By Mark Ritter

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. (more)