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Looking Towards The Possibilities...

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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For the legion of Maple Leaf fans, watching another team venture deep into the playoffs is like watching a stranger eat your supper.

The Leafs host the Flyers Tuesday in their last home date. They jet to New York to play the New York Rangers on Wednesday then close the season in Montreal on Saturday,

The next three games carry an importance that could last a generation. The Leafs trail the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lighting by just two points. Moving past one, or even both of them, should mean the Boston Bruins don’t harvest either Taylor Hall or Tyler Sequin from the Phil Kessel trade. While GM Brian Burke remains sanguine on the possibility, he may be the only one.

But the terms of the trade are irrevocable and while the Leafs could darken the Bruins prospects, their time would be better spent brightening their own.

It is a fabulously intriguing week. The Canadiens are fending off the Flyers who are in turn fending off the Bruins and Rangers. If you can’t get in the party, scuttle the people who can.

There’s usually not much consolation when you fail to make the playoffs for five seasons in a row, especially when that streak is the longest in the history of one of the league’s most venerable franchises.

So let’s start the conversation with a dose of reality.

The Leafs have a good way to go before they can muster a compelling argument for the post-season. They are a dozen points out and that is after a dizzying month of March.

There is no guarantee that Mike Komisarek won’t press as badly in his second year in Toronto as in his first or that Mikael Grabovski won’t waste his great speed by consistently missing the play or that Dion Phaneuf’s goalless streak won’t extend into eternity.

Nor is there any written assurance the progress enjoyed by Tyler Bozak and Viktor Stalberg won’t inexplicably atrophy or that Jonas Gustavsson’s unshakeable confidence won’t disappear under similarly mysterious circumstances.

Vesa Toskala was once considered a sure bet in goal. So was the unlamented Andrew Raycroft.

And while we are at it, the forwards are small, John Mitchell hasn’t shown he belongs and there are suspicions that Dion Phaneuf might not have the game or the presence to wear the Captain’s C. There seems to be precious little material to barter for a top-six forward.

But I will tell you something else you need to consider.

For the first time in five years, there is amazing possibility here.

In one season, Burke has imported a player in Phil Kessel who could soon be a 40-goal scorer. Kessel is by far the best forward in the post-Sundin era. He could be a pillar.

He has landed a goalie in Jonas Gustavsson with the size, athletic ability and coachability to be among the league’s top 10. He acquired the services of the most influential goalie coach in the game’s history in Francois Allaire and a steady veteran in Jean-Sebastien Giguere to tutor the kid. Gustavsson could be a pillar.

He traded for Dion Phaneuf, who has logged monster minutes and looked quite at home, even if he has not scored. Potential pillar.

He paid nothing but cash to acquire a player in Tyler Bozak who is anchoring the number one line. Bozak has 26 points in only 31 games played. For what it’s worth, that’s a clip that would result in 68 points over a full year. More importantly, he has provided Kessel with a perfect puck distributor. Perhaps another pillar.

He has unearthed hungry kids, Luca Caputi and Brendan Irwin.
Wilson meanwhile has allotted ice time with the kind of unrelenting meritocracy.

Luke Schenn, described as the heart of the franchise a year before, had to deal with diminished ice time upon the arrival of Francois Beauchemin and Komisarek. Wilson was unswerving with Schenn who has lately responded with some of his best play. Schenn played a season high 25 minutes in Saturday’s overtime loss to Boston. He is 20-years-old.
Few have attributed Nikolai Kulemin’s terrific play to an agonizing early season in which Wilson scratched him four times. Now he is a 20-minute man left wing.

The one signature element in a succesful team is the common vision of the coach and manager. The Islanders had Bill Torrey and Al Arbour. The mighty Oilers had Glen Sather and himself. The Canadiens were guided by Sam Pollock and coached by the relentless Scotty Bowman.
You might win a Stanley Cup with fractured leadership, witness Neil Smith and Mike Keenan in New York but you had better enjoy the parade.

This season has proven that simpatico can produce spectacular change. The results can only fully be assessed in retrospect but the daily rushes, as they say in the movie business, have been ever-improving.

It comes down to this. I don’t know if Brian Burke did the right thing in dealing two firsts and a second for Kessel. I think Kessel needs to move the puck better. I’m not sure his conditioning is up to par.

I don’t know that Wilson did the right thing in calling out Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle has been a good soldier and with a trade seemingly on the horizon, he could have spared Kaberle the media inquisition that followed a story about an alleged spat between the two.

But I believe the Leafs will look better still after a draft-day deal. And I know that being just a kid Nazem Kadri might arrive in Toronto with the correct blend of humility and aggressiveness just a bit off. And if he does, I know what Wilson will do.

And I know that Phaneuf will be eager to establish his leadership by walking the line between management and rank and file.

Look, I have yet to meet the perfect person or the person whose body of work does not contain grievous errors. Cliff Fletcher, the father of the Doug Gilmour trade, traded a rookie named Brett Hull to St. Louis.

The players will come and go. So will the mistakes and the masterstrokes. But the most tangible grip a team has is its management.
And this I believe most all. The two masters of the great reconstruction have proven themselves worthy of the task.

Author: Mike Ulmer | Mapleleafs.commentator

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