hard and well after his amazing come back. And while he certainly still scored goals and put up points through his time with the Rangers, Bruins, Hawks and Blue Jackets, he was never a ‘plus’ player again (a somewhat limited stat, I realize), as he had been in his last year with the Leafs. (Those weren’t very good teams at the time, as I look back, but he was still largely an effective player, to his credit.)
So as I sit here and think about the future, I can’t help but also think that, as with life in general, nothing is certain. By all means we should enjoy the idea that the Leafs have some promising young players. As I mentioned earlier, some of them may go on and do great things here or elsewhere. We fans need something to latch on to.
Regardless, just like the players themselves probably should (and I'm guessing some do), maybe we just need to appreciate the time they share their talents with us, because it can be gone in an instant.