Anton Stralman is one of the most steadfast and reliable NHL players in the league right now. But as a prospect in the Maple Leafs organization, his success was far from certain. Picked in the 7th round, 216th overall in 2005, Stralman was a puck-moving defender before they were cool. He took a significant step in his age 20 year, forcing the Leafs to bring him to North America in 2007 to see what he could do. You can read more about Anton’s Swedish days in Day 1 of Stralman with @Geofitz04.
Back in those years, a player like Stralman was not coveted nearly as much as a player like Luke Schenn, whom the Leafs drafted fifth overall in 2008. Schenn was a 6’2”, 210 lb, big, strong, stay-at-home teenager.
Stralman, a small, 6’0”, 176 lb, puck-moving defender who needed to put on a few pounds was not valued nearly as much—211 spots later, two years earlier. In today’s NHL I know who I’d rather have, but back then scouts had a much different mindset. Defenders had to be big, strong, and boring so that they could stop the opponents in their own end while leaving the offense to the forwards. Today, the offense needs to be sparked by the defense, which is where Stralman thrives.
Stralman had a breakout season in 2006-07 with Timra IK after posting 21 points in 53 games and having a decent playoff run. He made the move to North America, signing his entry-level deal with the Leafs that summer. Everything was going smoothly for Stralman in his development...before he joined the Leafs.
Sadly, Paul Maurice and the coaching staff seemed to be really bad at communicating with their players, especially the young ones. This is an actual quote from Stralman in September of 2007: “I'm pretty nervous actually. I don't know what the coaches think. I only know that they said I had a good camp. What that tells, I don't know."
(Also in that article was this gem of a line “Coach Paul Maurice said he'd be willing to carry eight defenders at the start of the season, though he noted he's not sure what the salary-cap ramifications are.”)
The Leafs, at that time, had an aging defense core of 32-year-old Bryan McCabe, 29-year-old Tomas Kaberle, and former Bolt, Pavel Kubina, who was 30. Stralman (21), and 23-year-old, potential future captain, Ian White were the only bright spots on the back end at the time.
In hindsight, Stralman was too young to play the majority of the season with the big club because he needed to learn to be more defensively sound, which he lacked at that age, but they needed a young, somewhat chippy, puck-moving defenseman, and he was that. The young Swede played 50 games with the Leafs and did an admirable job, posting a fairly even 50.8 CF% and potting 9 points in a third-pair role that included shifts with Mark Bell, Ben Ondrus, Bates Battaglia, and Wade Belak (RIP).
In his second year, Stralman posted better numbers in a more offensive role, but on a worse team. The Leafs were going down, and they were going down fast. They had lost Mats Sundin and Bryan McCabe for basically nothing, their leading scorer was 35-year-old Jason Blake, and the coach put Vesa Toskala in net for 53 games. That summer brought about some #Truculent changes: Brian Burke replaced John Furgason Jr. as General Manager. Burke wanted a team full of big, strong, meanies so that the legendary Maple Leafs would no longer get pushed around.
In two seasons with the Leafs, Stralman dealt with a team that was mortgaging his future in order to win now, two seasons where his teams’ draft pick was in the top 10 (Luke Schenn and Nazen Kadri), and a roster make-up that was aging and stuck in the old ways.
Whether it was due to the media, or the team, or the fans, Stralman was being told to fit a mold he could not succeed in. It showed in every interview what the narrative for defensemen in Toronto was supposed to be: strong in front of the net, be tougher, be bigger, be meaner. Watching the interview below, you can tell how awkward Stralman felt talking about his size.
There was trouble brewing in Leaf Land and, thankfully for him, Stralman was able to get out before most of the pain arrived.
In the summer of 2009, GM Brian Burke traded Anton Stralman, Colin Stuart, and a 2012 seventh-round pick to Calgary for Wayne Primeau and a 2011 second-round pick. Stralman was later flipped for a third-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets before the 2009-2010 season began.
If you would like to learn more about this trade, read Steve Dangle’s Trade Tree on Sportsnet.ca. It is astonishing that a 22-year-old right-hand shot defenseman was traded for a 33-year-old checking center who was good at face-offs. Even as a late bloomer who had not reached his potential yet, Stralman was worth keeping over a player who retired after one season on a team that finished second-last in the league.
I would like to say that Anton Stralman was a decent prospect for the Leafs but the Leafs never treated him as one. Sure, they drafted him, but I would argue that they did not help develop the game he has now.
Stralman became the player we see today because of the time he spent in Sweden, Columbus, and New York, and not because of his time on the Leafs. I, as one of Raw Charge’s three Leafs fans on staff, wish my team still had him, we could really use him top help solidify the Leafs top pair, but I am glad that Stralman left the tire-fire of a franchise that was Toronto and found success in Tampa Bay. Hopefully, this season, it ends in a Stanley Cup. He deserves it.