Anton Stralman has it.
The Leafs’ rookie defenceman is blessed with a rare talent that allows you to see through the mistakes, the hesitation and fearfulness that come with stripping down your game to make it NHL-worthy.
Producer Mark Askin and the rest of the Leafs TV crew were watching when they gave Stralman the first star in the Leafs 5-4 win over Carolina, Tuesday night. Stralman earned only an assist. What caught Askin’s eye was his ability to work the blue line on the second power play unit and rush the puck with impunity.
If you look at what has been missing over the course of this uneven season, the thing that jumps out is performances by players such as Anton Stralman.
There haven’t been many. Justin Pogge is fashioning an excellent season with the Marlies but he hasn’t accrued a minute of NHL regular season action. Jiri Tlusty has scored just three goals in 22 games, but his game is solid enough to make you wait for the offence that will follow.
That’s about it.
The Leafs have an NHL ready prospect in Nikolai Kulemin
. The 21-year-old is enjoying a terrific season with Magnitogorsk of the Russian Super League and leads his team with 14 goals. Defenceman Dmitry Vorobiev leads Tolyatti in scoring with seven goals and he too is an excellent prospect.
But neither one of those players applied any internal competition on the Leafs roster this year. Neither did Kris Newbury, who pushed from the fringes of the lineup last year. Newbury was sent back to the Marlies early. His 13 goals lead the team but getting back up will be tough.
You know what you are getting with veterans. Hal Gill is much the same player he was last year. Mats Sundin has been a model of consistency and excellence. This year’s model of Tomas Kaberle is altogether in keeping with last year’s.
There are surprises of course: the inability of Jason Blake, Mark Bell and Darcy Tucker to score consistently. On the good side, don’t forget Nik Antropov’s improved output now that he has largely avoided injury.
But what really lifts a team and largely validates a season, are the young players who step into the lineup and grab a spot. Last year, for example, the front office could point to the rapid advancement of Kyle Wellwood, Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Steen, Ian White and Matt Stajan. John Pohl arrived from the Marlies and looked like an NHL ready third-line centre. Those developments took some of the sting out of missing the post-season by one point.
You can point to all the big money contracts you like, but save for Tucker, Bell and Blake, there have been no real surprises among the key players.
Steen, White and Stajan have been fine, but Colaiacovo’s hard luck with injuries returned and he has played only five games. Pohl has garnered scant ice time and has just one goal. Wellwood was called out by coach Paul Maurice over his conditioning. He has five goals and has been a disappointment.
What has been missing are the breakthrough performances by young players.
So Anton Stralman is as welcome here as spring. With the Leafs in an uphill battle to gain a playoff spot, he at least brings reason to hope.