A few quick comments on the game in Florida…
-I tend to discount the first game after the Christmas break. We’re expecting guys to be sharp but most of these games are pretty sloppy and this one certainly was. The Panthers gave the puck away a ton. The Leafs often carried the play but had their own coverage and turnover issues. Florida is not a super-talented team and were missing Weiss, but I can’t imagine that they’ve played that poorly too often this season—otherwise they wouldn’t be where they are in the Eastern Conference standings.
-Did you like that poke-check save by Gustavsson on the two-on-one while the Leafs were on the power play in the third period? The Leafs came right back and scored to make it 4-3. It was a game-changer at the time and gave the Leafs a chance at another comeback win. (Both goals he gave up came off odd deflections…hard to fault him on those.)
-I know we’ve said this before, but can Grabovski’s two-goal night be a trigger for some welcome production from the talented center, who is due for some offensive breaks?
-I honestly thought Theodore was finished years ago. After his superlative early-career work (and MVP) with the Habs, it just seems as though he never found that consistent groove in his game. He has bounced around but appears, for now, to have found a home in Florida. He certainly made some big saves against the Leafs when the game was in doubt.
Right off the top, I realize that, to some Leaf fans, Brian Burke can do no wrong. I understand that. He has absolutely improved this team after a disastrous stretch where the Leafs went from being a perennial (and serious) contender for many years under Pat Quinn to a less than mediocre team for as many years after he lost the GM portfolio.
Fans love Burke’s his bluster, his bravado and some think pretty much every move he makes is pure genius.
I’m not of that school of thought, but those who drop by here regularly know that I respect Burke as a good hockey man, just not as someone who is necessarily head and shoulders above many other outstanding hockey GM’s who have his credentials—and maybe even then some. Holland, Poile, Tallon, Lombardi, Lamoriello (setting aside his penchant for firing coaches and the Kovalchuk signing in an otherwise brilliant career), Chiarelli and Doug Wilson are some of the other current GM’s I believe have had an impressive NHL career as GM’s.
Burke has built, as I’ve mentioned here many times, a young, fast and deep talent pool in Toronto and that’s all to the good. How much more he will be able to do to put the team in a position to contend for a Cup only time will tell. But now in his fourth year at the helm, he has brought to the team to respectability and one that is very entertaining most nights- even when they fall behind early and are scrambling around a bit.
We all know he has made major moves in his time here, the most obvious perhaps being the trades for Kessel and of course Phaneuf/Aulie. The Kessel deal will always be a part of Leaf lore (and of much debate), given the Bruins won a Cup last season with young Seguin and the impression the young defenseman, Hamilton (the other big part of the deal), is making in junior hockey this season. But my sense from the many comments posted on this site is that most Leaf fans are thrilled with Kessel and would not un-do that deal.
The Phaenuf/Aulie trade was a stunner and is paying huge dividends for the Leafs—and likely will for years to come. (To be fair, I should point out that Ian White, who went to the Flames in that transaction and has now landed in Detroit, is a team-leading plus 24 so far this season, so the Leafs didn’t exactly give up a bum…)
For all the other deals and acquisitions, large and small, there is one that I am wondering if the Leafs will (though never publicly) some day regret. And that is the trade of Kris Versteeg last season to the Flyers. In return, you will recall that Toronto received a first-round draft choice (which turned out to be Stuart Pearcy, a talented junior player) and third-rounder (Josh Leivo).
By all accounts those picks could be fine NHL players some day. And Burke certainly got more from the Flyers (that first and third) than Philly did in sending Versteeg to the Panthers (Philadelphia received a second and a third) this past summer.
My question is: will the picks the Leafs grabbed for Versteeg be ready to contribute as he could have, by the time the Leafs are ready for a Cup run at say, the end of the 2013 season? Those young men will be 20, and Versteeg will be in his prime, turning 27 in May of that year.
Versteeg is a rare player. I say that because, as I write this, he is 25 and is now already with his 5th NHL organization. He was drafted by the Bruins but traded to Chicago before he ever played in Beantown. He was a “minor” star, to borrow Seinfeld reference, with the Hawks. There, he was a significant role player, an important third-line-type guy who helped them win their Cup in the spring of 2010.
Yet, he has bounced around since. The Hawks had to move some players (and payroll) and Versteeg was one of the guys who had to leave Chicago. He cost the Leafs only Viktor Stalberg, who has seemingly had only a marginal impact in Chicago.
For his part, the versatile Versteeg has continued his nomadic NHL existence.
He’s already played 50 playoff games in his career. Again, a Cup on his resume, all those playoff games and five NHL teams—all by the age of 25. Why the guy has moved so often is a mystery to me, but he didn’t seem to be a fit here for what Burke and Wilson were looking for.
For those who may not be following his current progress, Vertseeg has put up some nice numbers with the Panthers this season. By the end of Tuesday night’s game against the Leafs, he had scored 17 goals with 38 points overall. As surprisingly, he is a plus 15. Against the Leafs, he was caught running around on Phaneuf’s marker, but also scored one himself and had some great opportunities to score while killing penalties. (Those simple "numbers" don’t always tell the full story, but they suggest that he is certainly contributing significantly to the rather stunning turnaround for the Panthers under first-year coach Kevin Dineen so far this season.)
Recognizing the “fit” issue in Toronto, I just wonder if the Leafs will ever quietly wish they had a guy just like Versteeg—definitely an active and energetic “top-9” forward, maybe more than that—when they are ready to challenge for the Cup. He plays the game with an edge, kills penalties, can score, and has invaluable playoff experience.
Sounds like precisely the kind of player they will be seeking in a trade someday—and someone they already had right in front of them.