Leafs letting Moore skate forward, again

ROB LONGLEY, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 3:48 AM ET

With a game awaiting against the Buffalo Sabres tonight at the Air Canada Centre, Dominic Moore wasn't planning to ring in the New Year with any serious volume.

But, for the Thornhill native, saying so long to 2008 may not be so easy, given the success he has had in his home town since officially becoming a Maple Leaf on Jan. 11.

Among the handful of surprises on this retooling team, Moore has emerged as not just a favourite of coach Ron Wilson, but a player who is having a career year that wasn't necessarily expected by his new bosses.

How big were the latter months on the calendar for the Harvard grad? With seven goals and 12 assists in 37 games, the 28-year-old already has reached a career high in points as the Leafs.

The sixth-year pro never will be confused with Pittsburgh Penguins sniper Evgeni Malkin, but Moore has shown an attractive mix of speed, skill and grittiness that are a perfect fit to the style of game Wilson forcefully encourages.

"He knows I believe in him and I think that's what any player wants," Wilson said after yesterday's up-tempo practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "He's played well enough and I've seen enough and tried to coax him as much as I can and we're really happy with his play."

As enough Leafs have discovered this season, Wilson doesn't dish out compliments or votes of confidence like they are party favours. At best, entering the season Moore would have been a fringe candidate to stick with the team for the long term.

But since being liberated from the tight-checking system of Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, Moore has resuscitated a career that seemed headed towards being a journeyman status.

"In college, I was an offensive player and, coming in with the Rangers (who selected him in the second round in 2008) and the millionaire's club there, I had to do whatever it took to get in and that was playing a defensive game," Moore said.

"I sort of made a name for myself and maybe I was pigeon-holed after that as a defensive player."

That label certainly stuck in Minnesota where Lemaire had a tight rein on his assignments for the portions of two seasons Moore played for him before being placed on waivalmost a year ago.

"In Minnesota, it was a case of I was basically not allowed to go below the top of the circles," said Moore, who was scooped up by the Leafs after the Wild set him free. "I was basically playing defence. I was used as a shut-down centre. But at the same time, my game is skating -- skating forwards not backwards -- so it wasn't a good fit for me.

"Here, it seems the system and style of play and mentality is more suited to my game."

Wilson is under no illusions that Moore is something he is not. But in a season where all but the tiniest constituency of the roster is on an 82-game audition, Moore may be a player who is carving out a spot for himself -- if not as some unexpected trade currency for new Leafs president and general manager, Brian Burke.

Moore had a pair of assists in Tuesday's 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, including one on defenceman Pavel Kubina's game winner in overtime.

On that goal, it wasn't the pass that impressed Wilson as much as Moore's intuitive play. He parked himself in front of Atlanta goaltender Johan Hedberg to set up a nice screen and put himself in position for a juicy rebound had it become available.

"As we go forward, he is probably -- and I think deep down he knows it -- a No. 3 centre," Wilson said. "But on a really good team, those guys play 15 or 16 minutes. He knows that. He's got to give everything on every shift."


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