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Looking At Some High Points From '08-09

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Three more games.

Or, if you like, six more sleeps. Fitful sleeps.

The last five days of the Maple Leafs season unfold this week with the final road game Tuesday in New Jersey against the most-excellent Devils.

Wednesday, the Leafs play Buffalo who may or may not be ousted from the playoffs by then. Buffalo plays Detroit, Monday and may not be eliminated by the time the two teams meet at midweek, but there’s not much fun in eliminating anyone but Montreal or Ottawa. The Senators, the competition for Saturday’s finale, have long since been whacked out of the post-season so don’t look for any extra pleasure there.

So what to celebrate in a campaign in which the Leafs finished out of the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, the longest such dry spell in the team’s 82 year history?

Well, nobody died.

This is the franchise of Bill Barilko, remember? The last game Tim Horton played was at Maple Leafs Gardens. Bad things happen, but nothing that bad happened all year and surely that is good news. I know, it makes for a lousy slogan: The Leafs: At Least Nobody Died, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.

But wait, as Kenny from ShamWow likes to say, there’s more. Ten bright spots. Count them if you like..

First, several players have already or will soon post high-water marks. Alexei Ponikarvovsky’s 23 goals are two above his career-best. Matt Stajan’s 53 points are his best yet and while Pavel Kubina needs three more goals to boast his season high to 17, his nine power play markers reflect his most productive seasons of the man advantage.

Second, the Leafs hired one of the game’s elite coaches in Ron Wilson. Then they landed their first and only choice for General Manager, Brian Burke. Those two were added to a solid core that included consultant Cliff Fletcher and the imminently credible Joe Nieuwendyk as well as Jeff Jackson and the hard working Dallas Eakins. If the on-ice team was as strong as the group in the press-box, they would be selling playoff tickets right now.

Third, the Leafs hit a home run when they traded up to land Luke Schenn. Poised beyond his years, Schenn will be capable of monster minutes and while his play the last few nights has been uneven, there is no doubt he will be a long-time top-four NHLer.

Fourth, some off-season moves paid off. Nik Hagman was beset by injuries but he still scored 20 goals. Mikhail Grabovski, obtained for a second rounder remember, proved himself an NHLer. He had 19 goals and constant jump. Nikolai Kulemin showed more than enough, 15 goals and plenty of speed, to advance the notion that he is a top nine player. Defenceman Jeff Finger was minus-12 but he led the team in blocked shots and showed up for work every day.

Fifth: Veteran Ian White probably had the best season of any Leaf, but you can make a similar argument for Jason Blake, who scored 25 times. Still more players, Phil Oreskovic and John Mitchell, look ready to assume bigger roles next year.

Sixth, the Leafs have padded their defence. Jonas Frogren was playing an NHL-calibre game before a knee injury scuttled his season. Frogren and Mike Van Ryn, also lost for the season to injury, showed that if healthy they both could contribute.

Seventh, The Leafs have invested in low risk, potentially high yield returns in U.S. Collegians Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson. If one or both work out, the Leafs have a windfall. Neither player cost draft picks.

Eighth, by adding material to their defence and two more second round draft choices garnered in exchange for Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore, Burke has given himself  flexibility should he wish to trade Kubina or Tomas Kaberle.

Ninth, Next year’s Leaf team will not be burdened with the imminent departure of the immensely popular Mats Sundin. Sundin’s teary goodbye was the highlight of the season. Curtis Joseph’s relief stoning Washington was a satisfying second.

Tenth, Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour were given emotional nights with the honouring of their sweaters.

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