Toskala will need sunblock

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

With a flight to Mexico waiting yesterday morning, Vesa Toskala couldn't get out of town quick enough.

And his plans for the four-day NHL all-star break were as simple as they were understandable given the frigid January the Leafs goaltender has endured both on and off the ice.

"My goal is to be the most burnt player in the league when I come back," Toskala said with a laugh. "Hopefully hockey doesn't even come into my mind those four days. It's time for a mental break."

We'll resist the temptation for the obvious punchline -- that the red light has been taking care of the sunburn -- but acknowledge that Toskala's situation is one of the front-page challenges facing coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke over the coming weeks.

With a 2-6-2 record so far this month, the Leafs are well on their way to making some dubious franchise history by missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive spring.

As Wilson said this week, the cupboard is bare and the shelves won't easily be filled any time soon, which is the reason most players were relieved at a break from the grind of this most difficult of seasons.

Effort is admirable and more nights than not the Leafs had delivered in that way. But even when the effort is strong, as it was against an undermanned Bruins team this week, many nights it is not enough.

The 4-3 shootout loss Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre was, for the most part, an entertaining contest. The Leafs battled hard against the top team in the Eastern Conference but bad penalties and a short supply of talent conspired to yet another multiple-goal lead being erased.

As for the players, precious few have any guarantees to be with the team beyond what's left of this season. And among the many candidates for movement, the play of Toskala and winger Nik Antropov will be watched closely in the dozen or so games after the break.

"We need some of our better players to perform better," Wilson said before heading to South Carolina. "Not to be minus magnets like they have been for the last month."

The biggest anchor lately has been Antropov, who has not scored in 15 games, is minus-12 in and in Wilson's opinion could be suffering from confidence issues.

The problem from Burke's perspective is not so much that Antropov isn't helping the team win games right now, though that would be nice. It has more to do with potential marketability come March 4.

If Antropov could rekindle his scoring touch in the weeks ahead, it might tweak the interest of other GMs who could envision the big winger improving significantly with an upgrade of linemates.

Of course, a couple goals before the trade deadline would make Burke's life -- and possibly Antropov's -- significantly easier.

The Toskala situation has its own unique challenges. Wilson has publicly said he is of the belief that the personable Finn has the game to be the team's goalie of the future. The problem is that with a goals against average of 3.29 and a save percentage of .885, Toskala has shown just rare flashes of that ability this season and statistically is among the NHL's worst.

POGGE'S CHANCE

Wilson has promised that Justin Pogge will get a serious look after the break, whether he has earned it with his play for the AHL Marlies or not. There are reasons, of course, number one being Burke's need to know whether the highly touted draft pick has any potential to be a No. 1 some day.

Toskala will get his share of the workload as well, with the hope that he will snap out of the funk. If he's good, then Burke and Wilson at least can decide if he's worth keeping or see what interest there is for him on the trade market.

So Toskala can enjoy the Mexico sun and if he's wise, become acclimated to the different type of heat that awaits when he returns.


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