January 27, 2012
Leafs: Five hot spots to watch
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|Toronto Maple Leafs Luke Schenn and Montreal Canadiens Travis Moen during 2nd period NHL hockey action at the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto on Jan. 21, 2012. (ERNEST DOROSZUK/QMI Agency)
With general agreement the Leafs need some kind of upgrade to get a lower-rung playoff spot and hold it until April, we look at five hot spots to watch in the coming days.
1. Trading for truculence.
Brian Burke is looking far and wide for an extra dimension to his top three lines, as Joffrey Lupul provided with Phil Kessel on the top unit.
The latest names (allegedly) linked to the Leafs include ex-Duck Travis Moen, Ryan Malone, Ryan Clowe and half the Anaheim Ducks, given Burke’s preference to deal with his old team in its troubled state. But in light of Lupul’s contributions and the success of the Jake Gardiner component of the same deal, Anaheim’s Bob Murray might be compelled to look elsewhere if he starts selling.
Complicating Burke’s attempts is that the Leafs have switched from the sellers’ side of the floor to the much more crowded buyers’ market. Even the bottom teams in the Eastern Conference are within 10 points of a playoff spot. With four straight wins coming into the break, a club such as Tampa Bay might have second thoughts about moving anyone. In the West, six points separate the seventh to 12th seeds.
2. Is Mac Back?
Call it faith or stubbornness, but coach Ron Wilson is determined to get Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin back in their 2010-11 form.
Starting with a season-opening suspension to MacArthur, Kulemin being in a daze and Grabovski alternating hot and cold, the unit has been broken up and restored many times in the first 49 games. A rumour had started that MacArthur could be sacrificed for as little as a draft pick, as he came into Tuesday’s game against the Islanders in an eight-game points’ drought.
Early on Tuesday, Wilson dropped MacArthur to the fourth line, but re-united the line in what became a nine-point night in a 4-3 overtime win.
“Clarke has been playing fine,” argued captain Dion Phaneuf after the game. “It’s not so much of a slump as people have been saying.”
MacArthur, who needs 38 points in the final 33 to match his career high of 62 points that fetched him a new two-year, $6.5 million contract, is anxious to reward Wilson’s faith.
“He’s great about giving us that extra chance, that extra push,” MacArthur said.
The next challenge for Wilson is getting Kulemin’s production up, though he has been better of late.
3. Schenn in the shade
There has been a rush to link a Luke Schenn trade to the contract extension signed by John-Michael Liles earlier this week.
But one thing is clear, a defenceman will have to sit out with Keith Aulie when Liles returns from a concussion next week. Schenn has benefitted from playing with Dion Phaneuf, but the pairing has put the captain on the unfamiliar left side. Because Phaneuf prefers the right and can play with just about anyone (Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson this year) Schenn might be the odd man out if Liles’ most recent partner, Cody Franson, is retained. Mike Komisarek’s improved play and his big ticket would likely see him stay in the lineup to augment the quick Jake Gardiner.
4. Marlie matters
In addition to Liles, winger Colby Armstrong hopes to be back after the break from his own head injury. Yes, he’s missed more games than he’s played since the start of last year, but he is highly valued in the room and on the ice.
His return would put a 100% healthy roster one over the 23-man limit, unless Aulie or Gardiner go back to the Marlies. But with a schedule crunch coming early, including a Western road trip, the Leafs will likely be near capacity.
5. Power down
When Liles comes back, he should be re-instated on the power play. After initial success without his puck moving capabilities, the Leafs have been in a 1-for-21 slide since mid-January.
Liles had 10 power-play points and remains fourth in that department on the team despite missing a month. With a better penalty kill, special teams could be the difference in April.