Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames Strike a Deal For Dion Phaneuf

January 31, 2010

By Bryan Thiel… What exactly made today so special?

Why wasn’t it yesterday? Or tomorrow? Or a week from now?

It was none of them. It was today, Jan. 31st, that changed the Toronto Maple Leafs, hopefully for the better.

We’ll say hopefully because, in sports, you take nothing for granted because nothing is guaranteed.

In a pair of moves that turned Leafs Nation on its head, Brian Burke was able to go out and acquire a cornerstone defenseman in Dion Phaneuf, a fast defense-first forward in Fredrik Sjostrom, a burly defensive building block in Keith Aullie, and a goalie who brings legitimate starting experience to the team in Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Phone networks in Southwestern Ontario probably crashed this morning. Hungover 20-year-olds woke up and thought they were still “celebrating” from the night before.

The buzz on the streets was about the Leafs, but it was finally something positive after months of negativity.

Like everything, though, questions remain. So let’s get some answers.

Who is Dion Phaneuf going to play alongside in Toronto?

The great thing about this is that Phaneuf gives the Leafs options.

For one, he gives the power play that huge shot that was missing since Bryan McCabe was traded to Florida. Francois Beauchemin was supposed to provide that, but his shots haven’t finding the back of the net.

Case in point: Tomas Kaberle, the man who would be setting up Phaneuf’s mammoth shot, has more goals this season (five) than Beauchemin (four).

Phaneuf also has 10 goals already on the season. The outgoing Ian White had nine to lead Leafs defensemen, and before Phaneuf’s acquisition, the Leafs had just five double-digit goal scorers (outgoing Matt Stajan had 16). While only the New York Islanders (four) and New York Rangers (three) have fewer double-digiters, the goal scoring from the back end will be welcome.

Along with that, Phaneuf can line up alongside Luke Schenn and not only teach him the nuances of playing an physically imposing game but also provide the Leafs with (potentially) one of the most dangerous pairings in the NHL over the next few years.

Between Schenn, Phaneuf, and Mike Komisarek (whenever he gets back), the Leafs have muscle. Effective muscle.

What will Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s role be?

In Ron Wilson’s press conference this afternoon, he threw around the word “mentor” a lot, which is a good thing.

Now, instead of relying on a goalie who had never been a solo starter in another market and a goaltender spending his first year in a new league, Brian Burke went out and nabbed a starter who has a track record of excellence and helping along young netminders.

Wilson mentioned the fact that Giguere was the starting goalie when Ilya Bryzgalov and Jonas Hiller hit their peaks, and to a lesser extent he helped Martin Gerber along as well.

Now the Leafs are trying the combination of Giguere and Francois Allaire together to help get Jonas Gustavsson to that same level.

Who starts between the two of them?

That’ll be an interesting question to have answered. Remember, it was just Jan. 22nd when the Leafs announced that they’d be giving the bulk of the remaining games to Gustavsson , but that was before they brought in the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner.

Now? The likelihood is that, if time isn’t split, it’ll be eschewed a little heavier to Giggy, who has one more season at $7 million left on his contract after this one.

It also lowers the likelihood that Gustavsson’s re-signing will “break the bank” this season as so many people have assumed it would because:

A) Giguere’s deal eats up that extra $7 million in cap room (Remember Toskala was a free agent after this season) and;

B) Gustavsson has done little to earn anything that could help him afford the stars and moon.

What about the other guys that the Leafs are getting back?

From Calgary, the Leafs get one of the premier defensive forwards, penalty killers, and fastest skaters in Fredrik Sjostrom. In Ron Wilson’s own words: “He could probably come in today and be the fastest guy on our team.”

Although many are complaining about the fact that the Leafs’ lost four forwards in trades today and only got one back, Sjostrom won’t really impact the offense.

A bit of expanded ice time could see him broach the 20-25 point plateau once again, but overall he’ll be expected to help the league’s worst penalty kill and keep the puck out of the net.

Sidenote: For the second-straight season the Leafs will become the first team to allow 200 goals on the season. The next closest team this year? Edmonton at 180 allowed.

Keith Aulie will give the Leafs organizational depth at defense, a talented prospect, and even more size.

The 6′6″, 217-pound defenseman won’t offer much in the scoring department, but he’s got great size and character (he was a two-time Scholastic Player of the Year in the WHL and captained the Brandon Wheat Kings last season).

While most will be excited about the acquisition of Phaneuf, Aulie is the name in this deal that could turn heads down the road. At just 20 years old, Aulie has a ton of opportunity and won’t be rushed through Toronto’s system thanks to a wealth of NHL defenders.

Toronto had to have fleeced both the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames in these deals, right?

