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Stuck In The Middle

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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The old joke goes something like this.

Someone is having hard times. “Cheer up” a friend says, “it could be worse.”

It’s true. Things get worse.

You don’t know the length of a tunnel until you get through it and in the middle it looks dark as hell.

The Leafs are 8-11-3 and comfortably out of the playoffs with the season having rounded the quarter pole. They have been refashioned into the youngest team in the NHL with just three players over 30.

Undone by an inability to find stability at centre, the Leafs can’t score, especially on the road where they are 2-7-1. Overall, the Leafs have scored just over two goals (2.18) per game.

Tyler Bozak has endured a nightmarish season. He has but six points on three goals and as many assists. That makes Phil Kessel’s 10 goals seem absolutely miraculous. They have gotten some help from Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin who have both struck for seven goals.

Unlike years past where the Leafs were staggered by tidal waves of opposition goals, the club has gotten much better at keeping the puck out of their net.  The Leafs are 14th in goals against and while that is not great it is also decent.

So, two years to the day into Brian Burke’s remake, what we have is a young, stingy team that can’t buy a goal.

They are not terribly truculent, at least if you go by the penalty figures. The Leafs have the fourth-lowest total.

They have solid goaltending, but their defence, rated as one of the top in the league by club brass, has struggled to live up to that billing.

Help from the farm will be along but probably not until next season. Marcel Mueller, an intriguing free agent find by Burke has been slow to acclimatize to the North American game.

He got his first goal last week and is finding his way. Jerry D'Amigo has scored three times and is progressing in stops and starts. Nazem Kadri is already up, but is goalless with four assists in seven games. It is a measure of the Leafs desperate need for offence that Kadri has been given opportunities all over the lineup to make something happen.

Trades can drop from the skies,  but the player most often touted as a Leafs’ centre, Dallas’ Brad Richards probably won’t be until the February trade deadline. Richards will be around for the free agent sweepstakes, but with so many teams coveting a two-way veteran centre, it is ludicrous to suggest the Leafs path to Richards won’t be encumbered by waves of competition.

Two years in, the groundwork, the addition of Francois Allaire, the addition of European and college free agents, the upgrade in the Marlies, the mentoring of a solid management core including executives Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle as well as Marlies coach Dallas Eakins stand out as Burke’s accomplishments.

But for Leaf fans, the fear is that the middle of the tunnel could turn out to be the throat of a python. One place demands faith, the other a drastic escape plan.
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