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Leafs prospect pipeline appears headed in right direction

There's an easy joke to be made about how the Toronto Maple Leafs are, as of yet, undefeated.

After all, they're 2-0 heading into their final game tonight at their rookie tournament, having beaten the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins prospects on the weekend.

No one in their right mind would read much into those games, which are played between prospects who for the most part don't know one another, have recently stepped off a plane and haven't played together.

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From a Leafs perspective, however, what you can see on the ice in Oshawa the past few days is that they finally have a little more depth to their prospect pool.

And that's been a long time coming.

Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since 2004, but in recent years, you wouldn't know it looking at their minor league club. The Marlies team that had 109 points in the standings in 2007-08 ultimately produced exactly one player – fourth-line centre Darryl Boyce – expected to be on the team this season, an incredible lack of development of prospects of any sort.

While those AHL teams won games, they did so with mostly minor-league veterans. This season, win or lose, the Marlies will almost certainly have young players with NHL potential like Jake Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Joe Colborne, Jesse Blacker and Ben Scrivens playing key roles.

Groups that rank prospects, meanwhile, have shifted the Leafs up the list, with Hockey's Future placing them ninth in their latest rankings and Hockey Prospectus putting them 11th.

(And that's without the benefit of the three high picks they moved in the Phil Kessel deal.)

"The Leafs' system has a ton of depth," Hockey Prospectus' Corey Pronman said. "While they won't be churning out top-line type of players left and right over the next few years, there's quite a few names who have top six [forward]or top four [defencemen]potential."

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Those who have been in the organization for the past five or six years, meanwhile, agree that there's been positive progress.

"I think the pedigree [of our prospects]is just that much higher," Leafs director of player development Jim Hughes said. "They've done a great job drafting. We've gotten some great players out of trades, and there's probably just a lot more to work with.

"We feel we've got a real competitive environment right now. Guys are pushing each other, competing for jobs. That only propels the entire operation forward."

Most of that competition is going to come at the Marlies level, as it's unlikely anyone outside of Frattin pushes for an NHL job. But when there are injuries, some of these prospects are going to be asked to fill in – just as Keith Aulie did last season when Dion Phaneuf went down.

And, unlike with that 2007-08 team, it's fairly safe to say a few of these players are going to be contributing regularly two or three years from now.

"We're in a much better situation, but I wouldn't say that we're completely content with what we have," Brian Burke's right hand man Dave Nonis told TSN yesterday. "You always want to have those players coming. I think we as an organization have been in trouble in the past because we have not had players coming, whether they've been moved to try to take a run at it or what have you. We want to make sure that that pipeline is continually being filled."

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The top prospects

Asked for his thoughts on who from the Leafs rookies has impressed him leading up to the start of the main training camp on Friday, Hughes picked out these four players yesterday:

Kenny Ryan, 2009 second-rounder who plays for the Windsor Spitfires: "He's a very high character kid, and when he goes away for the summer, you know he's doing the work. He's got great habits away from the rink. He proved it the other night ... and he's really responsible in all three zones."

Jake Gardiner, a Ducks 2008 first-rounder who they acquired in the Francois Beauchemin trade: "He's a very special kid in a lot of ways. He's on a mission. The guy's the real deal. He's got the right mentality and obviously has the right physical skills. He's been terrific."

Jesse Blacker, 2009 second-rounder who was with the Owen Sound Attack last year but will make jump to the Marlies: "He had a great year last year, had a great Memorial Cup, had a great summer ... He's somebody who's someday going to put on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey."

Matt Frattin, 2007 fourth-rounder who led the NCAA in goals last season: "He's got an NHL skillset. He can shoot, he can skate, he's strong."

The development role

One other thing worth noting is that the job Hughes is doing for the Leafs is a relatively new one for NHL teams. Player development has taken on a lot more importance in recent years in general, with more and more teams adding someone in the role, and essentially what that person is for is to watch over players in the system who aren't playing for the Leafs or Marlies.

Hughes, for example, has been watching someone like Blacker in the OHL for a few years and offering him advice. He said that he often gets phone calls after games that he's at from Leafs prospects who want more information on how they did and how they can improve.

It's a job that directly ties someone in the organization to their draft picks full time and during their seasons, and it's a role that teams are dedicating more and more resources towards. (The Leafs have both Hughes and long-time former NHLer Bobby Carpenter now working on the development side.)

One agent told me today that 10 years ago "teams used to just throw their prospects in the deep end," expecting them to figure things out after they were drafted. Because organizations have invested so many millions in scouting and the draft, however, they're now realizing they don't want to leave players' development entirely to their junior or college teams and are taking a more active role.

So when you see former players like Bill Guerin and Cory Stillman retire to take player development jobs – as they have with the Penguins and Panthers recently – that's essentially what they're doing.

Often they aren't even spending time with the minor league team and instead simply focusing on those who haven't yet made the jump to pro.

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