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Evaluating The Leafs At The Break

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Armistice in what has been a sometimes grisly Maple Leafs' season has arrived. The Leafs do not play again until Tuesday when they face the Wild in Minnesota.

The All-Star break gives us time to take stock of what has been. Here's a breakdown of the first leg of the season with an eye to what will unfold the rest of the way.

The record: Going into last night's game against Boston, the Maple Leafs stood at 17-22-8. That's a little deceiving. The Leafs have won three of their last 14 games and one of those wins came in overtime. The Leafs are on pace for a 73-point season. Last season, 73 points would have been good for 27th place in the league.

Where they sit in the draft: The draft is decided by a weighted lottery. The good news is there is only three points separating the Leafs and the second last team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The bad news is the Leafs are 11 points ahead of the New York Islanders who are staggeringly, incomprehensibly stinky- bad.

When things headed south: The Leafs had a winning record (14-13-06) when they came home from a killer road trip. The turning point was an 8-2 loss to Dallas 8-2 on Dec. 23. The club never really regained its impetus, never won two in a row and saw its balanced scoring dry up. The Leafs have averaged just under two goals a night since they came back from that fateful road trip.

An inability to score, of course, usually makes for something less than entertaining hockey. That problem has been compounded by the fact that the Leafs, curiously, score fewer goals on home ice. The road Leafs have so far outscored the home version 72-62. The problem, by the way, is common to losing teams. In the East, Florida, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and the Leafs have a home-to-road scoring deficit. You can choose snappier company.

The good stuff: 19-year-old Luke Schenn has emerged as the most impressive Leafs rookie in recent memory. Schenn has remarkable poise with the puck and when he leans on an opposing forward it feels as if you are trying to push through wet sandbags. "Wait until he gains 15 or 20 more pounds over the next two or three years," said veteran Curtis Joseph. "It's going to be scary." Schenn is logging just over 21 minutes of ice time an evening and despite spending his time against the opponent's best players is a mere minus-5.

"I have said this all year," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "We were going to play and develop the young players, (John) Mitchell, Schenn, (Mikhail) Grabovski. It's a process that we are moving forward with. We are going to be patient and make our young players better."

The process has provided some dividends besides Schenn's sterling play. Grabovski is on pace to a 20-goal player and he has consistently brought energy and dash to the lineup. Mitchell has asserted himself as an NHLer.

Wilson believes in using his minor league affiliate to school young prospects. To that end, he has sent down some of the team's best prospects: Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman and Nikolai Kulemin. Tlusty and Stralman played better after returning. Kulemin, a seven-goal scorer, is just back from an ankle injury.

More good stuff: Matt Stajan and Dominic Moore, pressed into frequent first line status, combined for 19 goals and solid defence. Defenceman Ian White, scratched for the first 11 games of the season, has played well. Rebounding from a terrible 2007-2009, Jason Blake is only one goal removed from last year's total of 15.

Lost in the rubble of the struggle has been Nik Hagman. Hagman has shown signs of tiring, (he has scored only twice this month) but every night he brings what he has. Though his season was derailed by concussions, Mike Van Ryn proved himself a canny defenceman on both sides of the centre line.

The struggle: Wilson is unimpressed with Jeremy William’s five goals in as many games. The Leafs coach wants to see a greater commitment to defence and more nightly consistency.

Pavel Kubina has scored eight goals, but his game probably isn't where it was last year. That said, he is a big, honest, player whom Wilson wanted for his San Jose Sharks team last year. Mentioned frequently in trade rumors, Tomas Kaberle retains the same virtues, great passing skills and the ability to log heavy ice time, and the same vices, occasionally grievous decisions in his own end.

Nik Antropov has been mired in a goalless slump for 14 games, but he remains a key contributor on a talent-starved team. Alexei Ponikarovsky has 14 goals.

Jeff Finger has shown himself to be a top-four defenceman but his courageous style and willingness to put himself in harm's way has knocked him out of 13 games.

What about the goaltending?
Funny thing. It's a lot easier to pinpoint a goalie's contribution to a winning team than a losing one. Statistically, the Leafs goaltending has been poor. Only the Atlanta Thrashers have a worse team goals against average than the Leafs but there is a reason they call it a team goals against average.

Curtis Joseph has had one good game. Vesa Toskala has riled Wilson by staying too far back in his net and at one point Wilson yanked him during a shootout.

Why they are losing?
Easy. The Maple Leafs, as constructed, are not a good team. Management has eschewed short-term solutions and that means plenty of pain in the short term. Had captain Mats Sundin, for example, been welcomed back, the Leafs would be exponentially better, maybe even in the race for the eighth playoff spot in the East.

Despite Wilson's pedigree as a skilled defensive coach, the Leafs are, as mentioned, second from the bottom in goals against. They have yet to win a period, let along a game, on intimidation. The Leafs are 12th in penalties but making them bigger and meaner is a priority for general manager Brian Burke. They don't have a true first line. While the team's power play clocks in at a very respectable 10th, their penalty killers, another traditional Wilson forte, are the second worst in the league. Only Tampa has fewer home wins. You already know about the patchy goaltending.

That's enough holes to sink any ship.

When do things things get better?
The NHL trade deadline is March 4. That's 41 days from today. Burke's success in exchanging mature talent for young players will go a long way in determining the length of the Leafs' rebuilding phase. That said, "you can't trade your way out of this," said Wilson. "You have to get players through the draft." The NHL draft is June 26 and 27 in Montreal and the top prizes are London Knight John Tavares and towering Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman. Either player would be fine.

How much time will this take? We are talking about a wait that began in 1967. The cavalry, relatively speaking, is just over the hill. What we do not yet know is the size of the hill.
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