While that’s probably the popular thought amongst many Leaf fans right now, it may not be necessarily true.

Consider the fact that Matt Stajan was miscast in Toronto as a first line centre thanks to necessity. In fact, Stajan goes to the Flames as their second-leading scorer behind Jarome Iginla, and his 51.6 percent success on faceoffs is tops on the team, overlooking rookie Michael Backlund’s limited sample (three games).

The Leafs also lost a very underrated scorer in Nik Hagman. The Flames pick up a guy who will strengthen their offensive attack and could hit the 30-goal mark this year. Hagman is also 10 points away from re-establishing his career-high in points for a third straight season, and at 30, he can still be a key piece for the Flames for a few seasons.

A few weeks ago we talked about Ian White being the most affordable 30-point defenseman in the league, as he immediately becomes the Flames’ top-scoring defenseman.

Jamal Mayers wanted out, so the fact that he goes to a potential playoff team could light a fire under his game, while that would give him a shot at a Stanley Cup later in his career.

As far as the Anaheim deal goes, the Leafs were able to get something for Vesa Toskala, who’ll get a new lease on his career and try to re-invent himself as the backup to Jonas Hiller. He also returns to the Pacific Division, where he had the most successful run of his career with the San Jose Sharks.

For Jason Blake, he gets his release from—what has to be—one of the most stressful situations of his career. Since he signed with Toronto, the expectations were always high because of the fact he was coming off of a 40-goal season and coming in with a $4 million cap hit.

Unfortunately for Blake, if he was in Toronto under, say, a $2.5 million contract, things may have been different for him.

Who are the winners and who are the losers?

In a way, each team wins.

Calgary frees themselves from Dion Phaneuf’s contract while offsetting the offensive loss on the blueline (slightly) and providing depth up front.

Anaheim ensures that they’re not trapped with two highly paid goalies after signing Jonas Hiller to an extension on Saturday while getting some lower-line, veteran help in Jason Blake.

And Toronto? Well they get another defenseman to build around, setting up a formidable top four, a goalie who could rediscover his mojo to become dynamic, and shaken up a roster that could use something to light their fire.

They also get the chance to integrate a few more guys in the lineup up front (the names of Rickard Wallin and Jonh Mitchell have been thrown about) and call up a few players to get them some NHL minutes.

What’s the best thing to come out of this deal?

The fact that Leaf fans can now use jokes featuring the words “Finger” and “Giggy” and have them reference hockey.

Dream or Reality: Could Ilya Kovalchuk Actually Become a Toronto Maple Leaf?

January 21, 2010

by Jon Neely… It’s a question that most teams are asking themselves these days, ever since the Atlanta Thrashers and their superstar, Ilya Kovalchuk, have been rumoured to be extremely far apart on a new contract extension.

Could Kovalchuk actually be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Of course, not every team is asking themselves if he would go to the Leafs, but you know what I mean; there isn’t a single team in the league who wouldn’t want the Russian sniper suiting up for them.

But when it comes to the Leafs, and more importantly Brian Burke, the question is do they actually have the personnel it would take to snag Kovalchuk? It’s possible, sort of, but a lot would have to happen before they could even consider it.

First of all, Burke must decide who is staying with the Leafs after the season and who is leaving town. Two big names that are certainly on the top of the Leafs re-sign list have got to be Jonas Gustavsson and Ian White. Both are young players not yet in their prime, and both will be looking for a pay raise if they’re to stick around.

Re-signing those two players to bigger contracts means less money in the pot for Kovalchuk, who is looking for a contract in the 10-year, $100 million range, but there is no shortage of ways the Leafs will save money at the end of this season.

Vesa Toskala’s $4 million contract runs out at the end of this season, as does the oft-injured Mike Van Ryn’s $2.9 million contract. Throw in Matt Stajan ($1.75 million), Alexei Ponikarovski ($2.1 million), and Lee Stempniak ($2.5 million) all coming to the end of their contracts, and it’s clear the Leafs have the opportunity to let players go and free up over $12 million in cap space.

Obviously they’ll have to use some of that money to either re-sign those players or pay new additions, as well as consider the salary cap dropping next season, but it looks as if the Leafs could cough up enough dough to pay the goal-scoring assassin.

Another issue they face, and quite frankly the biggest one, is who they would give up in a trade to acquire Kovalchuk.

And we’ll start with the one guy everyone thinks about when the word “trade” is said in Toronto: Tomas Kaberle. He would have to be in a deal, no questions asked, which is a major issue because he has that ever-popular no-trade clause in his contract.

