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Lots Of Speed But Leafs Need More Size

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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There are few things more temporal than an NHL game.

The Leafs were barely dry from their showers as they boarded a plane for New York last night.  The memory of the club’s depressing 2-0 loss to Philadelphia was mercifully left on the ground.

The Leafs, of course, have managed a solid post trade deadline run. They are 10-6-3 since the break and that is a whole sight better than what they were doing before. Tonight they play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden at 7.p.m. The Leafs have two games to make up a two-point gap that separates them from Tampa Bay and Florida. The Rangers are in a pitched race to catch Boston or Philly for a spot in the East playoffs.

But the loss to Philadelphia in a game that produced boos from some of the most patient fans in all of sport,  should provoke an alarm that carries all the way to Manhattan.

It’s wonderful that the Leafs have, in the words of Cliff Fletcher, a defence better than the one the Carolina Hurricanes rode to the Stanley Cup in 2006.

And it’s grand that the team’s goaltending looks nicely salted away with Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s spectacular rebound and the ascension of Jonas Gustavsson, the Leafs candidate for the Masterton Trophy for perseverance.

But anyone who thinks the Maple Leafs, as constituted, are a lock for the playoffs, even in the weak-kneed Eastern Conference hasn’t been watching lately.

The Leafs offence is out of balance. They have speed aplenty. They have Phil Kessel, who is just ‘stupid fast. ‘ They have Tyler Bozak who is ‘sneaky fast,’ and Viktor Stalberg who is ‘straight line and around the net fast.’ They have Mikael Grabovski who is ‘where is he going fast?’  They have Nikolai Kulemin who is ‘impossible to knock off his feet fast,’ and Freddie Sjostrom who is ‘perfect penalty killer fast.’  When Nazem Kadri gets here, he will bring ‘dazzling rookie fast.’

Fast they’ve got.

What they haven’t got is big. Christian Hanson is six-foot-three but still trying to find his way. He is goalless in 29 games which is not encouraging.

Wayne Primeau probably won’t be back.  Luca Caputi and Brayden Irwin will need a good dose of the Marlies.

When Ron Wilson deploys the calloused though willing hands of Colton Orr to homestead the opposition net on the power play, as he did against Philly, you know you need help.

What the Leafs are crying for to be a consistent threat, not a late season confection, is size they can use to grind down their opponents. Next year, they need to spend more time being the hammer and less time being the nail. Speed beats slow. Big and fast trumps speed.

The job of making the Leafs respectable is pretty well complete. That and $1.50 will get you a coffee at Tim’s.

Respectable will get old, especially if it is punctuated by dreadful nights like Tuesday where no player has the size and willingness to battle Chris Pronger all night. You can’t blame the fast guys for not doing that. Fast guys never do that. Big guys do that. Big, fast guys who do that own their own islands.

What the Leafs need are more island owners.

There is a candidate. Raffi Torres is a Toronto kid and he would definitely lend some jam to the second unit. Torres is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. Scan the list of unrestricted free agents after Torres and it becomes pretty thin gruel.

Like everyone else, I await what Brian Burke has in store for this off-season.  Fifty per cent of the questions on my chats are about what he has in mind. Oddly, he has yet to tell me.

No one needs to remind Burke that his club needs to get bigger or more competitive. But without a meaningful draft choice and without a viable trade chip except for Tomas Kaberle, fixing the imbalance is going to be, you know, tough.
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