The first step in the great leap forward was just a shuffle.
Wednesday, the Leafs acquired a hometown boy in Brad May from the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft. At the same time, they demoted Russian winger Nikolai Kulemin
“Brad will provide character, toughness, and he is a proven winner,” Burke said via press release. “We look forward to the veteran leadership that he will give our team.”
Tuesday night, Leafs coach Ron Wilson said he lacked the internal leadership that led to the team’s dreadful start and an eventual 4-2 home-ice loss to the Florida Panthers.
Now, for next to nothing, he has a little help.
May’s arrival solves as many problems for the Ducks as it does for the Leafs. The team is hard up against the salary cap and there was media speculation that the Ducks would be constrained by the cap should they reach down into the minors for more reinforcements.
May’s spot on the fourth line had been taken over by Todd Marchant, bumped from the second to the fourth line where he played with Ryan Carter and George Parros.
May had been in and out of the lineup and averaged just 6:21 in the 20 games for which he dressed. He had no goals and five assists and 28 penalty minutes.
At six-foot-one and 213 pounds, May is nobody’s heavyweight but he is considered a good dressing room presence.
Mostly, he is an example.
In rebuilding the Leafs, Burke has stressed the need for team toughness, both the mental and the physical brand.
The Leafs are fourth from the bottom in penalty minutes per game. That’s no indictment - Detroit sits second and they’re doing all right - but the May announcement carried with it an interesting element… the demotion of Kulemin to the Marlies.
Kulemin, a rookie, has infinitely more talent than May but he has struggled with the day-to-day rigors of adjusting to the NHL after playing all of his hockey in Europe. The 22-year-old had seven goals and seven assists in 40 games. If learning to play in the NHL is hard, learning in the American League is, in its way, even tougher. Players must adapt to a schedule in which games are packed into weekends. Air travel is rare and the continent is endless when viewed from a seat on the bus. Talented defenceman Anton Stralman was sent down in mid-December. Far from coddling their prospects, the Leafs are exposing them to the realities of life in the American league.
Neither move, of course, amounts to that much more than a line of agate in the transactions column. May is a good bet not to even be around next year. But in a dressing room light on leadership, he will be counted on to set a tone that reverberates long after he has passed into retirement, long after Nikolai Kulemin
has played his way back to the big club.