And if he’s going to be asked to waive it, you would hardly think Atlanta would be a place he’d want to go. Actually, let me answer that for him. There is no way Kaberle would want to play in Georgia—because really, most people there aren’t even aware they have a team!

But if Burke somehow convinced him to waive the no-trade, whether with the use of drugs or not, another issue would remain—the Leafs have no valuable draft picks this year or next, and you know the asking price would include at least one first-round pick.

That is a problem, since Burke gave up the Leafs 2010 first and second-round pick along with the first-rounder in 2011 for Phil Kessel. So unless Burke unloads the Leafs third-round picks for the next 13 seasons, they’re beat in that sense.

So, for the purpose of this article having any point, we’ll just say that Kaberle accepts a trade to Atlanta, and they don’t ask for a draft pick (yeah, right). The Leafs would still need to give up more if they were even to get a sniff at Kovalchuk.

Some offense, of course, probably in the form of Niklas Hagman or Jason Blake (or both) as well as at least one prospect. That prospect could be Viktor Stalberg, or one of the many other young men who haven’t stepped foot on the ice for the Leafs yet, like Chris DiDominico.

So if the Leafs were to make a trade along the lines of Kaberle, Hagman, Stalberg, and another prospect, it could be possible, although there will most likely be much better offers from other teams dangling those beloved first-round picks.

All in all, Burke would have to work some serious magic to make this trade happen before the trade deadline in March, and though it’s highly unlikely he would come to the Leafs, it’s still possible.

He’s arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the NHL right now, with a lethal shot and untouchable speed, who would be worth giving up almost any player in on your team for, especially when it comes to teams like the Leafs.

But since this story is far from over, fans in Toronto will have to wait and see what happens in this latest superstar contract saga. But even if it’s just a small glimmer of hope for fans to see Kovalchuk in blue and white before season’s end, the image of having a first line consisting of him and Kessel, two snipers, is only going to get stronger as the trade deadline gets closer.

It’s likely a dream never to come true in Leaf Nation, but like so many other stories to come and go, the talk will not stop until Kovalchuk is shaking hands at a press conference, either in Atlanta or somewhere else.

Nazem Kadri on Right Track with Toronto Maple Leafs

January 8, 2010

By Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter… Coming off an impressive 25-goal, 78-point season with the Ontario
Hockey League’s London Knights in 2008-’09, the Toronto Maple Leafs
rewarded Nazem Kadri by selecting him in the first round (No. 7
overall) in the 2009 NHL entry draft.

This season, with
expectations being so high for the young centre, anything short of a
breakout year would be deemed a disappointment by many. To his credit,
Kadri has played well this season, scoring 20 goals and netting 38
points in 28 games, ranking him 42nd overall in OHL scoring.

Despite missing 10 games due to his participation in the World Junior
Championships over the holidays, Kadri still leads the London Knights
in scoring. Not to be lost in his seemingly low point totals is the
fact that Kadri has improved as a player this season and, by all
accounts, is developing into a legitimate NHL prospect.

During
the WJC Kadri established himself as an offensive threat in every game.
His aggressive forechecking and ability to successfully move the puck
through traffic was constantly on display, as was his willingness to go
to the net.

With three goals and five assists in the
tournament, Kadri did not hit a home run at the WJC. That said, Kadri
was not expected to make this team by some and, by all accounts, he was
a very valuable member of Team Canada, stepping up to play on the first
line and power play when called upon.

More importantly, Kadri
played a great all-round game. His defensive efforts were duly noted
and his high-tempo/high energy game served notice to Brian Burke and
the rest of the Leafs’ staff that this kid is developing nicely and, if
all goes well, Kadri should compete for a roster spot on the Leafs as
early as 2010-’11.

Like every other member of Team Canada,
Kadri has to be disappointed in their Silver Medal effort. Hey, you
can’t win ‘em all, right? On a personal level, Kadri has to be happy
with his overall play at the tournament, which should go a long way in
furthering his development at the OHL level.

At 6’0” and just
167 pounds, Kadri still has some developing to do. An 82-game NHL
schedule takes its toll on even the fittest players, so an offseason
regimen of working out and adding muscle is a must if Kadri expects to
make the leap to the NHL.

Maple Leaf fans can rest assured
that Kadri will be a big part of their team’s future. When that is
exactly, is still up in the air.

Until next time,

Peace!

Toronto Maple Leafs-Top 10 Goalie Masks and the Men Behind Them

January 2, 2010

by Louis “King of Roncesvalles” Pisano… The first masked man between the pipes was actually a woman who played for Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1927.

Her name was Elizabeth Graham and she wore a fencing mask when she took to the ice reportedly because her father had invested a lot of money to give her a nice set of teeth and wasn’t about to let them be knocked out during a hockey game.

