Career opportunities for Leafs

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

Given the number of players the boss has put on airplanes out of town recently, one wonders why the remaining Maple Leafs even needed the lecture from Brian Burke in the first place.

Given the career opportunity, both in ice time and potential income, shouldn’t it have been obvious?

It came anyway, as the general manager always does with his teams following the trade deadline, and only the clueless among the remaining Leafs could miss the point.

Burke met with the team a little over a week ago and, no doubt in colourful language, elaborated on what should have been apparent.

“I think his message was pretty clear,” Leafs goaltender J-S Giguere said following Friday’s optional practice at the Mastercard Centre.

“We can’t wait until next season to start winning. We are all playing for a really good reason and that’s for our jobs. If we have success as a team, we will help each other out.”

The results, thus far, have been an eye-catching surprise, all things being equal in another lost season. Heading into Saturday night’s home date against the Edmonton Oilers, the only team in the league that’s worse, the Leafs have won three of their past five and got points in four of those.

The entertainment value has been high during that limited burst, with four of those games going to overtime.

The hard-working Leafs have put on a show, something that should be the minimum job requirement for a professional athlete, but one that seemed lost on too many players for the past several years.

Coach Ron Wilson is fond of referring to the “culture shift” in the dressing room which once was overwrought with what Burke likes to call “blue and white disease,” the sense of entitlement he felt went with it.

With the veteran virus purged, it’s a different room now as the mostly youthful group appears to be having fun. They are buying into the high energy and volume of defenceman Dion Phaneuf, who has quickly emerged as potential captain material.

And, no need to be reminded again, they are toiling in a land of opportunity, one that can go both ways.

“This is an unbelievable chance for us,” said centre Christian Hanson, who based on his lack of production, anyway, wouldn’t be a lock to start next season with the team.

“There are guys who wait five years in the American League for an opportunity like this. For so many of us to have that right now in our first year is remarkable.”

What the group makes of that chance over the 15 nights of audition time that remains will be key material in Burke’s off-season evaluation. Assistant coach Tim Hunter said the other day that players aren’t being graded on every shift — there’s too much teaching needed to be so hyper-critical — but effort will be evaluated every night.

Based on the early returns, who might stay?

Tyler Bozak may have been the biggest beneficiary to date. A year ago he was being courted by some 20 NHL teams as a college free agent. Today he is a first-line centre and a player that looks like he will be around for awhile.

Nikolai Kulemin is playing the best hockey of his career and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson leads the team in plus minus.

Phil Kessel isn’t going anywhere, obviously, and much of the big-name defensive corps is pretty safe. But beyond that, Burke and his staff will have many decisions to make prior to July 1 free agency and what they see in the four remaining weeks will play a big role in that process.

Modest surprises and the development of young players is nowhere near enough to erase a season that started out with false promise and is headed to be the worst, point-wise, in 15 years.

But when small victories are all that remain, why not make the best of the occasion?

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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