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Ulmer: Leafs Counting On Young Players

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
“We’ll do the list,” Paul Maurice announced after the morning skate, Tuesday.

Nik Antropov, out serving the second game of a three-game suspension.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, out for another three weeks with a sore shoulder even though he did practice gingerly.

Bryan McCabe, shooting for the weekend or perhaps earlier while fighting the effects of a broken left wrist.

John Pohl, high ankle sprain. Best case scenario, at least another month.

Darryl Boyce will have shoulder surgery and is out indefinitely.

Alex Steen. A few more days thanks to an injured shoulder.

Mark Bell is out for several more weeks as he recovers from a broken bone in his face.

Got a kid you think has promise. Slap a Marlies uniform on him and wait a while.

With the season down to its final 28 games and a playoff spot a glimmering long shot, the Maple Leafs have been gifted with a long list of injuries.

Gifted because they have no alternative but to call the kids up and see what they’ve got.

Robbie Earl played his first game in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Ottawa. So far so good.

Rookie Anton Stralman is a regular on the Leafs defence, playing beside the towering Hal Gill. Jiri Tlusty is taking a turn on Mats Sundin’s wing and now has 30 NHL games under his belt. Kris Newbury has played 10 games this year.  Ben Ondrus has gotten into two and both have stalls, albeit temporarily, at Air Canada Centre.

The young players bring a breath of energy, even desperation. The Leafs win over Ottawa Saturday was probably their most convincing win since they beat Atlanta in mid-December.

“You see the excitement in the guys eyes and see how hungry the new guys are to get into their first game or get back to the NHL level,” said Boyd Devereaux. You can’t help but feel that as players, especially when you get into February and you might be experiencing a few blahs. It’s a great pick-me-up.”

At best, it’s an exchange, no more so than on the blue line where the six-foot-seven Gill serves as the sun for Stralman’s wayward orbit.

“He’s a big guy and he’s always in the right position,” said the 21-year-old Stralman. “That means I can rush more.”

Skating in his 10th NHL campaign, Gill is absolutely content to let Stralman wheel.

“I try to give him that leash to go out and not worry about defence too much,” said Gill, “but he’s played really solid defensively as well.”

The young player, meanwhile, craves acceptance. When a Mats Sundin welcomes and tutors a Jiri Tlusty, who can argue the kid doesn’t belong.

“If older guys support you, it’s so much better than if the older guys don’t talk to you. I talk to Mats all the time and he helps me out.” Tlusty said.

Maurice believes no meaningful assessment about a player’s standing in the league until he has played 100 NHL games.

That said he often recognizes a tendency for players, once they have a taste of the league, to stop doing the tasks they eagerly performed once inserted into the lineup. The problem, Maurice said, is the players figure they have the basics mastered and decide to dramatically expand their repertoire. But the tolerance for errors is radically higher for established players.

“There are players you can see, they’ve had their two or three weeks and they’re starting to turn the puck over and they are not able to sustain it. For some guys, you start to see a bit of a slip.”

Earl, meanwhile, hasn’t been worn down by the league. Everything is new, delightful and fresh.

“This is something that each player in this locker room, each player in the league, has dreamt about since they were very young,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever a chore. It becomes a grind and hard work, but I don’t see it ever becoming a chore.”
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