Clint Benedict, a goalie for the Montreal Maroons in 1930, after suffering damage to his face in a game against the Boston Bruins, wore bulky protective head gear so his broken nose had time to heal
.
In 1936 during the Olympics Japanese goal tender Teiji Honma wore a wire mask like a baseball catcher.

Other goalies in various leagues around the world had experimented with different types of gear to save face, literally.

The most infamous and true innovator of the goalie mask known to the world, as he fashioned it out of fibreglass, was Jacques Plante. He donned his creation for the first time on Nov. 1, 1959, after being cut and refusing to play if he could not wear his mask.

Goalies everywhere are grateful for this innovation, and now not only is the mask protective gear but a work of art.

These are my top ten Toronto Maple Leafs goalie masks and a little about the men behind them. Enjoy!

10. Felix Potvin

Felix “The Cat” Potvin was drafted in the second round (31st overall) by Toronto in 1990 NHL entry draft.

He played with them from 1991-1999 amassing 160 wins and 12 shutouts.

He helped Toronto make the playoffs four years in a row from 92-93 to 95-96, and he took them to back-to-back Conference finals in the first two of those seasons.

His mask was a definite representation of his play between the pipes with his cat like reflexes.

Though it was fairly plain in design it was very recognizable and was immortalized by McDonald’s in a plastic miniature collectables, which many hockey fans may still have.

9. Jonas Gustavsson

Jonas Gustavsson “The Monster,” though in his first season in the Blue and White, has endeared himself to Leaf fans.

Problems between the pipes have plagued Toronto lately and this guy definitely gives Leafs Nation some hope of having a solid puck stopper.

This 6’3” Swede has great lateral movement and a lightning-quick glove along with excellent coverage of the lower half of the net.

Though fairly plain, the mask has style.

8. Martin Gerber

Martin Gerber played with the Ducks, Hurricanes, Senators and finally 12 games for the Maple Leafs.

He won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 and in 60 games that year had a record of 38-14-6 with 3 shutouts, a .906 save percentage, and a 2.78 goals against average.

Gerber was only with Toronto for a very short time at the end of last season and truly it may have taken longer to make his mask than the time he spent between the irons for this team.

But this mask with a picture of Mike Palmateer’s mask painted on the side of it, was solid.

7. Terry Sawchuk

Terry Sawchuk played 21 seasons in the NHL for five teams and won 4 Stanley Cups. He won 447 regular season games and 54 playoff games for a total of 501 total wins.

He had 12 shutouts in the post season and 103 in the regular season, a record that stood until just recently when Martin Brodeur broke it.

Sawchuk was elected to three 1st team and four 2nd team All-Star teams and won four Vezina trophies

One of the best goal tenders of all time and a Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk led the Leafs to their last Stanley cup in the 1966-1967 season.

6. Mike Palmateer

Mike Palmateer was drafted in the 5th round 85th overall in 1974 by the Toronto Maple Leafs and played six seasons for the team taking them to the playoffs five of those years.

Though not big in stature, he played big between the pipes with his unorthodox style of goal tending. He rushed out towards players that were breaking in on him and his acrobatic antics wowed crowds.

His mask was a classic and anyone who saw him play knew when he donned that mask while wearing the Blue and White he was ready to give it all he had.

5. Michel “Bunny” Larocque

Michel Larocque was drafted in the first round sixth overall in 1972.
Bunny played only one full season out of three between the pipes while playing in Toronto.

He was best known for playing for rival the Montreal Canadiens who he was with for eight years before coming to Toronto.

His mask is another classic, with the name Bunny written down the middle of it, and it was a foreboding sight to see in goal for opposing players.

4 Curtis Joseph “Cujo”

Curtis Joseph has played almost 20 years in the NHL for six different teams and had two stints in Toronto and is currently a free agent.

Some of his accomplishments include: playing in the playoffs 14 of the 19 seasons in the NHL, three All-Star appearances, IIHF Gold Medal and Olympic Gold Medal with Canada.

Nick named Cujo not for the dog in the Steven King novel but for the combination of the first two letters of his first and last name, though the two have seemingly intertwined.

The gaping mouth of a mad dog on his mask and the name Cujo on the side of it was and is still a solid goalie mask.

3. Doug Favell

Doug Favell came into the league through the expansion draft in 1967-68 though was playing in Boston’s farm system at the time.

Favell played in parts of three seasons with Toronto in the early 70’s from 1973-1976.

In his first year with the Leafs, he played 32 games posting a record of 14-7-9 with a 2.7 1goals against average, the next year wouldn’t be as good and was eventually shipped to the Rockies.

