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Are Players Better Once They Leave Leafs?

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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You hear a lot of things when you follow the Toronto Maple Leafs. You hear even more when you work for them.

The one I get most often is the Leafs’ curse. It goes something like this: players always improve after they leave the Maple Leafs.

The theory is very malleable by the way. There is a Flyers curse and a Rangers curse and a Boston curse.

Tonight, the Leafs play the Thrashers in Atlanta. There they will find Nik Antropov, a genial giant of a  man who played nine seasons for the Leafs and whose favourite dressing room habit was to call for the attention of the folically  unfortunate Matt Stajan then run this fingers through his own incredibly thick hair.

Nik has 22 goals this season. The Leafs are looking for a big, number one center with good hands. That description could fit Nik Antropov nicely. Therefore trading Antropov for a second rounder at the deadline last year at the deadline seems a mistake.

It’s never quite that simple. What the Leafs were really getting rid off was a big player who didn’t care to use his body, a player with a poor playoff record who had undergone surgery on both knees.  It’s not that Antropov was a bad player, far from it, but he was a longstanding member of a longstanding losing team and as a free agent he would be asking for a salary management decided could best be directed elsewhere.

And while Antropov has scored 22 goals for the Thrash this season, he had 26, 21 and 18 goal seasons for the Leafs. They made a choice and the player they let go is enjoying a good season. Win-win.

It’s an identical story with Alexei Ponikarovsky, swapped to Pittsburgh for prospect Luca Caputi.
Alex Steen, nicely ensconced with the Blues has delivered identical production in St. Louis, 27 goals in 120 games, than in Toronto, 50 goals in 253 games.

Scott Clemmensen, terrific against the Leafs Tuesday, is the same steady backup he has been everywhere he worked.

Now, Lee Stempniak, drawing raves in Phoenix, has scored nine goals in 10 games.  He had 30 goals in 123 Leaf games.  No question he is far more proficient in Phoenix.

Stempniak is fortunate to be on fire in the final days of his contract and since he never worked out as a Leaf, it’s really no mystery they dispatched him to Phoenix.

The list goes on. Bryan McCabe, prominent in the Panthers win had 80 points in his last two seasons here and 77 points in his two seasons in Florida. He is exactly the same player, and I leave it to you to sift out the meaning in that.

There is some wisdom in the notion that it takes years to appraise a trade. Mikhail Grabovski looked like a steal when he scored 20 goals last season after coming to the Leafs from Montreal for a second rounder. This season, Grabovski has scored just nine goals. If the deal was a win for the Leafs last year, is it a loss now?

In retrospect, some deals are impossible to defend. Tuukka Rask to Boston for Andrew Raycroft was a disaster. Raycroft is in Vancouver, Rask is starring in Boston and Raycroft successor, Vesa Toskala flopped here. That the Leafs thought they had a superior prospect in Justin Pogge, now a minor leaguer, hurts even more.

But Raycroft was cooked in Toronto and while he has rebounded nicely in very limited minutes in Vancouver, the Leafs couldn’t very well demote an ineffective starting goalie into a scrub without collateral damage in the dressing room.

Raycroft had to go. The problem was, the Leafs forked over a first and second rounder to make it happen.

It was a disastrous deal.  No question. But that’s the game and thank goodness it is.  If no one looses, no one wins. Consider that next season, when Dion Phaneuf steps up to the microphone.
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