Halfway home

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:14 AM ET

If one wanted to concoct a hockey recipe for disaster, here are some of the ingredients you might plop into the pot.

- A captain (Mats Sundin) who misses 12 games with a potentially career-threatening eye injury.

- A fortysomething goalie (Ed Belfour) with a goals-against average over 3.00 and a save percentage under .900.

- A former superstar (Eric Lindros) who might face surgery for ligament damage in his wrist.

- A core of heavily relied upon offensive players (Sundin, Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff O'Neill) who only have been in the lineup together for 17 of 41 games.

Blend all those factors together, and you should, logically, have a squad that is feeding precariously close to the bottom of the NHL standings.

Yet the Maple Leafs, as has been the trend during the Pat Quinn era, somehow have managed to overcome adversity, overachieving at a time when many so-called experts were poised to deliver the last rites.

Having reached the halfway point of the season with a game against the Flames in Calgary last night, the Leafs were attempting to maintain the pace that would see them finish the season with about 100 points and a playoff berth.

With the team having exceded many expectations to date, management can thank the core of young players for its success to date.

When was the previous time a Maple Leafs team could make that claim, given its past penchant of buying aging veterans?

Yet if not for the emergence of up-and-comers like Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Staffan Kronwall, Carlo Colaiacovo, Matt Stajan and Mikael Tellqvist, panicking Leafs fans would be tying nooses as we speak.

Is this team a legitimate Stanley Cup contender? We think not.

But midway through the season, the future of this roster, dominated by hockey octogenarians not so long ago, is bright.

HEAD OF THE CLASS

BRYAN McCABE

Didn't many predict he'd be useless now that his famous butt-check is considered illegal? Instead he leads the team in scoring. The team's mid-season MVP.

TOMAS KABERLE

The new, wide-open NHL is a perfect fit for the smooth-skating defenceman, who still hasn't met a corner he has really liked.

DARCY TUCKER

Leads the team in goals. The only theatrics seen by No. 16 on most nights are scoring celebrations.

PASSING GRADE

JASON ALLISON

He's slow, he can look lethargic and he was mocked for his shootout moves against Ottawa early in the season. Yet somehow he still manages to rack up points.

MATS SUNDIN

Got off to a slow start after his horrific eye injury, but most critics fail to recognize he's averaging almost a point per game.

ED BELFOUR

Struggled early on, especially with the smaller equipment and the restrictions on handling pucks in the corner. But seems to have regained his form in the past few weeks.

JEFF O'NEILL

O'Neill has games where he is invisible. But where would this team be without his four game-winning goals?

CLARKE WILM

The stats sheet doesn't tell the story here. If the more talented players on the team had his grit, the Leafs might be battling the high-flying Sens for first in the division.

MATT STAJAN

Bounces between the wing and centre, doing whatever the team asks of him. He also leads the league in shorthanded points.

JURY IS STILL OUT

ERIC LINDROS

He deserves all the credit for leading this team when Mats Sundin was hurt. But injury problems have crept up again, leaving his immediate future cloudy.

CARLO COLAIACOVO

Good things come to those who wait.

JOHN POHL

Hasn't played enough to earn a final grade. But so far we like what we see.

TIE DOMI

Some nights offers a dynamic spark, then is barely noticeable on others. Young guys are slicing into his ice time.

MARIUSZ CZERKAWSKI

Spent most of the season decaying in the press box, then scored three goals in his first three games back in the lineup. Will the real Mariusz please stand up?

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

MIKAEL TELLQVIST

Finally appears to have turned the corner and developed into a bonafide NHLer. Carried an excellent .919 save percentage into game against Calgary last night.

ALEXANDER STEEN

We heard reports that the kid was good. But this good, especially at both ends of the ice? Has the makings of a future star.

ALEX PONIKAROVSKY

Has made significant strides the past two seasons. Entered play yesterday leading the league in short-handed goals with four. Too bad Antropov has not shown the same progress.

KYLE WELLWOOD

Shouldn't he have received the tar-and-feather treatment after edging out Stumpy for a job? Not when you have the shifty moves of this diminutive kid.

STAFFAN KRONWALL

Proving he's worthy of a full-time NHL gig.

ROUGH RIDE

KEN KLEE

Klee has had trouble adapting to the faster game, especially when it comes to what one can and can't do while battling opposing forwards in front of the net.

ALEXANDER KHAVANOV

When he's good, he's okay. But when he's bad, yuk. He's a standup guy, but he's had some struggles during his first season with the Leafs.

AKI BERG

Maybe what you see is what you get. But does he understand that an entire legion of fans hunger for signs of improvement that don't seem to be there?

CHAD KILGER

If he can keep up the type of play that produced two third-period goals against the Penguins on Monday, there is room for optimism. But consistency always seems to allude him.

WADE BELAK

He was a penalty waiting to happen during his stint on the blue line. Might be an effective forechecker up front, but that remains to be seen.

NIK ANTROPOV

Seems to have lost his edge since his pair of reconstructive knee surgeries. Continues to battle injuries.


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