His mask was plain but and not painted with all the high end graphics that are featured on most of the masks these days but as the saying goes sometimes less is more, and this mask is the epitome of that.

2. Vesa Toskala

Vesa Toskala was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the fourth round (90th overall) in the 1995 NHL entry draft. He was in their organization until 2007-08 when he began playing with Toronto.

The first two years with Toronto he played 119 games and was 55-42-17-4 with 3.00 goals against average and a .897 save percentage.

He has shown sparks of being the goalie the Leafs expected though has lacked consistency and his numbers have steadily declined.

This year has been disastrous, as he has fought injury after off-season surgery, and the team has been going through a rebuilding process.

His mask depicts demon-like skull face with mouth agape and gnarled fangs, truly a solid piece of art work which could have been the cover of any Iron Maiden album.

1. Andrew “Razor” Raycrof

Andrew Raycroft was the 135th overall fifth round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 1998 NHL entry draft.

He won the Calder trophy in 2004 with Boston and in that year had a .926 save percentage and 2.06 goals against average in 57 games with a record of 29-18-9.

He played only one full season as the starter for the Leafs and posted nowhere near those numbers, the next season he played back up to the aforementioned Vesa Toskala.

His mask is the greatest in the history of the team because of all the players incorporated in its design along with attention to detail paying tribute to emblems throughout the team’s existence.

Nazem Kadri a Top Line Terror at the WJC

January 1, 2010

By Louis “King of Roncesvalles” Pisano… Nazem Kadri, the seventh pick overall of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2009 NHL Draft, was one of the preseason’s most dominant players, and gave Leafs fans a much anticipated glimpse into the bright future of their franchise. Yet he was sent back to juniors to continue his development and dominate in his final year.

Though he had a slow start with the London Knights, he now leads the team with 38 points, 20 goals, and 18 assists in 28 games.  He made Team Canada’s under 20 final roster, and is playing at the World Junior tournament in Saskatchewan.

This 19-year-old is listed at 6′0″, 167 pounds on Toronto’s Web site, but apparently he’s been putting on the pounds as he is listed at 177 pounds on Team Canada World Junior roster.

If there was ever a question in the minds of GM Brian Burke, head coach Ron Wilson, or anyone else in the Toronto organization about Kadri’s physicality, they have been answered by his play thus far at the World Junior Championships.

Kadri has not only been moved to the top line on a team that has scored 30 goals and given up only two, but has laid out some of the more punishing hits in the tourney.

Kadri’s offence has never been a question and he continues to answer the bell.

In three games he has three goals and two assists for five points while playing on a line with Taylor Hall, the only undrafted player on Canada’s under 20 World Junior Team.  Hall is going to be the first overall draft pick in 2010, you can lock it up!

Leafs Nation continues to speculate as to what kind of heights Kadri will elevate their newest stud Phil Kessel’s game to—as well as who else will play on that line, if indeed those two are destined to play together.

One concern about Kadri’s game is the number of penalties he takes. He has 62 minutes in penalties with the Knights this year in 28 games an average of 2.21 penalty minutes per game.

Feistiness is a good quality—but taking bad penalties is not.

In his defense, one of his penalties was given for a thundering hit which, by NHL standards, wouldn’t have been called a penalty, but was called in the WJC because he knocked the helmet off the opposing player’s head.

Head shots are one thing officials are keeping a close eye on in this tourney and referees have been told to call anything even close.

As Team Canada’s Olympic rosters were named today, Leafs Nation and Canadians alike must be wondering how many of the talented players in the WJC may be suiting up for Canada at the Olympics in 2014 or even 2018.

Could Kadri’s name be announced along with Leaf teammate Phil Kessel for their respective countries in the future?  If so, it would bring that always interesting scenario of “teammates playing against each other on the biggest stage in the world” to the forefront.

All of these speculations as to what kind of scenarios Leafs Nation will see with this budding young superstar Nazem Kadri are just that at this point, speculation, but who can’t help but dream!

In case you didn’t know, Gabe Morency (formally of The Score) has launched his new Web site. Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter and I will be throwing down our Podcast Get The Puck Out every Saturday from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM. catch Morency and “Get The Puck Out” at www.morencysports.com

Leafs Solve One Nemesis, Chance at Another Monday Night Against Buffalo

December 20, 2009

by Jon Neely… There was a giant sigh of re-Leaf Saturday night after the Maple Leafs finally beat the Boston Bruins after a nasty seven-game losing streak to the division rivals that dated back to early last season.

It was a hard-fought, bloody battle that ended with a 2-0 win for the Leafs and the first career shutout for Jonas Gustavsson, who had a solid 25-save performance.

