A lot has been made of the Leafs’ presence at the World Juniors this year. I can’t blame the masses; the Leafs are sending five prospects, two of which amongst the world’s best in William Nylander and Mitch Marner, another blue-chipper in Kasperi Kapanen, an underdog in Dmytro Timashov, and a steady secondary addition to team Canada in Travis Dermott. All five of these guys could end up being NHLers. But what if I told you that there was a year that Leafed at levels beyond comprehension?
Let me take you back to 2003. Specifically, we’ll head to team Canada.
Over the prior seasons, the Leafs had amassed draft picks. A lot of them, actually; certainly high for the Pat Quinn era. Toronto selected ten players in a nine-round 2000 Entry Draft, and while none of them were eligible to play, the twelve they selected in 2001 and the nine they took in 2002 were. Toronto’s higher picks were biased towards Canadian Major Junior, which naturally gave them the advantage come selection camp.
But usually, a team is when they get to send one or two players to represent a AAA Hockey Nation, like this year’s Leafs have with two countries. This time, however, they sent five to Canada, including three from the same draft class. Carlo Colaiacovo, Brendan Bell, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, and Ian White all packed their bags and headed to Halifax. Not only did they make that trip, but they stuck with the team and played the full six games.
Results were mixed. Bell, the least successful in the long run, picked up a goal and an assist. The other defencemen controlled the flow of the tournament, though; Whtie had two goals and four assists while Colaiacovo lead the entire team in scoring with a goal and nine assists; three points ahead of second place. Matt Stajan only picked up two points but played the responsible two-way game he’d be known for in the years to follow. As for Wellwood? Five points, including one of the most iconic goals in World Junior History against the Czech Republic.
That goal proved to be a turning point for Wellwood’s reputation. The Leafs snagged him in 2001’s fifth round despite him winning the OHL scoring title in his draft year, taking advantage of concern for his size and that his supporting cast may have inflated him. He didn’t break out into the superstar that many hoped he would, but the Leafs got several serviceable years out of him; particularly on the powerplay.
What’s amazing about this team as well, was that even though a few of these players weren’t Leafs, they’d go on to join the original five on the list of players who eventually donned the sweater. Stajan’s fellow shutdown-man was Jay McClement while Joffrey Lupul led the team in penalty minutes. Combined, they had almost ad many points as the team’s second-highest scorer (behind Colaiacovo), PA Parenteau.
Outside of Canada, the Leafs only had one additional prospect playing in the tournament, with Canadian-born Swedish citizen Alex Steen wearing the Tre Kronor. A few future Leafs were on other teams as well, though; Tim Gleason played for the United States while Mikhail Grabovski suited up for Belarus.
Ultimately, though, it was Russia who won the tournament; with no Leafs, present or future.
Except Alex Ovechkin. Eventually. Maybe.