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Blues-Leafs: post-game thoughts

Were the Leafs as focused as they needed to be, with a two-week vacation coming up—or, in the case of a few players, when they have a much more emotional and important Olympic competition coming up?

It’s interesting how things change. Earlier in their career, Eric Brewer and Paul Kariya were shoo-ins for any Team Canada roster. Kariya has always had a tremendous work ethic, but injuries and age seem to have caught up with him. Brewer is still a solid defenseman, but others have passed him on the Canadian depth chart, which demonstrates how many good young defensemen Canada has developed in recent years.

Things I liked last night:

• Kulemin jumping to set a good screen in front of Mason on a shot by Schenn in the second period.

• Oshie made a give away and then fought to back check and prevent a breakaway goal. The Leafs should watch that film and focus on the effort he made to make up for his mistake.

• Schenn is taking some shots from the point, and he looks confident blasting away, after scoring a couple of time in one game earlier on.

• We all know the Leafs have some speed—Stalberg, Kulemin and Sjostrom can all fly, but can they finish and do the other things they’ll need to do consistently to be solid NHL’ers/

Things I didn’t like so much:

 • Mitchell’s back pass which led to the rush creating the second Blues goal. On the same play, Phaneuf didn’t drive hard to impede Backes before. Backes went around the net. Kaberle and Mitchell compounded the problem by joining Phaneuf to chase the puck-carrier, leaving Oshie all alone to poke in the rebound.

• I asked in an earlier post, Does anyone miss Alexander Steen?. Well, it’s almost predictable that he would score last night. I can’t imagine the Leaf coaches were pleased with how the Steen goal (short-handed, two guys on him behind the net, two other guys skate by him and the puck) unfolded.

• Steen’s goal from behind the next wasn’t exactly the Gilmour wraparound but credit to him for making the play while the Leafs watched.

• I like Beauchemin a lot, but I don’t like that he is -15 this season. I see him on the ice for a lot of goals against. He seems to play hard and tough, doesn’t take a lot of bad penalties, but on a couple of occasions last night he appeared to make the wrong read. If there is a ‘better Beauchemin’, I hope we see it next season.

 Looking ahead, post-Olympic break

 If the Leafs don’t make another move the rest of this season (which seems unlikely) and can’t acquire a single titillating free agent over the course of the summer, here’s a question:
 Will Leaf fans be “satisfied” going into 2010-’11 with the following line up?



Kaberle and Beauchemin
Phaneuf and Schenn
Gunnarsson and Komisarek

Ponikarovsky, Bozak, Kessel
Stalberg, Hanson, Stempniak
Sjostrom, Wallin, Orr
Kulemin, Mitchell
Grabovski, Kadri

 We need to see a lot more from this team down the stretch (though it’s difficult to really assess a team if they’re just playing out the string) but there seems little doubt that Leaf fans are more enthused about this group than what the Leafs were putting on the ice just a month ago.

In part, it’s addition by subtraction. You just sense, as a fan, that the team was not going anywhere with certain guys in the line-up. It wasn’t that they weren’t good NHL players—they all were—rather, the particular combination just wasn’t ever going to work. (As an aside, I remember feeling that way with certain guys over the years. Greg Terrion and Dan Daoust, for example, were solid NHL players who may have been perfect third-line guys on good teams, but in the ‘80s, they weren’t guys who were going to make a bad Leaf team a lot better.)

So when you remove Toskala, whether you think he’s a good goalie or may play better elsewhere or not, no one was happy that he was in Toronto—Toskala first and foremost.

Blake was in the same category. He worked hard and did some good things over the past three seasons, but it never seemed to be a really good fit here. Mayers wanted out, and most would agree that, while he can contribute to a good team, he wasn’t of much use in Toronto. Hagman, a skill guy, was a poor man’s Kovalev—talented, inconsistent, but without the Kovalev upside.

Lots of Leaf fans liked Stajan as nice local kid, but a change of scenery may not hurt.

All in all, I sense most of Leaf nation is thrilled to have a real physical presence like Phaneuf in the fold, possibly for years to come. Sjostrom (again it’s really early to assess) appears to be a guy that can do something the Leafs haven’t done well for years—kill penalties. I have no idea how the tall kid defenseman (Aulie) may develop, but given what the Leafs gave up to Calgary, it will be a huge added bonus if he joins the top six on the back line over the next two or three seasons.

And of course, Giguerre has (and this may change, of course) already provided a calm presence in goal. He comes with championship experience and he should help make Gustavsson better.

My instincts suggest the Leafs should be improved next season on the back end, maybe even significantly, if the above players are still in place.

But without significant upgrades in terms of talent and experience, there are rough waters ahead. The 13 forwards on my list, as a group, may be a huge concern. There is a lot of unproven talent up front. One injury and I wonder who will score the goals needed to be competitive over an 82-game schedule.

Sooner than later, the Leafs need a firecracker up front. It doesn’t have to be a Gilmour, but at least someone who does more than make pretty passes and score once in a while.

On to the break.

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