Assessing the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Halfway Point
After taking a tough 6-2 loss to their arch rival Montreal Canadiens last night, the Leafs reached the midway point of the 2008-09 season. As expected, the Leafs have had an up and down season, and at this juncture, sit 7 points out of the 8 th and final playoff spot. With 41 games to go, the Leafs are in tough to make the playoff, as the competition will only heat up even more in the second half.
There have been some pleasant surprises. With Ron Wilson taking over behind the bench, the Leafs were expected to be a more defensive team and play in low scoring games. However, it has been the complete opposite. Toronto does not have many legitimate top 6 forwards yet they sit 10 th in the league for goals for per game. On the flip side, the defence and goaltending has struggled and the Leafs are 28 th in the league when it comes to goals against.
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With the team in rebuilding mode, some forwards have been giving some added responsibilities and a chance on the power play. Nik Antropov seems to have found some consistency, something that has plagued him until recent years. 24-year-old Matt Stajan, is having a career year so far with 31 points in 35 games. The summer acquisitions of Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman have pay dividends as they have shown some chemistry together at both ends of the rink. Also, Dominic Moore, known mostly for his defensive play, has chipped in on the offensive end. The Leafs would still benefit from having a couple more top 6 forwards, but for now they are going to have to score by committee.
The defence looks good some nights and then awful the next. They are led by long-time Leaf, Tomas Kaberle and fellow Czech countryman Pavel Kubina. After those two, there isn’t much offence from the backend. And in the defensive zone, the group has been very average at best. 18 year old, Luke Schenn has proven he can play in the league, but will take a couple years to really assert himself as a shutdown down guy. Jeff Finger signed a big deal in the off-season and has not lived up to expectations. Mike Van Ryn, who was picked up in the Bryan McCabe trade, was playing really good hockey until he was run into the end boards, suffering a shoulder injury and concussion.
Vesa Toskala has had a tough time this season too. After having a great first season with Toronto last year, Toskala has taken a step backwards, and needs to regain his form if the Leafs are going to have any chance at the playoffs. Cujo has not impressed much either in limited action and could be replaced by Justin Pogge in the very near future.
Although the playoffs are still in reach, the Leafs need to jump ahead of teams like the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and the Pittsburgh Penguins just to get in. Brian Burke has recently said his goal is to attain as many draft picks as possible. So he will be trading some of his better players away and replacing them with call ups and prospects. Normally that makes your team worse in the short term, but it’s the right move for the future. They know they aren’t contending for anything this year. But they aren’t going to make the mistake of years past. The rebuilding process will continue under Brian Burke. Burke knows his team might have to struggle for a few seasons but he hopes it will pay off down the road.
By Mark Stewart
ProHockey-fans.com Toronto Maple Leafs Correspondent
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