TORONTO - The longer Mikael Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur remain ordinary or less than that, the longer shot the Maple Leafs become in this day-by-day race for a place in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It can’t be Phil Kessel every night. It can’t be Joffrey Lupul every game. They’ve never been season-long stars before. You can’t expect them to continue on a pace that may be out of their league.
But there is no reason to expect the middle of the Maple Leafs lineup to be invisible. That is among the large questions — and there are many — as the Leafs are one game away from the all-star break. The Leafs are hanging in, barely, remaining in the race, performing just adequately as a team, unsure of their goaltending, unsure of their defensive acumen, unsure where scoring is going to come from, if it doesn’t come from what has been their two all-stars up front in the first half.
It isn’t often in sports that players become what they have never been before and that has been so much the story of this Leafs season. Kessel, an inconsistent yet streaky goal scorer of years gone by, has never been thought of as a player who could lead a team anywhere. That has been the assessment of him and on important teams, like the Boston Bruins and the U.S. Olympic team in 2010 — coached by his own Ron Wilson — he was deemed an afterthought.
An afterthought the Leafs are now so dependent upon.
The Lupul question is even more complex than that of Kessel. He has had a marvellous first half in so many different ways, from leading the Leafs in scoring, finding a place in the top 10, getting named an alternate all-star captain, and showing the kind of play on the boards, in deep, in difficult places, that teams are forever dependent upon. This has been his coming out party. But the question he is often asked, and he must wonder about himself is: Is all this real?
And if the answer turns out out to be no, what then for the Leafs?
It’s no secret why the Leafs have had difficulty in recent games generating any kind of offence. Kessel is slumping. Lupul isn’t generating the kind of offence he had previously — and frankly, they’re getting far more attention from opponents than they were earlier.
Which brings the Leafs back to what was their second line a year ago and now are players scattered through the lineup and not necessarily contributing a lot.
Grabovski, at times last season and in training camp this year, looked like the best Leaf. But when was the last time anybody said that? When was the last game he created all kinds of offence for himself with his natural creativity. Grabovski picked the wrong year to have a contract year: His value isn’t increasing, it’s decreasing.
And in fairness, he has been significantly better than Kulemin or MacArthur. Combined last year, the trio scored 80 goals. This year, they’re on pace for 54 goals. For a team that already gives up too many goals against and needs to score more than they give up, they can’t lose those 26 goals, because frankly they’re not strong enough in their defensive-zone coverages to make up for the goals against.
The Leafs had difficulty generating offence Monday night against the Islanders at home that didn’t come from Kessel or Lupul.
This coming after the Leafs scored just one goal against Montreal on Saturday night. As a team, they only scored two goals in a key game against Ottawa at home. And before that they were shutout by the New York Rangers.
Throw out the game against the absolutely dead Minnesota Wild and the Leafs scored four goals in their past four home games against teams that were alive and breathing.
When a Leafs executive was asked Monday night “How are things?” he answered quite honestly: “I’ll tell you in a couple of hours.”
That’s what nervous executives sound like when they’re not sure about their teams. If the people in charge aren’t sure, what are fans supposed to think?
Lupul and Kessell combined on a goal when the Leafs needed them Monday night in yet another game of consequence to the Eastern Conference playoff race. That’s what stars are supposed to do on desperate nights like this one.
The Leafs are now 13-6-3 in games in which Kessel scores, and 23-12-1 in games in which Lupul registers a point. They’re carrying their load.
Joey Crabb fed Matthew Lombardi for an insurance goal against the Isles, his second of the night. That helps.
But it’s time for the rest of the team — those being paid to score — to chip in a little something.