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Questions The Leafs Must Answer

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

The Buffalo Sabres beat the Leafs 2-1 Friday night to even Toronto’s preseason record at 2-2  but from the press box what you really see is a choice.

In these personnel decisions, the Leafs have to choose how fast they want to be.

I know what you are thinking. Why wouldn’t you want to be fast?

Well, fast is a quality. So is experience, the much trumpeted truculence and good judgement.
Size is nice. So is menace, character and experience.

Is faster better? You decide.

1. Left wing, first line. I have beaten this drum before. Nikolai Kulemin is the Leafs’ most complete forward. He creates turnovers, kills penalties and dominates the boards. He is a superb hockey player and he is on a terrific second line. Kulemin is faster than the current left winger, Joffrey Lupul. Do you flip Kulemin and Lupul and if you do, have you wrecked the chemistry of the two top lines?

2. Defence: The race is between Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson for the sixth spot. A slimmed down Komisarek has impressed but Gunnarsson is a better skater who brings more speed but a less imposing presence around his own net.

3. Defence: How much did the Anaheim Ducks want to unload Joffrey Lupul’s contract? Enough to ship Lupul to the Leafs with Jake Gardiner, maybe the best skating Leafs defenceman of the last generation. The Leafs have the luxury of returning Gardiner to the Marlies and while there has been little traffic in front of goalie James Reimer, nothing Gardiner has done in training camp would suggest he is not NHL ready.

4. Fourth line: Do the Leafs choose to upgrade their speed on the fourth line by keeping Jay Rosehill  over Colton Orr?  Orr is a more seasoned fighter. Rosehill would bump up the speed.

5. Third line: Matt  Lombardi or Tyler Bozak. Bozak is entering what amounts to his sophomore season in the NHL and should continue to progress into a good NHL player. But assuming Lombardi completes his recovery from concussion he will bring one of the NHLs best skaters into a lineup already brimming with speed.

6. Fourth line: Do the Leafs go tough-guy free and depend on the convalescing Mike Brown against select opponents, the better to deploy more versatile players in Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce?

The Leafs fell behind 1-0 in the first when Dion Phaneuf put a pass a few feet behind Keith Aulie at the side boards. Aulie tried to kick it to his stick but his size 12s propelled the puck toward the crease where Corey Tropp put it past Reimer.

John-Michael Liles did the legwork on the second period equalizer. Liles grabbed a loose puck and drove toward the Sabres goal. Phil Kessel arrived the moment the puck did and he slid it past Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

Jason Pominville netted the winner with a bit over seven minutes left when a bouncing puck found him beside Reimer on a Buffalo power play. Miller preserved the win with a standout arm save on Lupul a few moments later.

Notes: An interesting moment in the third period when Dion Phaneuf was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for making contact with the head of Buffalo centre Michael Ryan. The hit looked like a textbook open ice hit. While supportive of the move to protect players from head shots, Phaneuf said he was not going to alter his on-ice approach. “I have never been suspended for going for a player’s head. I’m not going to hesitate to make an open-ice hit.”…Playing with Darryl Boyce and Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri had another good night for the Leafs. Kadri finished plus one in 13 minutes of action and has been the Leafs most noticeable forward in the preseason. ..Leafs coach Ron Wilson admits Gardiner has exceeded his expectations. “He has been a lot better than I expected him to be. His confidence has grown. I knew he could skate but he is really putting heat on the other defencemen.” Gardiner played nearly 22 minutes, took four shots and blocked three more. He worked with Cody Franson most of the night. In his first game against his longtime teammates, Tim Connolly played 16 minutes, did not muster a shot and finished minus-1. “Considering he missed practice yesterday, I think he (Connolly) is only going to get better,” Wilson said. The Leafs travel to Buffalo for another go at the Sabres on Saturday. …As he sometimes does, Wilson took issue with the description of the Lupul-Connolly-Kessel line as the number one unit. He has a point. Mikhail Grabovski led the Leafs’ forwards with 22:55 in ice time. The next busiest forward was Kulemin with 19:24.
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