But more importantly the Leafs were able to beat their former nemesis, Tuukka Rask, the Leafs former first-round pick who they sent to the Bruins in 2006 in the trade that sent Andrew Raycroft to Toronto. Since Rask started his career in the NHL he had become somewhat of a nemesis for the Leafs.

Rask recorded his first career victory in Toronto on Nov. 20, 2007 in what was a huge boost to his confidence, since the Leafs seemingly gave up on the Finnish net minder before even giving him a chance.

He was 2-0 this season against the Leafs coming into Saturday night, a 7-2 win on Dec. 5 and a 5-2 win on Dec. 10, and was looking for his fourth-straight win against his former team.

But the Leafs finally prevailed against Rask, and all it took was a weak wrister from the wing by Tomas Kaberle that beat him short-side which turned out to be all they would need.

It was a big rebound win for the team who had lost their previous two games and were looking extremely lackluster compared to their great December play. The Leafs are now 7-4 during the month but have a tough test coming up with the Buffalo Sabres coming to town on Monday.

And with them comes another Leaf nemesis in Ryan Miller.

The Leafs have major problems beating Miller and never seem to play well against the Sabres as they’ve lost all three meetings this season and the last eight games overall.

Miller has been putting up insane numbers this season, leading the league with a 1.89 GAA, .937 SV%, and four shutouts. It’s clear that the Leafs aren’t the only team he’s been shutting down, but he especially loves to play the Leafs.

After snapping the losing streak against the Bruins on Saturday and finally beating the goalie-nemesis in Rask, they have another chance to do the same against the Sabres and Miller back at the ACC on Monday.

It was a pitiful performance Friday night in Buffalo as the Leafs lost 5-2, but they hope that playing on their own ice will be what they need facing them just three days later.

The Leafs have been playing great at home as of late, winning five of their past six games there, and hope to continue to trend.

It would be a huge if the Leafs could get a rare win against Buffalo, not only to end the streak, but it’s a small four-point gap between them and the eighth and final playoff spot. A win on Monday would be huge for their confidence and inch them even close to that ever-desired post-season position.

There is a long way to go, but for now the Leafs can at least say one nemesis down, one to go.

T.O. Sports Magazine, TOsports…

Gustavsson Close to Return, But Leafs Should Stick With a Hot Toskala

December 15, 2009

by Jon Neely… The good news has been coming in bunches for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the past 15 games or so, and Monday was no different.

Not only did they stretch their home winning streak to four games after a 3-2 victory over the rival Ottawa Senators, but rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson was seen back on the ice in the morning skate for the first time after his second heart surgery in three months.

Expected to be out only a short time, Gustavsson seems to be recovering right on schedule, just as the doctors and the team had hoped and he should be back in game-shape soon enough. But once he is able to return to the lineup the Leafs have a difficult decision to make.

For what might be the first time this season, the Leafs may want to leave Vesa Toskala in net for as long as his hot-streak can continue, since his great play is a huge reason for the team’s sudden surge up the standings.

The Leafs have gone 9-3-1 in their past 13 games since a tough five-game losing streak in mid-November. Many saw the losing streak as yet another nail in the proverbial coffin of their season, but since then not only have they quieted the critics; but the Leafs sit a mere two points out of a playoff spot.

And much of that can be attributed to the resurgence of Toskala.

In his past five games he is 4-1 with a .914 SV% and has let in more than two goals only twice in that time, which includes a 34 save performance against the first-place Washington Capitals.

Since the start of the season the team has battled through injuries to all three net minders that have played so far, but the main theme has been that when Gustavsson is healthy he plays. With him just days away from a return to the ice, the feeling for Coach Ron Wilson might be to throw his prized rookie goalie right back into the fire.

But that would be the wrong thing to do.

With Toskala playing at the top of his game and the team finally putting together a serious string of wins, it wouldn’t be right to switch things up now. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And right now the Leafs ain’t broke.

Gustavsson has a ton of potential and at times this season has shown that he is capable of stealing games and being the starting goalie the Leafs have been looking for, but there is no need to rush him right back into action.

If it were possible the Leafs brass might want to send him down to the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate, for a conditioning stint and playing time, but the Marlies are on the road until Boxing Day and having Gustavsson ride the bus for that long might kill his moral.

So unfortunately for the kid he should have to wait his turn. It would be ridiculous of the Leafs to mess with what Toskala has going right now; and with his future in question after this season, it isn’t such a bad thing to have him pile up a few wins that will go along way in trade value later on.

The future is bright for Gustavsson, but that doesn’t mean his future has to start this week. He will have plenty of time to cement his spot in the crease full-time.

