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Keeping Stalberg, Bozak & Hanson In NHL Makes Sense

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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This is not the time for Ron Wilson and the Maple Leafs to take unnecessary gambles.

It’s not like they haven’t played a few wild cards already, what with swapping two first-rounders and a second for Phil Kessel and signing a Swedish goalie who hasn’t played a minute in the NHL.

There’s no doubt that the Leafs need an injection of speed, youth and vitality into their forward corps, even with Kessel at 21 set to arrive in November.

Nazem Kadri, superb as he has been in the pre-season, is too young and too slight to stick.
Jiri Tlusty has struggled. Richard Wallin is 29 and playing out of position on the wing.

Here’s the thing about gambling. It’s only a gamble if you have other viable alternatives. The Leafs do not. That’s why they have to graft the line of Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson onto the lineup for opening night next Thursday.

Stalberg, Hanson and Bozak, use any acronym that fits, have to play. Right now.

They aren’t kids.  All three are five years older than the 18-year-old Kadri.

They have nice chemistry; each one played the game at an American university last season. Stalberg is from the University of Vermont. Hanson is a Notre Dame alumni, and Bozak, a Regina native, played at Denver.

All three have shown enough in pre-season to justify their promotion. Bozak and Stalberg are both superb skaters and Hanson isn’t that far behind. Folding them into the lineup would supercharge the Leaf attack and their speed would help obscure their defensive mistakes.

There is no gamble here. Tlusty, Lee Stempniak, Nikolai Kulemin, Kadri, Rickard Wallin and Jason Allison are the forwards who would be shunted aside in the following lineup.

First line: Niklas Hagman-Mikhail Grabovski-Jason Blake.

Second line: Viktor Stalberg-Tyler Bozak-Christian Hanson.

Third line: Alexei Ponikarovsky-John Mitchell-Matt Stajan.

Fourth line: Colton Orr-Wayne Primeau-Jamal Mayers.

Extra forwards: Kulemin, Wallin, Tlusty.

Throughout the summer, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke said the veterans outplayed by the kids will be sent to the Marlies. Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson have done more than Stempniak, Tlusty and Allison whose tryout would be allowed to expire.

And what are Wilson’s options? Despite the heartening off-season, this is not a lineup choked with depth. Veterans Primeau, Blake, Ponikarovsky and Mayers and a seasoned blue line will provide plenty of know-how. There is room for youth without skewering the team vibe toward Romper Room.

The truth is, to chart a new successful path the Leafs must continue to develop young talent and Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson are the most NHL ready young players they have.

You need look no further than the remarkable evolution of Luke Schenn last season to recognize how fast- tracking the right player into the NHL can dramatically change that player’s trajectory.

And the risk? None, really. These are men, not kids, so if poor play leads to a demotion to the Marlies, it’s a lesson well-learned.

Putting Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson together on the second line next Thursday against the Canadiens isn’t a gamble it all.

It’s just the smart thing to do.
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