The annual NHL Entry Draft is a shot in the dark. Nothing more, nothing less.
Yes, those chosen in the first-round of the event are unequivocally expected to be more successful and productive than their fellow draftees, however, such does not always occur. In fact, each and every draft class is home to a number of seemingly forgotten prospects who, despite the odds, overcome a breadth of adversity en route to becoming quality contributors at hockey’s highest level.
And, in the particular case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, such is no different.
Of course, the Leafs have held a bevy of high first-round draft picks over the years, with more than a handful developing into not only star players but legends within the organization. However, a shocking number of those also selected by Toronto, albeit in later rounds of the draft, have, over the years, played a critical role in the success of the team.
So, although their figures likely won’t be enshrined within Legends Row, it is certainly worth recounting the careers of five Leafs draft steals who played incredibly important roles during their time within the organization.
Drafted: 10th Round (256th overall), 1994 NHL Entry Draft
Toronto Tenure: 357 GP: 126 G, 220 Pts
Although Sergei Berezin played a mere five seasons for the Leafs, the contributions which he made during his tenure were amongst the most notable and meaningful of his seven-year NHL career. While he would go on to play for four other NHL organizations, Berezin’s unexpected play with Toronto has come to define his professional hockey career.
As a tireless skater who could reach top-speed in the blink of an eye, Berezin loved to blow past opposing defenders en route to the goal. Once in the attacking zone, Berezin paired his shifty skating with a terrific shot – two qualities which made him a persistent offensive threat. What’s more is that, in addition to his incredible abilities, Berezin skated hard each time he graced the ice and was always determined to create positive results for his team.
During his time with the Leafs Berezin became a go-to player, and especially so once Pat Quinn replaced Mike Murphy as the team’s head coach prior to the 1998-99 season. A frequent healthy scratch at times, Quinn was quick to provide the young Russian with an increased amount of playing, which, in turn, provided Berezin with a wealth of confidence.
From this point onward, Berezin became both a capable and reliable offensive player. In fact, in Quinn’s first campaign behind the bench, Berezin enjoyed the greatest season of his career, notching a whopping 37 goals and 59 points – a goal total which led the team in 1998-99. In all, Berezin would record four seasons of 20 or more goals with the Leafs, while his blazing skating a full jersey-tuck have never been forgotten.
Drafted: 8th Round (204th overall), 1996 NHL Entry Draft
Toronto Tenure: 878 GP: 83 G, 520 Pts, 4x NHL All-Star
A pillar of the Leafs’ blue line for well over a decade, Tomas Kaberle began to turn heads the minute he took to the ice to begin his NHL career in 1998-99. A stable, puck-moving defender of great vision, Kaberle’s ability to see the ice and move the puck within it ultimately led to a long and incredibly successful 14-year career in the league.
In addition to his ability to move the puck, Kaberle was a smooth and effortless skater who was rarely caught out of position. Further, capable of playing both the penalty kill and power play, Kaberle’s versatility allowed him to log major minutes on a nightly basis against his opposition’s best players. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that he averaged a whopping 28:10 during the Leafs’ 2005-06 campaign.
In all, Kaberle’s time with the Leafs wildly successful. In the nearly 900 games he played with the team, Kaberle recorded 437 assists – a total indicative of his incredible playmaking abilities and consistency on the blue line. Further, the native of Rakovnik, Czech Republic would log an average of 23:52 per game with Toronto, a total which only emphasizes the importance of his role within the Leafs’ roster.
Unfortunately, Kaberle would never hoist a Stanley Cup in Toronto, however, he did manage to do so in the spring of 2011 following his departure to the Boston Bruins. In the years that followed, Kaberle would skate for both the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes, although it goes without saying that the best hockey of his career was played in Toronto.
Not bad for an eighth-round draft choice.
Drafted: 5th Round (85th overall) 1974 NHL Amateur Draft
Toronto Tenure: 296 GP: 129W-112L-41T
A native of Toronto, Ontario, Mike Palmateer achieved a lifelong dream in 1976 when he suited up for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A longtime standout with the Toronto Marlboros, Palmateer’s selection by the Leafs in the 5th round of the 1974 Amateur Draft was critical in kickstarting his surprisingly successful NHL career.