This isn’t to say that Gustavsson shouldn’t get any playing time at all until Toskala lets in a few bad goals and all confidence is lost in him once again. The Leafs play a double-header on Friday and Saturday and if he’s ready by then, one of those games would be a situation where he might get a game in.

But if the team wants to keep up their winning ways and crack the top-eight in the Eastern Conference, they should stick with Toskala handling the majority of the load for now. He finally has the city back on his side and is doing what he has to do to give the Leafs a chance to win every single night; no matter who the opponent might be.

And that’s all you can ask of your goalie to give you; a chance to win.

No doubt Gustavsson will get his opportunity to be the number one guy again this season, as things in Leaf land have a tendency to turn on a dime. But for now, Toronto is Toskala’s team and it should stay that way.

With the Monster lurking in the shadows, it may push Toskala even harder and force him to play better in order that he keeps his number one spot.

The good news is a huge relief for a city that has dealt with its fair share of the opposite this season, and the team is certainly enjoying the wins that come along with that news.

It seems like an eternity since it happened last, but Leaf Nation is finally enjoying Vesa Toskala too.

And that is good news Leaf fans can get used to.

Was Jiri Tlusty Worth a Few More Minutes To Toronto?

December 8, 2009

by Bryan Thiel… And so ended Jiri Tlusty’s days as a Toronto Maple Leaf.

For some it was an unceremonious exit for the 13th overall pick from 2006. Said to have been blessed with all-world talent, Tlusty never showed it at the NHL level, netting a meager 20 points in 74 career games.

For others, it was giving up too soon on a young player yet again. A 21-year old who had 103 points in 105 career AHL games? Look no further than Brad Boyes. Or Tuukka Rask. Or the handful of draft picks that have been mixed in over the years.

Five minutes in, the outlook wasn’t so good. The ‘T’ and ‘K’ keys from keyboards across LeafsNation were scattered everywhere from those who disagreed with the deal and those who disagreed with those who disagreed, slamming their foreheads off of the letter pads.

Five or so hours later, it may not be much better.

You can make the argument that Tlusty never looked comfortable with the Leafs at the NHL level. His first test run was by far his best in 2007/08 when he chipped in with ten goals and six assists in 58 games.

While the expectations rose after that year, the production didn’t. Despite a 66 in 66 mark last year in the AHL, he was held pointless from the outset of the season in his first nine games in the NHL. A January call-up yielded a three-assist game, followed by another point.

Followed by another demotion.

This year wasn’t much better either, with no points in just two games.

But for those that choose to berate Tlusty’s performance, consider this: The 2007/08 Toronto Maple Leafs were still the “old boys” club. Literally. Mats Sundin played his last year with the Leafs, eating up (and deservedly so) all of the ice time up front.

Nik Antropov and Alex Ponikarovsky were still getting top-line time alongside the Captain, while Alex Steen, Darcy Tucker, and Kyle Wellwood were bouncing around beyond the opponents’ blueline.

Then factor in Jason Blake, Matt Stajan, Boyd Devereaux, Chad Kilger, Dominic Moore, Mark Bell, John Pohl, Simon Gamache, Bates Battaglia, and a slew of others were fighting for time up front at one point or another, and there wasn’t much to go around—or much for Tlusty to play with barring the more talented contributors getting split up.

The year after, the Leafs were expected to institute a youth movement—something that only works if you fully commit to it. If Tlusty were expected to be a part of it, then history should’ve been the biggest teacher in how to use him as a piece.

Throughout his up-and-down career, Tlusty has played more than 15 minutes in a game once since 2007/08—the season opener against Detroit last year. The reason why that’s strange, is because you would have thought that 2007/08 offered him the least opportunity.

In games where Tlusty played 15+ minutes, he scored five goals, gathered one assist, and was an ugly minus-six (Although he was a minus-three in a single game against Philadelphia which contributes to that) in nine games.

Through the other 65 games of his career, he had five goals, nine assists, and he was a minus-eight.

Maybe he wasn’t defensively responsible, and maybe he didn’t always look committed to the cause, but one thing seems apparent: Big minutes allowed Tlusty to be the player we expected (and wanted) him to be. Sometimes you just have to take the good (goals and offensive creativity) with the bad (defensive lapses).

After today however, Carolina has that opportunity and if history’s teachings are correct, the Hurricanes may be able to “salvage” the former-first rounder.

Remember how Tuomo Ruutu crashed in Chicago following a 44-point rookie year? The ‘Canes brought him back to being relevant with 81 points in 119 games for them. They’ve also seen the biggest signs of life out of Sergei Samsonov since 2002, and Jussi Jokinen and Matt Cullen fall right in line with that trend.

