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Striving to Stick with The Big Club

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The law of the jungle is taking hold in the plush confines of the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room.

In Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, Anton Stralman made his NHL regular season debut and acquitted himself quite nicely.

Thursday in Pittsburgh, another major building block in the Leafs future, Jiri Tlusty seems destined to make his first NHL appearance at the tender age of 19.

The back-to-back debuts of players who it is hoped, will one day be carried on the cover of the media guide, has been caused by three factors.

One, injuries. Bryan McCabe has an undisclosed injury that might force him out against the Pittsburgh Sidneys. The Leafs not only have Stralman ready, they have the player he displaced, Andy Wonzniewski.

Just for good measure, they summoned Staffan Kronwall. So if you are guessing there is a bit of overkill here, you’re right.

Second, the Leafs are losing. Although they remain eighth in the East, they have won one of their last five games, which, if you’ve been listening, isn’t considered near enough.

Third, they are developing a layer of organizational depth and will have more in a year when gifted two-way forward Nikolai Kulemin makes the trip from Russia.

The result is a dressing room and airplane that is slightly more crowded. You cannot  ignore what sits across the dinner table from you and for all but the core Leafs, that means the threat of displacement.

“We’re getting to a point where you start to have more options from your  minor league team and they start to push your players,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice.

“ Even if Jiri doesn’t get a hat trick tomorrow night, everyone in that room knows he’s a player in the NHL and he’s a viable option for our team.”

Likewise, Stralman did nothing do discourage the idea that his formidable skating and puckhandling skills will make him a long-time NHLer. The only question is when does he stick.

This, naturally enough, is no indictment of Wozniewski who has been all but blameless as the Leafs have surrendered the highest goals against, as well as goals for, in the league.  But McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina are playing at the pinnacle of their productive years and have the benefit of guaranteed contracts. They’re not going anywhere. If Wozniewski and Ian White are to fend Stralman off, they need to be better versions of themselves.

“The defence look at Stralman and there are things he can do that not a lot of other defenceman can do,” said Maurice. “It doesn’t mean that Andy Wozniewski looks at Stralman and says ‘Ive got to play Stralman’s game.’ He says to himself ‘I’ve got to play my game well enough to stay.

“It’s the same with  Jiri. He’s a different style of player than say a Chad Kilger, who is a physical player. But that means, what it is that you do, you need to bring to the table because their will be another option, another style and a good young player as well.”

Stalman, meanwhile, said his NHL debut was everything he hoped it would be.

“I was a  little bit nervous but it was so  much fun. “ The difference between the AHL and NHL game, he said, is enormous.

“It’s a lot faster. I played the exhibition game but this was one gear more. You can’t compare it to the AHL game, this is so much faster.“

Tlusty, meanwhile, has a goal and two assists and is plus-2 with the Marlies. The club’s first overall choice in 2006, Tlusty is, naturally enough, just glad to be there.

“It’s really nice to be here and be around guys from the NHL. It’s nice to be up,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll play. We’ll see what happens tomorrow night.”

The knee injury to Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood’s slow-to-heal groin injury and Mark Bell’s NHL suspension cleared the way for Tlusty. Now he gets his chance.

Kronwall, meanwhile, can credit at least a few day’s of NHL pay to a lap dog named Ernie.

He turns off his cell phone at night to discourage phone calls from his native Sweden. Unable to reach him, club officials left a message for Kronwall with the consierge of his apartment. When Kronwall headed out to give the dog his morning constitutional, he found the conscierge bearing glad tidings.

With another strong performance in Tuesday’s loss, Maurice seemed to be hinting that goalie Vesa Toskala was closer to be being given a run of games to play.

“I thought Vesa was really good last night,” he said.

And did that mean the search is over?

“Are we there yet?” he mused. “We’re on the road.”
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