Although he was by no means the biggest goaltender, Palmateer made up for this perceived deficiency through his incredibly energetic and athletic style of play. Never willing to give up on a sequence or a game, Palmateer’s determination to support his team regardless of the impending result illustrated his raw passion for the game.
And, during the Centennial Classic Alumni Game on Dec. 31, 2016, Palmateer refused to waver, even at the age of 62.
While his NHL career would ultimately span eight seasons and two organizations, Palmateer’s true home was in Toronto with the Leafs, where he enjoyed five campaigns and appeared in nearly 300 regular season contests. In his time with Toronto, Palmateer was solid in goal, posting 129 wins, an impressive 15 shutouts, and four seasons of 20 or more wins.
Although a variety of injuries – and surgeries – would hinder Palmateer’s abilities later in his career, particularly those suffered to his knees, Palmateer’s contributions to the Leafs as an 85th overall selection were nothing short of spectacular. After hanging up his skates, Palmateer would re-join the organization as a scout and was crucial in the signing of Jonas Gustavsson.
Drafted: 4th Round (87th overall) 1998 NHL Entry Draft
Toronto Tenure: 477 GP: 114 G, 257 Pts
Alexei Ponikarovsky brought size, speed, strength, and skill to the Leafs, and all as the 87th overall selection in the 1998 NHL Draft. Although Ponikarovsky’s presence in Toronto was not entirely expected given his low draft status, the play and offensive output which he would contribute over nine seasons of play with the team was certainly welcomed.
A hulking forward of considerable size, Ponikarovsky’s 6-foot-4 frame and impressive raw strength allowed him to physically dominate his opposition on a nightly basis. However, Ponikarovsky was much more than strictly an intimidating force, as he was also gifted with soft hands which allowed him to capitalize on loose pucks around the goal-mouth. Further, Ponikarovsky boasted a great shot, as his quick release allowed him to beat opposing goaltenders with relative ease.
It was these qualities which Ponikarovsky displayed with great frequency as a member of the Leafs. In his close to 500 games played with Toronto, Ponikarovsky would net well over 100 goals including three 20-goal campaigns. Highlighted by a 61-point season in 2008-09, Ponikarovsky’s play alongside the likes of Mats Sundin and Nikolai Antropov was of unmistakable importance to the Leafs’ on-ice success.
Unfortunately for Ponikarovsky, his expiring contract during the 2009-10 campaign made him perfect trade bait for the Leafs. Shipped to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for what can now be considered nothing other than a measly return – Luca Caputi and Martin Skoula – Ponikarovsky’s departure from Toronto ultimately signaled the beginning of the end of his NHL career. While he would play an additional three seasons for five separate NHL organizations before heading to the KHL, Ponikarovsky was never again as lethal as he was while with the Leafs.
Drafted: 4th Round (99th overall) 2006 NHL Entry Draft
Toronto Tenure: 207 GP: 85W-76L-23OT
A whopping 10 goaltenders were selected prior to James Reimer in the 2006 NHL Draft, however, it was a reality which did not deter the Morweena, Manitoba native from achieving his NHL dream. Although his road to the show would prove to be long and winding, Reimer’s unwavering determination and unmatched passion for the game quickly made him a fan favourite in Toronto for all of the right reasons.
Incredibly athletic and never willing to concede a contest, Reimer’s steadfast determination between the pipes immediately endeared him to Leafs fans across the nation. Passionate about the progression of his play and a team-oriented individual, Reimer’s eagerness to improve an underwhelming Leafs squad not only earned him starts but the admiration of his teammates in the process.
Although it would take Reimer five seasons of play to reach the NHL following his draft selection, he refused to leave once he had arrived, as his willingness to battle on a nightly basis while inspiring his teammates in the process proved far too valuable. In all, Reimer appeared in parts of six seasons for the Leafs, during which time he recorded an impressive 85 wins in 207 appearances.
Traded to San Jose in 2015-16 as his contract came to a close, Reimer would prove to be an integral piece of the Sharks’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, posting a sparkling .938% SVP and 1.62 GAA in eight games played. In all, Reimer would parlay his strong play with both the Leafs and Sharks into a well-deserved five-year contract with the Florida Panthers – an organization which would ultimately provide him the opportunity to become a definitive starting goaltender.
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Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.