Just as their season is about to enter its final stage, a pair of Maple Leafs youngsters are finding their range.
And no, we’re not talking about goaltender James Reimer, whose lofty place in Leafs Nation has been entrenched for weeks.
Defenceman Keith Aulie and forward Nazem Kadri couldn’t have asked for a better learning ground than a tight playoff race.
The Leafs, trailing the Buffalo Sabres by seven points with six games remaining, are all but done for yet another National Hockey League year. Once their non-participation in the post-season becomes official, it will be seven years since they most recently competed for the Stanley Cup.
But neophytes such as Aulie and Kadri provide, at the least, a piece of hope for the future.
Both realize that in the bigger picture, they’re going to have to develop into vital players if the Leafs one day become regular playoff habitants again.
“For sure, I’m getting more comfortable,” said Kadri, who scored his second NHL goal in a 4-2 loss against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in the Motor City.
“I’m starting to skate with the puck a little bit more, I am starting to use my feet. Once I get my feet moving, it’s all said and done from there. I’m able to make things happen. I have that ability.”
Aulie got a large compliment thrown his way on Friday when coach Ron Wilson, who gave his players Sunday off, said that Dion Phaneuf’s game has improved because Aulie has been a sharp partner for the captain. Usually, a veteran is paired with a rookie in order to aid the freshman, and Phaneuf has been a guide for Aulie. But Wilson’s point was that Aulie, although he is just 21 years old, had the mental makeup to keep Phaneuf steady.
We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, but it could turn out one day that Aulie is more valuable to the Leafs than Phaneuf. Both were part of the trade to Toronto that sent Matt Stajan and others to the Calgary Flames on Jan. 31, 2010, but Aulie never was just a throw-in on the deal.
“There were a lot of NHL players in that deal (six), so being in that calibre of a trade was an honour in itself,” Aulie said. “But I knew right away I would have high expectations.
“Fourteen months ago, if I was to look at it and say if everything goes right, then this is where I would be, then it has happened. Things have worked out.”
Aulie has skated in 34 games, scoring two goals and averaging 18 minutes 39 seconds of ice time. Rarely has he appeared to have needed more seasoning in the minors.
“There has been a huge adjustment, but not just with the speed of the game,” Aulie said. “It’s the strength of the players and the smarts that they have. The intelligence level with the plays guys are making, how they are able to look one or two plays ahead and stuff like that, it is a big jump.”
What’s encouraging about Kadri is that he is not beating himself up when he looks at his statistics with the Leafs. In 23 games, the 21-year-old has two goals and seven assists. It’s a far way off for someone who had 93 points in his final season on junior a year ago with the London Knights, but that Kadri is not cutting corners to try to create offence is reassuring.
“The offence is the part I have written in stone,” Kadri said. “The defence is well on its way. I want to step in and make an impact and help this team progress, and I think I have been doing that, whether it is breaking up plays or whatever. In order to generate offence, you have to start in the defensive zone, and I have been trying to do that.”