Two things became very apparent to me as I watched the Leafs fall to Nashville Tuesday night. The first and most obvious, is that this team is not out of the John Tavares sweepstakes just yet.
The second, is that despite one of their poorest performances of the season, there are teams out there – NHL teams – interested in acquiring the services of current members of the Maple Leafs. In fact, I’ve never seen so many scouts, GMs and other team officials at a game. All told, there were representatives from 15 different NHL squads at the Nashville game. Some of the more noticeable faces were Mike Gillis, GM of the Vancouver Canucks, and John Ferguson, former GM of the Leafs and currently under the employ of the San Jose Sharks.
So while this is clearly the season for skilled veterans such as Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov to be inadvertently showing off their wares to potential suitors, it’s time to officially recognize that for another segment of the Maple Leafs roster, this portion of the season is just as crucial.
For the youngsters, now is the time to earn their place on the 2009-10 Toronto roster.
If big moves can’t be made at the trade deadline in early March, they will certainly take place over the summer. If all goes according to plan, by that time the Buds will be flush with a heady combination of draft picks, blue-chip prospects and salary cap space. This means the roster spots essentially handed to players this year will, hopefully, result in dogfights next year.
And the kids are getting their chances. Thanks to injuries and suspensions, Niklas Hagman played on a line with youngsters John Mitchell and Jiri Tlusty against Nashville. Mitchell has been a consistent grinder for the Leafs all season and if Brian Burke’s blueprints are left over from Anaheim, I can see Mitchell centering an effective energy line with Brad May and Andre Deveaux going forward.
Tlusty, in the meantime, needs to make the most of time with the big club. It’s certainly not his fault that the Leafs may have brought him up too soon last year, but if he wants to be a consistent NHLer, it’s all on him now. Tlusty has tantalizing skills and was even given power play time (as was Mitchell) against Nashville. If we are accepting this as a “lost season” by this point, Tlusty should continue to get power play time so Leafs brass can gauge if he does indeed have top-six forward potential.
On the back end, a No. 2 Luke Schenn jersey may be the only safe purchase for Leafs fans these days, but that doesn’t mean the rough and tumble rookie can get comfortable. Coming off his injury absence, Schenn no longer has an excuse should he tire down the stretch. The blueliner will get a lot of ice time going forward and his missions are simple: work on his point shot and work on his positioning. Getting caught out of a place has been a hallmark of nearly all Leaf defenders this season, but Schenn is seen as the future cornerstone, so the stakes are higher. His youthful exuberance can still get the best of him, but he obviously has a good head on his shoulders and will learn given time.
In net, Justin Pogge must get some starts. It seems obvious next year’s crease rotation will be Vesa Toskala and Pogge, so the youngster needs reps. They could be meaningless games at the end of the season, but playing against NHL competition is key. Pogge was great against Atlanta in his debut, but let’s see what he can do against a playoff team.
Think of it as a metaphor for the Leafs as a whole: it doesn’t matter if he wins, he just needs to be prepared for the future.