Thrashin' Buds

Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur shoots during the warmup before a preseason game at the Air...

Maple Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur shoots during the warmup before a preseason game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario on September 27, 2010. (Abelimages/Getty Images)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:50 AM ET

TORONTO - Ex-Thrashers Clarke MacArthur and Colby Armstrong don’t regret a moment their decision to sign with Toronto.

But Toronto fans and media dumping on Atlanta’s staying power in the NHL might have to change their tune. If the Thrashers keep rolling and play to big post-season crowds in April, while the poor Maple Leafs are on the sidelines a sixth straight year, a lot of Northern hockey people will be whistling Dixie.

Before the Washington-Ottawa result came in Sunday, the Thrashers were the top team in the Southeast Division, 13 points ahead of the Leafs. That’s not only playoff territory, it’s home-ice advantage for a club that has made the dance just once in 10 years and was swept. A 7-1 win over the Devils on Saturday completed the Ilya Kovalchuk exorcism.

True, more people seem to prefer taking the CNN studio tour next to Philips Arena, judging by the average hockey crowd of 12,163 that ESPN reports, ranking 28th in attendance. But Atlanta had rarely put out a team product worth paying for, especially in hard economic times. This season, with a new GM, coach and a cast headed by Dustin Byfuglien, the Thrashers are creating a buzz, or at least should now that baseball, football and auto racing are winding down.

“They’ve been taking a beating in the media for sure,” said Armstrong as the Leafs prepared for the first of four games against the Thrashers on Monday at the ACC. “It is what it is, a struggle to get people in the stands. They have a good team this year and they’re playing good hockey. Hopefully, it will catch on there, now that they’re winning.”

But that’s the extent of Armstrong’s magnanimity to his old team, which he departed July 1 to become a Leaf. Ditto MacArthur, whom GM Rick Dudley didn’t see as part of the solution when he walked away from a $2.4-million US arbitration award to the winger. There was some belief that the cost-conscious Dudley expected MacArthur would do well in the case and planned to give him a free- agent ticket anyway.

Whatever, the goal-challenged Leafs were glad to add him late in the summer, thanks in part to a strong lobbying effort by captain Dion Phaneuf.

MacArthur leads the Leafs in assists (16) and points (25), with his playmaking abilities certainly an undersold part of his game. His nifty drop pass to Mikhail Grabovski for the Leafs’ only goal in Vancouver on Saturday was one illustration. The 16 helpers are his NHL career high.

“I felt like I was always a playmaker,” MacArthur said. “It was just a matter of getting the confidence and obviously, having linemates (centre Grabovski and right winger Nikolai Kulemin) scoring the goals. They’ve done well and they’re consistent every night.

“I couldn’t be happier coming here. Even though we are struggling a little bit. I just feel that this is a team that can rebound and get something done. What’s done is done (in Georgia) and I’ve enjoyed every minute here.”

MacArthur took a million dollar haircut to sign a one-year deal here and earn a longer stay.

“Definitely I was upset (at the outcome of his arbitration process),” he said. “Anyone would be. But it was a decision they made as a team. There’s nothing you can do about it. I was only there 21 games. It was a tough finish (9-13 after March 1) and for that to happen (not re-signing) made it a tough second half.

“They’re obviously off to a great start. They have some new guys in there, changed the coaching staff up. Whatever they did there has sparked the team and we’ll have our hands full with them tomorrow.”


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