Wolf Tracks: Leafs Feast at Sudbury Community Arena

Sudbury Wolves defenceman Kalle Loponen (25) defends against forward David Levin (71) in front of goaltender Mitchell Weeks during a team practice at Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex in Sudbury, Ontario on Wednesday, October 2, 2019. Loponen is one of several Toronto Maple Leafs prospects who will take part in a game between the Wolves and Peterborough Petes on Friday. Ben Leeson/The Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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So an American, a Russian and a British guy walk into a barn in Sudbury.

No, it’s not the start of a bad joke. In fact, it’s the makeup of one of the Ontario Hockey League’s hottest forward lines, one that offers a tremendous challenge for the Sudbury Wolves on Friday night as they look to extend their winning streak to four games.

Nick Robertson, Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Liam Kirk form the Peterborough Petes’ top trio, and along with their worldly composition, it’s also a must-see for any Sudburians who consider themselves card-carrying members of Maple Leafs Nation.

Seriously, I have zero vested interest in how many fans click the turnstiles at the Sudbury Community Arena, other than liking the atmosphere it creates, but if you’re a Leafs fan and don’t make every effort to see the Petes when they’re in town, well, you can see my talk-to-the-hand pose and shake of the head.

Robertson was a second-rounder, but the Leafs’ first pick this past summer, given that their actual first-round selection was traded to the Los Angeles Kings mid-season in the blockbuster that brought Jake Muzzin to Toronto. The 18-year-old Robertson is a 5-foot-9, 165-pound left-winger who has scored four goals in his first three games this season. The Leafs took him 53rd overall, after 54 games and 55 points during the 2018-19 season in Peterborough.

Robertson’s centre, Der-Arguchintsev, or SDA, as fans like to call him, was the OHL’s first player of the week this season. He’s yet another small, skilled forward at 5-foot-10 and 163 pounds, and is basically an assist machine. In his first three games, the 19-year-old has no goals, but eight helpers, putting him on pace for about 180 assists in a 68 game season. Der-Arguchintsev had six goals and 40 assists year. He was Toronto’s third-round pick, 76th overall, in 2018.

The third member of the line has no obvious Leafs connection — Kirk is an Arizona Coyotes prospect. But his is an interesting story similar to that of the Wolves’ David Levin, in that he comes from a country not traditionally known as a hockey hotbed. The 19-year-old from Maltby, England, is making a name for himself and helping elevate his country’s status in the hockey universe.

Now, in terms of Robertson or Der-Arguchintsev’s value in the grand scheme of Maple Leafs crystal-ball gazing, this is where it gets intriguing. In the past, smallish forwards chosen in the second and third round might have been long shots or long-term projects. But let’s not forget that not all that long ago, fans were watching Mitch Marner rip apart the OHL and wondering the same thing — would he be big enough or strong enough to make it at the next level?

There are about 10.893 million reasons why we can now call that experiment a success.

Granted, Marner was a fourth-overall selection. But when you consider the Leafs draft pick landscape and the money tied up in star players like Marner, Auston Matthews and John Tavares for years to come, it’s pretty safe to say Robertson and SDA are extremely important to the future of the blue and white.

By default, Robertson is Toronto’s top 2019 prospect, given he was the first player selected by the team. And, as of this week, SDA now stands as their highest chosen prospect from the previous draft. That’s because 2018 first rounder Rasmus Sandin made the opening-night roster and second-round pick Sean Durzi was part of the package that went to L.A. in the Muzzin trade.

Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas will need to get creative at the end of this season to re-work his blueline, with Muzzin, Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci all hitting free agency. Moving out some forwards to create cap space is, of course, one possibility, and if that was to happen it instantly makes forwards in the system that much more valuable.

As an added bonus for those who bleed blue, the Wolves also have a Maple Leafs product in their lineup. In fact, the only three Leafs draft picks playing in the OHL this season will be in the same game on Friday night in Sudbury. Finnish import defenceman Kalle Loponen has been getting better every game since arriving in the Nickel City a couple of weeks ago and while he hasn’t found his way onto the scoresheet yet, the 18-year-old, taken in the seventh round of the NHL Entry Draft this past summer, has a plus-4 rating through five games.

Peterborough and Sudbury are expected to be two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season. The Petes started with 2-1 record going into a Thursday night game in North Bay, while Sudbury is 3-2 and riding a three-game win streak.

As for the American, the Russian and the British guy?

Well, the punch line goes something like this — leave two points by the barn door when you walk out and nobody gets hurt.

Wolf Tracks runs weekly during the hockey season.