Leafs Nation a land of opportunities

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Who knew that a last-place team on a six-game losing streak could represent such a land of hockey opportunity?

That's where the Maple Leafs find themselves Tuesday when they play host to the New Jersey Devils with a roster barely resembling the one that collapsed Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks.

There is Dion Phaneuf, a former Norris Trophy candidate and all-star in Calgary, who at age 24 is looking to kick-start his career.

There is Jean-Sebastien Giguere, a former Stanley Cup winner in Anaheim, since relegated to backup and now the Leafs' starting goaltender.

And how about rookie Tyler Bozak? With the purging of four forwards on Sunday, he has gone from college free agent a year ago to undisputed first-line centre.

The team still has to call up at least one body from the AHL Marlies to replace some of the six bodies that were dispatched in separate trades by general manager Brian Burke. It is expected rookie Christian Hanson will be that guy.

But Phaneuf, Giguere and fast and feisty winger Fredrik Sjostrom all will make their Leafs debut against the Devils.

After getting rid of 30% of their roster and 40% of their scoring on Sunday, it will be a challenge to salvage what is left of this awful season. But the door is open for new faces and old to prove themselves.

"You take that much potential offence out of the lineup, you are going to suffer," coach Ron Wilson said on Monday after an upbeat practice at the MasterCard Centre. "But hopefully some guys see this as a real opportunity to make a mark."

If there was a mild surprise, it is that Giguere has been invested as No. 1 goaltender for the rest of the season. With Jonas Gustavsson already having played in 31 games, the Leafs want to make sure the rookie doesn't get cooked, while at the same time benefitting from Giguere's experience.

"Jiggy will get the bulk of the work and we'll spot Jonas in, hopefully, once a week," Wilson said. "(Gustavsson) will have somebody to help mentor him and play the same style that our goalie coach wants our goalies to be able to play."

While that was a thinly veiled shot at shipped-out Vesa Toskala, it also speaks to the confidence the Leafs have in Giguere being a No. 1 for as long as it takes for Gustavsson to develop.

As the clear marquee name of the 10 players swapping cities on Sunday, Phaneuf will command the most attention at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday. He was among the first players on the ice Monday and is anxious to make a favourable first impression.

"It was a real good first practice, a lot of fun so far and it has only been 24 hours," Phaneuf said in front of an overflow throng of media following his first Toronto skate. "I want to be a guy that's tough to play against and bring a lot of energy."

Bozak, meanwhile, may have the best opportunity yet. With forwards Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman and Jason Blake all gone, suddenly the rookie is a go-to guy.

"My goal (at the beginning of the season) was just to get here and try to stay, but I love the spot I'm in now," said Bozak, who will centre the top trio of Phil Kessel and Alex Ponikarovsky. "I've always wanted to be a guy who is leaned on to produce and hopefully I can do that.

"I've got to step up here and show I can be a full-timer and produce at this level."

He's not the only one.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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