March 9, 2011
Leafs are right where they should be
By MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency
When Kris Versteeg makes his return to the Air Canada Centre on Thursday night decked out in white orange and black, take a quick look at the ridiculously stacked Philadelphia Flyers roster that surrounds him.
When you’re done with that, compare it to that of the young Maple Leafs squad that will be attempting to snap out of a modest, yet untimely, two-game losing skid.
Upon reviewing the evidence, only one conclusion can be drawn: The Leafs still have a long way to go, from the standpoint of raw talent, to elevate themselves up to the level of their visitors.
A riled Ron Wilson was well within his right to call out his first two lines in public for their moribund performances in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum. When the Tim Brents and Keith Aulies are putting more pucks in the net than Phil Kessel and the Clarke MacArthur through 64-plus minutes of play, you know things are “bass ackwards.”
But, in examining the makeup of this Maple Leafs team, does anyone really think that Kessel, MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul will all be the members of Brian Burke’s heavily coveted top six when and if the franchise becomes a serious player in the Stanley Cup tournament in years to come?
Now consider the Flyers’ cache of skill up front, including a so-called “top end” of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and either James van Riemsdyk or Ville Leino. And don’t forget that Versteeg and the enigmatic Nik Zherdev can find the back of the net with regularity as well. No contest.
On the blue line, Chris Pronger is a shoo-in Hall of Famer and his supporting cast on the back end isn’t too shabby, either, withh Braydon Cobourn, Matt Carle and the underrated Kimmo Timonen.
On the Toronto side, Dion Phaneuf has shown flashes of flair these past two weeks while Mike Komisarek’s ice time hasn’t escalated as he might have hoped when Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin were both shipped out of town during separate trades last month.
But it is the development of Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn that provides the fuel for the most optimism.
In less than three seasons, Schenn is morphing into the tough defenceman and the type of team leader that management envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the 2008 draft. In Aulie’s case, he’s a raw talent who seems to be becoming more comfortable at the NHL level, a trend displayed over the past eight days when he scored his first NHL goal and participated in his inaugural NHL fight, dropping Hartnell during a 3-2 win last Thursday in Philly.
The Leafs did not beat the Flyers that night because they were the more talented team. They beat the Flyers because they were the hungrier, harder-working team whose rookie goalie, James Reimer, came up huge when it mattered most.
Give the youthful Leafs credit. Those are admirable qualities. Ones that will overcome the difference in skill level only up to a point, however.
So, yes, there is a legitimate reason for concern to be spreading among a fan base thirsting for a post-season apprearance after the Leafs produced disappointing results against Chicago and the Islanders.
At the same time, keep this in mind. This is a team that peeled down its skill level before the trade deadline. So, maybe this recent hiccup the past week is more a reflection of what — and who — this team really is.
And maybe it’s a reflection that, while they’ve captured the imagination of the entire city by overachieving, these Leafs still have a long way to go to approach the cache of skill of the Philadelphia Flyers of the hockey world.
Can’t say if there was intent on Zdeno Chara’s part for his controversial hit on Max Pacioretty. Only Chara really knows that. But having covered Chara for most of his NHL career, we’ve never seen that quality in him during any one-on-one dealings, for how much — or little — that’s worth.