September 23, 2005
What does Quinn see in these two guys?
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
Nik Antropov is no Raymond: Everyone doesn't love him.
It's isn't easy getting booed, at home, during the pre-season of all times, when your name is announced to take part in a fictitious shootout of a game that isn't even tied.
It may not be easy, but it is telling.
You see, most of the hockey world looks at Nik Antropov and sees this large, gangly, marginally accomplished hockey player and they have to wonder what happened to that kid with all the promise.
But Pat Quinn isn't most of the hockey world. The sometimes visionary Quinn suffers from a case of myopia when it comes to Antropov. Most look at Antropov -- such as the fans at the Air Canada Centre last night -- and wonder if he'll ever be an important player here.
Quinn looks at him and envisions a world of possibilities. A world almost no one else, not even Antropov himself, necessarily sees.
"The critics of both of them are way off-base in my opinion," said Quinn, answering a question last night about Antropov and his sidekick, the equally ineffective but offensively challenged Alexei Ponikarovsky.
A MILLION EMPTY NETS
This is why Quinn did what he did last night. And in a way, after Antropov missed about a million empty nets last night, this is why the fans expressed with displeasure with the choice of Antropov for the post-game shootout.
"He has to get better in the concentration area," Quinn said.
"When you do get those opportunities, and they're hard to get, you have to find a way to make them pay."
Nik Antropov has never found a way to "make them pay."
Last night, as with most nights in his Leafs career, he was given the benefit of the doubt from his coach. He played right wing on the first line opposite Mats Sundin. He played on the first power play. He killed penalties. His 17 minutes and 39 seconds of ice time was second highest last night among Leafs forwards.
You can say this is only the pre-season and Quinn is fooling around with line combinations, but his history has been to give Antropov and last night's linemate, Ponikarovsky, more opportunities than they have ever deserved based on performance.
Rookie Kyle Wellwood scored two goals last night playing on a line with Brad Leeb and Clarke Wilm. Antropov could have scored five, ended up with none, and missed an empty net in the final minute of play against Montreal.
And Sundin, who wouldn't say spit if he had a mouth full of it, must privately wonder to himself what he did wrong in camp to deserve Antropov on his right, Ponikarovsky on his left. Ken Hodge and Wayne Cashman they are not.
Quinn keeps delivering room-service opportunities to the 6-foot-5 Antropov and the 6-foot-4 Ponikarovsky and doesn't receive so much as a tip -- or a tip-in -- for his troubles.
In this case, size does matter. It matters, even if the National Hockey League is opening up its arms to the quick and the little. It matters to Quinn, even if the league's reigning MVP is the diminutive Martin St. Louis.
NO HART VOTES
For the record, Antropov and Ponikarovsky did not receive any Hart Trophy votes. Still the coach loves them. Maybe that's all that matters. Quinn will find a place in his heart for them, even if no one else will. This isn't new -- some might say it's getting old -- because these aren't kids trying to make a team anymore.
These are 25-year-old players. They've been around. One has hands, but no feet. One has feet, but no hands. Put them together and you might have one terrific player.
Combined, only Quinn believes.
Ponikarovsky scored all of nine goals in his most recent NHL season. Antropov managed 13. In the playoffs, they were granted the same kind of golden opportunity Quinn continues to provide them with.
They played on a line with Joe Nieuwendyk, who just happened to be the Leafs' best player in the playoffs. That so inspired Antropov that he didn't score in 13 playoffs games, Ponikarovsky banged in one.
That line may be somewhat like this year's Leafs team: A club looking to fly but without any wings.