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Rewarding Burke; Leafs’ pre-season line makes its mark

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Leafs, playing relaxed, are taking points away from teams who need them way more than do the Leafs.
That said, the culture of the team has indeed shifted since the beginning of the season. While the early-season Leafs played hard most nights, they were missing something, it seemed. It may have been goaltending, but it was also more than that.
It’s not to say they have found the answer, but it’s hard to deny the team is younger, looks faster and is playing generally smarter than they did in the first half of the season.
You have to believe the current, youthful Leafs are motivated to reward Brian Burke. How? Well, they know Burke faces significant scrutiny if the Bruins get the first or second overall pick as a result of the Kessel deal. Burke believed in Kessel enough to make the move and has stood by his decision publicly—even when it looked like the team may end up 30th overall, which won’t happen now.
Their current run of good play—if it leads to improved performance when it matters next season—may make the draft choice debate less relevant, in any event.

  • One reality of the first round of the NHL playoffs (my favorite hockey of the year, with every team laying out and upsets virtually certain) is that, a week or so after they start, eight more teams will be in the same boat as the Leafs—done for the year.

  • The play of the “college” line—Bozak, Stalberg and Hanson, gives Wilson some options next September. Bozak looked good between this pair, but has also looked awfully good between Kessel and Kulemin. The two best all-around Leaf forwards of late? Likely it’s Kulemin and Bozak. They’ll surely hit rough spots next season and then the challenge will be how they handle any adversity that comes their way. It’s rarely a smooth ride to the top.

  • Bozak, Stalberg and Hanson are far from “proven”, of course. And the more we focus on them, the higher, fair or not, the expectations will be come next season. But while they are all rookies, they are also all 24 years old, so they may well have the maturity to handle those increased expectations.

  • Interesting to hear commentators make a point of discussing Kessel’s second-period outward show of frustration (albeit subtle) with Grabovski not “shooting the puck” before the Exelby goal. That’s not something we usually see out of hockey players, though it’s certainly common in the world of soccer—from the youth level all the way to the pro game.

  • Mitchell being out on the ice in recent games with the Leafs protecting a one-goal lead late makes me think Wilson is seriously contemplating bringing him back next season. A few weeks ago, I was convinced Mitchell would be gone come September.

  • Kulemin is now +2 on the season, Schenn +5. A while back, I thought Schenn may be used as trade bait to bring in some offensive pop. But like a number of other young players, he is making strides and may yet become a cornerstone.

  • Those following the site know I’ve been talking up Kulemin for months now. It started with a hit here, a take away there, going to the front of the net on occasion. Throw in growing confidence and the obvious skill stuff and you have a guy who, if he stays dedicated after getting a contract this summer, may become an elite player.

  • Interesting that Phaneuf had 7 shots on net last night, after ongoing media musings about his lack of offensive productivity since arriving from Calgary. Overall, he’s a minus player so far with Toronto, but he has certainly helped the Leaf penalty-killing, as have Bozak and Sjostrom.

  • Gunnarsson is a healthy +12 in 39 games this season. It’s been a while since he was on the ice for an even-strength goal against. Thinking hopefully, how good can he be, I wonder?

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