Leafs' focus should be on the future

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:56 AM ET

Donít be surprised if a few Maple Leafs woke up Saturday with their ears still ringing, the after-effects of the constantly-wailing siren at the MCI Center in Washington.

The Capitalsí 6-1 drubbing of the Leafs was an irritating disaster on many fronts, a wide-ranging list of woes that included goaltending, special teams, lack of competitiveness, you name it.

Having snapped a four-game losing funk with an impressive 4-0 spanking of the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday, the Leafs laid a huge egg 24 hours later in the U.S. capital.

This was their chance to exhibit the consistency general manager Brian Burke angrily feels they have been sorely lacking.

Didnít happen

Once again, it didnít happen, leaving coach Ron Wilson questioning the effort of a handful of veterans. Again.

But itís not all gloom and doom.

Forget the playoffs. Unlikely to happen. From here on in, the focus should be squarely on the kids, the ones who have the potential to form the nucleus of this franchise for years to come.

Wilson did not name names, but letís face it: Many of the veterans the coach referred to will not be with the Leafs next year. The Alexei Ponikarovskys of the team have served their time in blue-and-white but itís time for the young guns to take over.

In some respects they already have.

The Leafs first line these days is comprised of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Nikolai Kulemin, part of a skilled cache of 25-and-under talent that also includes defencemen Ian White, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, goalie Jonas Gustavsson and farmhands Viktor Stalberg and Christian Hanson. Also waiting in the wings: Promising junior Nazem Kadri.

Gustavsson, for one, needs to play, health permitting.

No more back-to-back games for Vesa Toskala. Itís nice to reward Toskala for his shutout against the Flyers by giving him the call the next night against Alexander Ovechkin but, as a pending unrestricted free agent, he will not be back anyway. So why start him?

The Leafs had the option to begin negotiating with Gustavssonís representatives starting Jan. 1, but want to take their time and see what they have in the pending restricted free agent. In order to get a better gauge on him, itís time to start him 3-of-every-4 games down the stretch.

If Wilson chose to go on a youth kick, he could actually ice a unit in which no player is older than 25 ó Gustavsson (25), Schenn (20), Gunnarsson (23), Kessel (22), Bozak (23) and Kulemin (23), with White (25) waiting in the wings.

No one is attempting to claim youíll be ticking off these names on an all-star ballot one day.

Given the franchiseís history of prospects who come up short, there is more than enough reason to be cynical about the future of this particular crop.

But itís time to find that out firsthand.

How else do you get to see a glipse of brilliance like Bozakís between-the-defencemanís-legs goal against the Flyers?

There will be nights where Bozak looks out of place. Itís part of learning.

But moves like that, while they shouldnít send expectations skyrocking, can not be taught. Itís pure skill.

Hot and cold

Kessel, whose hot and cold act might be puzzling at times, nonetheless is capable of similar highlight-reel moments. Every now and then, he flashes the type of flair that made him the apple of Burkeís trading eye.

Kulemin has been a pleasant surprise. Those of us who have been critical of his moribund play in the past must acknowledge his somewhat surprising work ethic has turned him into a solid two-way player.

As for you Luke Schenn bashers out there, he has a plus-minus of zero.

On this team, thatís not bad.

And neither is the collection of kids.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca


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