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It’s not very often that an NHL team gets a shot at selecting in the top-five of the NHL Entry Draft. If Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke had elected to pass on  Phil Kessel and keep his first-round draft choice the Leafs would be doing exactly that, in fact, the Leafs would be drafting second overall.

Recent reports from various news outlets suggest that Burke is in hot pursuit of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first round draft pick, which would be the fourth overall selection.

In order to get the Blue Jackets coveted first-rounder the Leafs would have to give up veteran all-star calibre defenseman Tomas Kaberle and perhaps a forward such as Mikhail Grabovski or Nikolai Kulemin—who has yet to sign a long term deal with the Leafs and is in the middle of a contract squabble.

The question all Leaf fans want to know is this: if Burke does pull off a miracle and lands the Blue Jackets fourth overall pick, which players would Burke have his eye on and are any of them worth giving up Kaberle and a forward for?

First, let me premise my thoughts by stating that, given the Toronto Maple Leafs’ depth on defense and their absence of forward talent I would think Burke would opt for a forward, preferably a centre.

With this in mind I have left Canadian Defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Brandon Gormley (two highly ranked prospects) off my list.

The First player that comes to mind at the number four spot is Winger Brett Connolly, who played for Prince George of the Western Hockey League.

Connolly—currently ranked 11th overall by the International Scouting Services, stands 6’2 tall and weighs in at 181 pounds. He was limited to just 16 games this season with a reoccurring hip flexor injury this season, which provides an excuse for his average scoring this season.

Prior to this season Connolly was expected to give Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin a run for their money for the top draft ranking. That’s pretty high praise for any player, and his upside makes him a great target for Burke.

In 2008-09, as a 16-year-old, Connolly—who hails from Prince George, British Columbia—scored 30 goals and added 30 assists in 65 games. He is considered a sniper with decent skating ability.

Clearly, Connolly has a lot of developing left to do. For this reason and due to his injury woes, Burke may look to add a more mature/NHL ready player.

Moscow native Karill Kabanov is an intriguing prospect for Burke, one that brings a ton of offensive prowess to go along with his decent size (6’2, 176 pounds).

Kabanov—currently ranked seventh overall by the International Scouting Services— comes with his fair share of “baggage,” including being kicked off Russia’s under-18 team.

Playing for Moncton of the QMJHL, Kabanov registered 10 goals and 13 assists in 22 games. While a touch on the light side, Kabanov has NHL speed and may very well be a hidden gem in this year’s draft.

Another player that may intrigue Burke at the number four spot is Kazan, Russia native, Alex Burmistrov—currently ranked 12th overall by the International Scouting Services.

Burmistrov, who stands 6’0 tall and weighs in at a paltry 159 pounds, is not your prototypical “Burke player.” His physical limitations may very well keep Burmistrov from playing in the NHL for another 2-3 years, but his offensive skills (which are considerable) may be worth the wait.

Burmistrov’s compete level is excellent, but if he wants to make it to the NHL he will have to add another 30-40 pounds to his child-like frame.

Given his lack of size I seriously doubt Burmistrov will be on Burke’s short list should he land the Blue Jackets number four pick, and I am not so sure this kid is worth the risk as he may become the next Kyle Turris—a high Phoenix Coyotes draft pick that is stuck in the minors developing his game and trying to bulk up his fragile frame.

The next player on Burke’s short list would likely be Swiss sensation Nino Niederreiter—currently ranked ninth overall by the International Scouting Services.

Known for his scoring prowess and physical play, Niederreiter has come a long way from his pre-season ranking, as witnessed by his ninth overall ranking—a ranking very few (if any) scouts saw coming. At 6 feet 2 inches tall and 205 pounds, Niederreiter has the size and skill to be a tremendous power forward and/or a two-way player.

Size, skill and great upside make Niederreiter—who plays wing— a great fit for Brian Burke and the Leafs.

As the general manager of Team USA at the 2010 Olympics, Burke is very familiar with the entire US hockey system. As such, Burke may take a long look at Blaine, Minnesota native Nick Bjugstad.

Bjugstad, currently ranked 24th overall by the International Scouting Services, is a rugged centre that stands 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighs in at 188 pounds. He scored 29 goals and added 31 assists in 25 games with as a member of the University of Minnesota and is felt to have a huge upside, but also comes with the label of inconsistency.

Many scouts feel Bjugstad will develop into a top-flight NHL forward, while others see him as a second or third line centre. Clearly, Bjugstad has a lot of developing to do, that and his question marks may cause Burke to pass on this one.

And finally, a player off the beaten path, Richmond Hill native, John Mcfarland.

Mcfarland, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs in at 192 pounds, was expected to be amongst the top ranked prospects at this year’s NHL entry draft, with many scouts predicting he would be a top-five pick.

Playing for the Sudbury Wolves this season, Mcfarland registered 20 goals and 30 assists in 64 games—not exactly endearing numbers.

That said, many scouts feel Mcfarland is yet to tap into his full potential and, on a better team, feel he would have put up much better numbers. Is Mcfarland going to be one of those players that we look back on and say “how the heck did all of those teams wait until 30th overall (where Mcfarland is currently ranked by International Scouting Services) before he was selected? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure, Mcfarland has all the tools to be a good NHL player, including great skating ability, good speed and a better than average shot.

In the end, it appears that if Burke does land the fourth overall pick that he will have plenty of talent to pick from. The thing is, none of the players I mentioned above are a “sure thing” and many, if not all of them, will need some further seasoning in Junior and/or the minors before they will be NHL ready.

Are any of these kids worth giving up Kaberle and a forward? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, Burke will have to be very sure about whichever player he goes after as Kaberle is a very valuable asset for the Leafs organization (either on the roster or as trade bait).

Would I make the deal? I am not so sure Burke needs to go down this path and, with Burke wanting to make a strong push for the playoffs in 2010-11, I find it hard to believe that he would want to trade an all-star defenseman for a player that may be 2-3 years away from making an impact on the Leafs roster.

I, like every other Leaf fan, am torn about trading Kaberle but, at the end of the day, I think Burke will need to move him if he wants a good return. At the end of the day I see Burke wanting a more veteran player in return for Kaberle—preferably a top-six forward that can play alongside star forward Phil Kessel.

I will leave all you Leaf fans with this saying, “careful what you wish for, you might just get it”—in this case, that may mean getting what amounts to a prospect for, who many perceive as the Leafs best player.

Until next time,

Peace!

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