SUN Hockey Pool

Oilers set an example for Leafs

Leafs John Mitchell is denied by Oiler Nikolai Khabibulin as Theo Peckham looks on during third...

Leafs John Mitchell is denied by Oiler Nikolai Khabibulin as Theo Peckham looks on during third period NHL game between Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers in Toronto, December 2, 2010. (Alex Urosevic/QMI AGENCY)

GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 12:34 PM ET

TORONTO -- When one Maple Leafs player was asked before Thursday night's game against Edmonton how he expected the game to play out, he was quick to say the spirit of the Oilers' youth would be lifted by Toronto's hockey-crazed atmosphere.

It's not a new hypothesis; in fact, the organization, its players and fans have been using this theory for years. Believe it or not, but the premise is that opponents work harder and play with more passion when they visit Toronto than in any other NHL city.

Whether it's the visiting Canadian boys who want to perform well in front of their families, or the many players who dream about making a good impression on hockey's biggest stage, it's a theory that is interesting but not truly quantifiable.

But when two of the youngest teams in the NHL squared off on Thursday, it seemed as if there was some truth to the prophecy.

It was Edmonton's players who looked energized despite being on the second night of a back-to-back, and it was Oilers goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who had been terrible all year, that raised his game to superstar-like levels, shutting the door on the Leafs in a 5-0 win.

Add the outstanding play of prized first-round draft picks Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, who combined for four goals and six points, and it's hard to ignore the fact that there might be some truth to the speculation that Toronto brings out the best in visiting teams.

While the theory makes for interesting discussion, it's more of an excuse than anything else.

What may better explain last night's lackluster performance by the Leafs and uplifting effort by the Oilers, is the gap in skill between the two teams. Coming into the contest tied near the bottom of the standings, one would think that these two storied organizations, similar in age and experience, would be on comparable paths to respectability.

But the fact is these two franchises have embarked in staggeringly different directions, with the Oilers building by way of the draft, and the Leafs trying to circumvent that process by trading away picks for NHL-ready talent.

It's become tiresome to re-hash the Phil Kessel trade that brought the young sniper to Toronto from Boston for two first-round picks. What's done is done. But when looking at the Oilers, it's tough not to admire the potential of the young core they have put together through the tried, tested, and true draft method. Hall's two-goal performance against the Leafs, in what might be considered the top pick's breakout game as a pro, showed exactly the type of leadership and skill that can be found early on the draft table.

Eberle, the Oilers' first-round pick in 2008, and Gagner, chosen sixth overall in 2007, were equally impressive against the Leafs and have been a driving force for Edmonton all season long. Forget about these young guys being dangerous in a few years, they have the skill and ability to score goals in bunches right now.

Sure, in Kessel the Leafs have a 23-year-old that has reached the 30-goal plateau twice in his career, but his services have come at a price. That price is the risky path that general manager Brian Burke has chosen for the franchise, one that ignores the way that most successful NHL teams are built.

When looking at the top 10 centers currently leading the NHL scoring race, you find that nine of them are still playing with the team that drafted them; and the names are big ones. Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Sedin, Mike Richards, Ryan Getzlaf, Derek Roy and Pavel Datsyuk.

These are many of the top players in the game, all drafted and honed by their respective teams. Unfortunately, by giving up on the draft, trades and free agency are the only ways this Leafs group will be able to add talent akin to the aforementioned players in the coming seasons.

Those building methods can be valuable, but in the salary cap era, trading for players or signing free agents are more costly and restrictive options; while young talent awarded from the draft is considered cheap and flexible.

To be fair, there are different ways to build a winning team. But what Burke has done will be scrutinized until the end of his tenure, and judged by the team's eventual successes or failures. And in a market where there's a tendency to over-analyze every move, he better hope his unconventional approach starts to turn in a positive direction sooner rather than later.


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