Goal drought breaks up buddy line

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:33 PM ET

TORONTO - They are good buddies off the ice, but on it Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak may have been a little too close for comfort these days.

For that reason — plus the obvious need to create some offence — Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson has initiated an amicable split of the young, struggling forwards.

The morning after the team wilted through an 0-for-Florida tour, Bozak found himself demoted to a line with Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur at Thursday’s practice. That left Kessel on the defacto top unit with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin as the team searches for a way to avoid an eighth consecutive loss Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

While Wilson has been willing to change his lines as often as his underwear lately in the hope of finding something to spark his team, this alteration might last longer.

Bozak, who has been the picture of frustration lately, could use a change of scenery and Kessel needs to find the jump and open ice he had in the first eight games of the season.

“I don’t want (Bozak) to think his only job on the ice is to pass the puck to Phil,” Wilson said following the team’s practice at the MasterCard Centre. “Sometimes he gets focused on that, which any young player would. ‘There’s the goal scorer, I’ve got to get him the puck.’

“Now he’s not shooting and getting any chances himself.”

In a hockey sense, the Bozak-Kessel union has been on thin ice for a couple of weeks now. Kessel who came out of the gates running with seven goals in his first eight games, hasn’t scored since. In fact, he hasn’t even registered a point.

For Bozak, who was thrust into the top centre’s role almost as much out of necessity as by merit, it’s a work in progress. But playing alongside Kessel means most shifts he’s up against the opposition’s top checkers which only adds to the exasperation.

“It might help right now, to be honest with you, if I could take some of his ice,” Wilson said of Bozak, who has just two goals and three assists. “But we don’t have people to step up and play a first-line role. So you take a little away and try to take some of the pressure off.”

Hard to argue that Wilson had to at least try something to squeeze some blood out of the stone hands that abound on this team. In the seven-game losing streak (not that we’re counting, but that’s just one less than the disastrous opening to last season) three have been by shutout.

A power play plummeting to the bottom of the league (27th prior to Thursday night) has clicked twice in 29 attempts in the losing streak.

And the team is averaging 2.13 goals per game, far less than it has at any point in the past two decades, is the second lowest scoring in the NHL right now behind only the suddenly hapless New Jersey Devils.

Rather than mope about it, the Leafs are trying the brave face approach, minus perhaps Kessel who smashed a stick in frustration at one point on Thursday.

“No one is hanging their heads,” Versteeg said. “Every team goes through a drought. We do have guys capable of (scoring) — look at the looks we’ve been getting. The goals are right there.”

Though he has been streaky throughout his career, Kessel is an obvious concern right now. With such limited scoring around him, he hasn’t been that hard to shut down lately. Opponents are getting in his face and limiting his space making him far less of a threat.

Joining Kessel with Grabovski will be an interesting experiment given neither is big on life in the corners or in front of the net, but at least the line will have speed.

“For Phil to get the space back, he’s got to come back for the puck,” said Wilson, whose team has dropped 10 of its past 11. “He had five shots (on Thursday) and was driving his feet all night long. That’s him coming out of a slump.

“When you see him not getting many shots, not moving his feet, you can see the slump coming on. And it’s the same with a team. You can see when guys take things for granted and forget about the attention to detail and that’s where we’ve found ourselves the last couple of weeks.”


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