More Leafs disappointments than surprises

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

Now that the Maple Leafs season is in the books, it's time for the grades.

Mind you, and general manager Brian Burke would probably concur with this, sports writers grading NHL hockey players is a highly suspect exercise -- like the school janitor grading the students.

But, hey, if Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment Ltd., can raise ticket prices every year, everything is fair game.

For brevity sake, we'll not grade each player individually, but put them into groups.

The first block of players would be those who exceeded expectations and are likely guys that Burke and head coach Ron Wilson would want to include on a rebuilding team. They are: Alexei Ponikarovsky, John Mitchell, Ian White, Luke Schenn and Mike Van Ryn.

Wilson never seemed totally satisfied with Ponikarovsky, who is in his fifth full season with the club, but the Ukrainian-born winger has put together a career year with 61 points with 23 goals and is one of the few Leafs in the plus category (+6). He's also big (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and fairly young (having turned 29 on Thursday) and has been a big help to Wilson in dealing with the young Russian speakers on the club, specifically his linemates Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

Mitchell has stepped up in a big way since Burke traded first-line centre Dominic Moore to the Buffalo Sabres at the deadline and has proven that he has some offensive skill. He's also big (6-foot-1, 200) and young (24), which Burke loves, although no doubt the GM would like to see Mitchell and Ponikarovsky use their size more often.

Schenn finished the season at minus-13, but the 19-year-old was often matched against the opposing team's top line and never hesitates to hit and block shots. It was a good year, considering he wasn't even expected to make the team out of training camp.

Van Ryn is not particularly young or big but, when healthy this season, and that wasn't often, he was the team's best all-around defenceman. In fact, Van Ryn's play has possibly opened the door for Burke to trade power-play quarterback Tomas Kaberle this summer and get some real value in return.

Undoubtedly, the most pleasant surprise has been the play of White, who was a healthy scratch for the first 11 games of the season, but rounded into the club's most dependable blueliner -- to the point where Burke turned down at least two trade offers for him last month.

Then there are the guys who disappointed and, on a team that finished below .500 and missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season, you would think that number would be considerable. But this is a team high on mediocrity and under Wilson generally played hard. Many had career seasons.

EXPECTING MORE

But a couple did disappoint in a major way, including winger Lee Stempniak, whom the Leafs acquired from the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 24 for defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo and forward Alex Steen. Stempniak is fifth in team scoring with 14 goals and 29 assists, and played well in a meaningless game last night, but the Leafs were expecting much more from the former 27-goal scorer, who was often invisible on the ice.

Another disappointment was the goaltending, and you could pretty well list all three netminders (not including Martin Gerber, who arrived late in the season). Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph, along with rookie Justin Pogge, finished at the bottom of the NHL in goals against average. Toskala was hurt much of the season, so there is a forgiveness factor there. Pogge may well have played his way out of the organization.

And then there are some minor disappointments, including the rest of the defensive corps, with the exception of Schenn. Now that the Leafs have failed to make the playoffs, Burke has a window this summer to trade Kaberle and/or Pavel Kubina, and likely will move one.

The rest played pretty much as expected. A couple, specifically Grabovski and Matt Stajan, have decent potential, but may not be the type of players Burke wants to build around.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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