Tlusty on top line, almost by default

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

How bad are the Maple Leafs hurting?

Yesterday they elevated a three-goal scorer to their top line.

Jiri Tlusty, who has been hanging on the fringes, suddenly is a prime-time player. He has become necessity's go-to guy.

"That's the stages with a young player. It's not get a call from the Marlies and you're playing with Mats Sundin. It's coming in and learning the game, learning the system, watching Mats Sundin and learning how he plays. (Jiri) has taken the steps to get the opportunity," coach Paul Maurice said yesterday. And, he wasn't even wearing rose-coloured glasses when he said it.

"If he doesn't play there for 15 games it won't be a failure on Jiri's part. He's going in to play as long and as hard as he can but ... the pressure isn't on Jiri Tlusty to make that line go."

FEW OPTIONS

Basically, Maurice didn't have a lot of options. "We've lost our top two left wingers so everyone has to do a little more," Maurice said of a team that is starting to resemble a car wreck.

This year they sit at 138 games lost to injury, but with Bryan McCabe on the MIA list, Alex Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky nursing battered shoulders, Mark Bell being just a rumour and Carlo Colaiacovo being 100% in mind if not body, they are on the way again to surpassing the NHL average of games lost each season to injury.

It is never a good sign when the team MVP is the guy running the x-ray machine.

Last year the team lost 335 games to injuries, putting them among the league leaders in gimp-ology with the St. Louis Blues and Philadelphia Flyers. It contributed to a crappy record then and the end result isn't looking any happier this time.

"If we look back to last year we had a lot of injuries too. And, this year we've played games with beat up guys," Maurice said. "It has been a contributing factor (to the team's performances). Last year you look at teams like Philadelphia or St. Louis and they were in the same boat."

Hockey's versions of the Titanic. And it's starting again. Sometimes you get the feeling these guys couldn't open a fan letter without needing surgery to repair the ensuing paper cut.

The NHL average for games lost the past eight seasons has been 239. At the current pace the Leafs will be slightly above the average -- depending on how long Steen and Ponikarovsky remain sidelined. And that's also assuming there are no further serious injuries. This lineup isn't deep enough to overcome that.

The NHL average the past eight seasons has been 219.

"We're going to move a lot of people around. Jiri has some skill and I'd like to give him an opportunity," Maurice said of moving Tlusty beside Nik Antropov and Sundin.

Still, Tlusty has not scored since Nov. 17. He hasn't scored in the Leafs' past 19 games -- seven of which he wasn't deemed necessary enough to even dress.

"I'm just a bit nervous because, well, it is Mats Sundin," admitted Tlusty yesterday. "It's a big chance for me. I'll try to make some moves, get the puck and try to find him."

Tlusty has been billed as a future star with the franchise. But nobody expected that to happen overnight, or even this season.

Not Maurice. "You have to be patient. It takes years before you can say a player has matured," he said.

Not Tlusty. He became the first Leaf to score two goals in his first NHL game since Nik Borschevsky in 1992. Since then? Not much. "I've been used to scoring at every level I've played. Now it's like 20 games without scoring. I haven't played well. The NHL is so hard. Everyone is so smart. I need to learn so much."

Still one team's pain has been his gain. "When I came to rookie camp my goal was to maybe play a couple games for the Leafs and focus on doing well in the AHL," he said. "Now, I'm living my dream. It's nice to think I'm playing with the best player in Leafs history."

Great for him; but to be honest, not so great for the Leafs. Not now. Not yet.


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