Leaf prospects look gloomy

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

He has scored points in five of his six games as a Maple Leaf and has the potential to thrill every time he touches the puck.

There is, however, a downside to Phil Kessel.

The former Bruinís presence in the Leafs lineup exploits a stark reality: That the team is less talented than even the gloomiest of pre-season forecasts.

Sobering as it is, this may be as good as it gets for the struggling team for the next while. And ďthisĒ is not pretty.

With Saturday nightís 5-2 loss to the Flames, the Leafs are already in the midst of their third extended losing streak of the season and on pace for one of the worst point outputs in franchise history.

Considering that by the weekend, the Leafs will have played a quarter of their schedule, this is no rush to judgement.

Worse yet is that the expected improvement over last yearís fourth consecutive season missing the playoffs has not materialized and the Leafs are, for now, in full regression mode.

After 18 games last season, they had 18 points. When they resume practice this morning after a day off, they do so as a team with just 11 points and losing streaks of eight, four and now three games.

With Carolina snapping a 14-game losing streak yesterday, the Leafs are only one game out of the league basement with another meeting with the Hurricanes later this week.

And on it goes.

General manager Brian Burke said recently that he hasnít been disappointed with the effort of his team, which returns to action tomorrow in Ottawa. Translated given the record thus far, that means the team isnít good enough or consistant enough to compete night in and night out against most NHL opponents.

Forwards and defence are prone to committing far too many turnovers and the offence is nowhere near potent enough to overcome the 2-0 deficit they have found themselves in nine times already.

The inability to score has been alarming. The Leafs fired 20 shots at the Calgary net in the second period on Saturday but could only get one by goaltender Miikka Kiprosoff.

Jason Blake, Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Stajan - three forwards who usually find themselves in the top two lines ó have a combined nine goals through 18 games

Which brings us back to Kessel. Coach Ron Wilson has tried any number of combinations to help maximize the former Bruin, who is on a five-game point-scoring streak and has looked electrifying in each of his six games.

He started Fridayís game on a line with John Mitchell and Jason Blake and finished it with Matt Stajan at centre. Saturday, Alexei Ponikarovsky had replaced Blake on the wing as Wilson looked for some size over speed.

Kessel has shown he is the real deal, but what to do with him when nobody else consistently steps up?

It is part of the mix and match process for a player in his infancy with the team, but one possibility already raised by management is for Kessel to get a look at centre. The natural winger was a perfect 8-for-8 on faceoffs against the Flames, so perhaps it isnít such a stretch.

There is a chance Grabovski will step up or Blake (two goals so far) will regain his scoring touch. At some point, some combination of Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson will get a promotion from the Marlies to see how they are developing as pros.

Until then, Leafs fans best get used to a troubled team that despite an off-season of optimism is desperate as ever to find its way forward.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos