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Ulmer: Five Things I Would Do...

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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This is it, Maple Leaf fans.

The bottom of the trough.

Last place at least until Saturday night when the Leafs host the Caps.

It has taken no shortage of ingenuity to get here. That was illustrated Thursday in the form of a blown three goal-lead and a last-second goal that left the Leafs with 12 points in 20 games.

Pick a reason: The sophomore slumps of Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski; sloppy patches of goaltending from Vesa Toskala; a startling freefall from rookie Jonas Gustavsson who went from ready to assume the netminding job to absolutely, unfathomably out of his death in the span of a week.

Bad defence, lax offence, poor special teams, Jason Blake’s two goals. You don’t have to look far.

So where do the Leafs go from here?  Here are five suggestions.

1.    Don’t trade anyone right now. There are only a handful of players a rival GM would covet from the Maple Leafs. They are Phil Kessel, Ian White, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn and perhaps Alexei Ponikarovsky. Kessel is your cornerstone. White is your most competitive player. Kaberle is your best offensive player and Schenn is your future.  There is no longer any argument to be made for finishing last. If he continues his strong play and is willing to move, Kaberle might, might yield a first round draft choice at the deadline. If the Leafs are out of contention (I know, look at the standings), Ponikarovsky might make a good rental for someone. Getting rid of the other three is unthinkable.

2.    Make Gustavsson your number one goalie. That doesn’t mean playing him. If fact, as poorly as he has played in the last two games, I would not play him. But I would make returning him to the crease ready to assume the number one job my team-wide first priority. I
wouldn’t care if the Leafs scored even fewer goals because they lined up all five guys at their own blue line. I wouldn’t care if Francois Allaire spent every waking moment thinking or working with Gustavsson. This guy is as big a cornerstone as Kessel. The Leafs could lose 1-0 a dozen nights in a row. Gustavsson has to get his confidence back.

3.    Brian Burke can send whoever he likes to the minors but here are the two players he should bring up: Jonas Frogren and Ben Ondrus. Neither of them has taken a backward step in their lives. If the airlift needs to be bigger, consider Ryan Hamilton, a long-time minor leaguer who deserves a shot. Leave Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Victor Stalberg with the Marlies where they can develop at their own pace and gain a new appreciation for what it takes to stay in the NHL.

4.    Players, management and fans need to avoid worrying about Boston having the first overall draft choice. It is done. Where the Bruins draft should have no impact on how the Leafs play. Phil Kessel has proven himself a wonderful player. He is 22 years old. Everyone needs to let it go.

5.    Re-invest in Europe and the US College scene again. The Leafs thought their window of opportunities for cheap free agent signings would close as their team got better. It didn’t work out that way. Suddenly, the Leafs have the kind of shot gunned roster attractive to free agents looking for opportunities.  That second wave of signees can mature with the Marlies while players such as Bozak and Hanson make their initial steps on the NHL stage.

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