The Leafs play in Atlanta tonight and there are some things you should know.
The big story tonight concerns Luke Schenn
The 20-year-old defenceman is coming off what coach Ron Wilson called his best game of the year. Schenn finished plus two in just 16:25 of ice time in Nashville and made a calm, poised pass in the game’s final moments to secure the Leafs 4-3 win.
Schenn is plus three in his last four games and plus two overall. While the Leafs have been largely down since Christmas, Schenn has been plus two.
That Schenn would be scratched three times this season would have been unthinkable prior to the season. That the move would be widely accepted to be on the late side would be even harder to fathom.
Schenn is averaging 15:15 a game. He has eclipsed the 20-minute mark once this season. Last season, he broke 20 minutes 56 different times.
The thing about any elite sport is that you spend your first year learning to play and that apprenticeship never stops. What happens simultaneously is an equally important process as the player grasps the enormity of being a professional.
As many players stumble over the second hurdle as the first. Learning the game means grasping your position. Being a pro means understanding your position on the team.
And so when the Leafs brought three new defenceman, Garnet Exelby, Mike Komisarek
and Francois Beauchemin onto the roster, they were bettering the blue line corps while limiting the influence of the player they hope will play 15 more years here. Not exactly an easy message to grasp.
Management had no choice. Besides, life as a lead hand in a sinking ship may not destroy a player, but it will often limit his horizons. That the Leafs haven only been within shouting distance of a playoff spot for a brief period is no indictment of Schenn. It would be if he was playing 24 minutes a night.
Now, Schenn’s burst of progress has come with Komisarek out with the ubiquitous upper body injury, but for the first time, he is reacting to his circumstance instead of trying to regain what he had last year.
They say that when you have a tree that isn’t growing, you check the light and the soil. If that doesn’t work, you drive a spike into the tree. It’s primitive, but it works. It seems to be working for Luke Schenn
Meanwhile, the Thrashers, a club hanging around the Eastern Conference playoff race has benefited from the dramatically improved play from former Leaf Nik Antropov.
Antropov has 12 goals and 38 points and his acquisition via free agency is said to have been at the urging of free agent to be Ilya Kovalchuk.
The Leafs dealt Antropov to the New York Rangers at the deadline. Antropov managed two goals and an assist in seven games before signing with the Thrash.
It took Antropov 18 regular season games to garner his first goal but he had eight by Christmas and had a streak of six goals in as many games.
The question in Atlanta as it is in every NHL city is what will Kovalchuk do? The Russian winger is the true prize of the free agency season. He is only 26 years old and has banked 325 goals and 610 points in 587 games.
Publicly his camp asserts he is only interested in playing In Atlanta or at home in Russia but rumours have surfaced of an offer from the Thrashers of $10 million a year for ten years that Kovalchuk turned down.
If that’s true, Thrashers GM Don Waddell will soon be searching for a new home for Kovalchuk.