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Leafs may have to copy Atlanta’s formula: winning without stars

Little things make a difference in a hockey game. Seconds after the Leafs made it 2-1 late in the second period off a fine play by Bozak, Gustavsson made a big save to keep the Leafs within one. Just prior to that, when it was 2-0, he made a great save on Afinogenov’s breakaway. He also made a brilliant save on another breakaway when the Leafs trailed 3-2, to keep Toronto in the game.

They’ll need exactly that kind of net-minding next season if they hope to “contend”.

Atlanta is an interesting franchise. They have made the playoffs once (and got swept) in their ten-year history, not including this season. They’ve had the same General Manager the entire time and he’s kept his job—despite having a ton of high draft picks and the team not breaking through as most of us would have expected by now.

We all know they traded Kovalchuk a few weeks ago, a deal, as I’ve said before, I actually like for Atlanta.  They are struggling a bit right now, but fighting hard to make the playoffs in the East without a star to rally around. But maybe that’s a good thing.

To their credit, two guys they acquired who weren’t exactly in high demand after last season have been somewhat re-born in Atlanta. We all know the long-suffering Nik Antropov and while I don’t hear anyone clamoring for him to return, he has certainly contributed significantly to the success the Thrashers have had- 65 points and a +17. Afinogenov, unwanted in Buffalo after years of dazzling promise then injury, is a minus 10 but has close to 60 points—pretty good on a low-scoring team. He took a high stick early from Colton Orr but played tough and was a dangerous offensive player for Atlanta.

Now, Atlanta has stockpiled a lot of those top draft choices—Kane, Bogosian, Little, along with Bergfors, the number one picked up in the Kovalchuk trade—and they are all emerging as solid NHL players, it seems. But the club has no major stars now that Kovalchuk is gone. Yet they compete hard and are well coached by former Maple Leaf John Anderson.

They have some other talent, for sure, in folks like Enstrom, but they are mostly a hard-working team that has to play their guts out to win on any given night.

That’s a model the Leafs may have to follow if they hope to have success in the next couple of years.


• The Leafs latest U.S. college free-agent signee, Brayden Irwin, will apparently play with the big club this week. I’m a bit surprised he won’t start out with the Marlies. There must be some management rationale for this approach. Perhaps the Marlies can’t afford a “leaning curve” adjustment to professional hockey when they are fighting for a playoff spot.

• I prefer what the Oilers, for example, are doing with Jordan Eberle. In terms of what he has “accomplished” (albeit in junior hockey) he certainly could be getting his feet wet with the last-place and going nowhere Oilers in the last few games of the regular season. But he went down and has played half a dozen games already with Springfield, looking for all the world like he can step in and help the struggling Oilers right now. But Edmonton wants him to develop slowly, get accustomed to the pro game (he actually played a few games in the AHL at the end of last season, too) before he takes the next step to the NHL—and I think that’s a wise decision.

• Caputi, who has been fairly quiet in recent games, won a puck battle and made a neat set-up late in the game, but it wasn’t converted. He had some hits and played the kind of game, especially what I saw in the third period, that he will need to show consistently next fall.

• Stalberg’s goals give hope that he will be that much more comfortable and confident next season. Hanson had his moments last night as well, but like Stalberg will need to show well going forward to be a regular as the Leafs get better and have more depth.

• I’ll say again what I’ve said many times about Kessel: he has lots of talent, obviously and blows hot and cold like most goal-scorers. But to be worth what the Leafs are paying him and what he is costing in terms of top draft choices, he will, over time, have to become a complete player. And we’ll only know if he will become that kind of leader when he plays in games that mean something down the road.

1 comment:

  1. Kessel does not have to become a more complete player to be worth it. The other option is for him to develop into a .6 GPG player (which he's been since the deadline, admittdely on a hot streak).

    Look at a guy like Heatley. He doesn't have any intangibles. Lazy skater, won't do puck battles, etc.

    If Kessel scores 45+ goals consistently he'll have been worth it.

    Unfortunately, I think he is going to be a 35+ goal player, which means he is only worth it if Hall/Seguin craps out.