For all intents and purposes, the Carolina Hurricanes are the Oakland Athletics of Hockey—they make players who fail elsewhere work for them.

So why can’t Jiri Tlusty be the same?

With a little extra ice-time he can.

As it stands, we have no idea how the Jiri Tlusty-Philippe Paradis trade will work out in the end. While Paradis isn’t burning up the QMJHL, it’s of little consequence right now as some players make better pros than they do junior players.

But in a few years we’ll know if Jiri Tlusty would’ve been worth just a few more minutes.

Leafs Still Rolling

December 4, 2009

by Jeremy Visser… Holy 1967, are these Leafs for real?! The boys in blue and white made it four straight on the road and points in seven of eight overall with a commanding 6-3 win in Columbus last night, picking up a pair of goals each from Phil Kessel and the 2006-07 version of Jason Blake.

Joey MacDonald, starting for a brokenhearted Jonas Gustavsson, stopped 33 of 36 shots to pick up his first win as a Leaf. He’ll be counted on for a week or so more, since it was announced yesterday that The Monster will be having another minor procedure done to try to get his heart rate nice and good after a scare Tuesday in Montreal.

Anyway, back to Kessel: How can you not love this man? Two goals, giving him 10 and 15 points in 15 games, and he finished it off with his first career brouhaha in the third period with some nobody named Kris Russell. Straight badass, that Kessel is.

Lee Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin also scored for Toronto and Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman each picked up a pair of assists. Kristian Huselius, Jason Chimera and Jan Hejda scored for the Blue Jackets, as if it matters.

As good as they’ve been playing, the Leafs still sit 29th in the NHL, though now a commanding eight points ahead of the dreadful Hurricanes. Now six points out of the East’s last playoff slot, Toronto is in Boston Saturday looking to make it five straight away from the ACC.

Gunnarsson Bright Spot in Maple Leafs’ Lineup

November 26, 2009

By Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter… At 6’2” and 196 pounds, Carl Gunnarsson is hard to miss. Thank goodness the Toronto Maple Leafs spotted him in the seventh round (194th overall) in the 2007 NHL entry draft, because the 23 year-old has “got’s skillz”.

In case you missed it, the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday night by a score of 4-3. A big part of that win was none other than the aforementioned Gunnarsson, who had three assists on the night and posted a plus-three to boot.

Gunnarsson, who had registered two assists with two penalty minutes in 12 games with the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies this season, made his NHL debut with the Leafs on November 14th versus the Calgary Flames, a game that saw him take 27 shifts for a total of 21:18 of ice time.

To date, Gunnarsson has played a total of six NHL games, only one of which has he been a minus player (-1 against the Carolina Hurricanes). For the most part, Gunarsson has been a solid addition to the Leafs. He is considered an all-round defenseman, with strong passing skills and, more recently has exhibited a penchant for shooting the puck.

“Ouzi”, as I am calling Gunnarsson due to his “oozing” talent, is a smart player, one that exhibits an uncanny calmness for a player of his age and experience. Despite being off the radar at the beginning of training camp, Gunnarsson has defied the odds and cracked an already deep defensive lineup that seemingly was written in stone at the beginning of the season.

Now, six career NHL games does not make a career. That said, if Gunnarsson manages to stick with the big club long enough to make an even bigger splash it may open up an opportunity for the Leafs to contemplate trading one of their top tier defenseman.

I am a believer that you have to give something up to get quality back in return. With that in mind, I am not talking about moving a Garnet Exelby or a Jeff Finger, two players that would see the Leafs get very little in return. I am suggesting the Leafs look at making a deal which may include the likes of Tomas Kaberle or Francois Beauchemin.

The reality is, barring some big off-season acquisitions, the Leafs are at least two full seasons away from being a legitimate playoff contender—and I am not talking about sneaking in with the 16th overall spot.

Entertaining the idea of trading Kaberle, who despite his no-trade clause may be open to a move, or Beauchemin just makes sense. What comes back the other way would likely be a collection of draft picks and/or one or more legitimate NHL players, preferably a centre that could dish the puck to Phil Kessel.

To be fair, my foreshadowing is very premature. As I mentioned earlier, six NHL games is not enough to make a solid assessment on a rookie player, and it is very unlikely that Gunnarsson could fill the shoes of Kaberle or Beauchemin. In today’s NHL you must look to the future in order to get better, you have to try to play from a position of strength and, to use a poker reference, when a premium hand presents itself, you gotta go all in. Gunnarsson may be that hand.

Brian Burke has a lot of work to do. The emergence of Gunnarsson would go a long way in giving Burke some good cards to play with, but what the flop brings is anyone’s guess.

Until next time,

Peace!

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