Eyes on youngsters

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

The playoff dream is about to die for the Leafs, but that doesn't mean there's nothing more at stake the next four games for young players such as Anton Stralman.

"We're in a tight spot, but I feel like this is a tryout for next year," the Swedish defenceman said yesterday morning.

"It will be important to play well in the remaining games to give myself a good chance for that."

Stralman and Staffan Kronwall received unexpected late-season chances on the blueline when Hal Gill was traded and Carlo Colaiacovo suffered a season-ending groin injury.

Up front, Jeremy Williams and Kris Newbury caught interim general manager Cliff Fletcher's eye as they filled in fourth-line roles. Many of the young Leafs here will be featured once the American Hockey League playoffs begin where Fletcher and his scouts can further assess progress of those who were called up and those who stayed with the Marlies.

That group includes forwards Robbie Earl, Newbury, Williams, Jiri Tlusty and Alex Foster plus Stralman and Kronwall.

When the Leafs finally do get eliminated, expect goalie Andrew Raycroft to get one or two starts to scrape off 21/2 months of rust and maybe convince another team to take a chance on him. It's expected Vesa Toskala will have another back-up next year, perhaps Justin Pogge, but more likely a cheaper version of Raycroft.

The season was a near write-off for some highly paid, unproductive veterans such as Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake. By the end, their roles had been been filled to a large degree by Alex Steen and Matt Stajan, both on the ice and off.

"Not just those two, but a lot of guys matured as players," Mats Sundin said. "We had injuries and a lot of young guys stepped up."

ASSISTANCE

Vesa Toskala's assist on Pavel Kubina's goal last night was his fifth of the season, tying him for the team record for goaltenders with Mike Palmateer, Ken Wregget and Curtis Joseph.


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