Random thoughts and opinions from (roughly) the halfway point of the season:
* Glad to see the mustache is back in style.Â Â In fact, when I was younger I grew a goatee just because everyone else was doing the ‘stache.Â Then the ’93 Canadiens all grew goatees during their Cup run, and it became a social mainstay.Â Â Yes, folks, it’s true: my hatred of the Habs has nothing to do with the Leafs, and everything to do with facial hair.
* Matt Stajan continues to impress.Â Honestly, at the start of the season, how many of you thought of this guy as a legitimate #1, or even #2, centre in the NHL?Â Memo to Burke: don’t trade this guy.Â He’s young, he can play any forward position, all special teams, and has the “C” firmly within his sights.Â Â Â On a team full of trade bait, this guy is a definite keeper.
* The more I watch him play, the more I like Alexei Ponikarovsky as a second/third line winger and PP specialist.Â Â When he decides to park in front of the net, he’s as tough to move as anyone.Â Might be worth keeping around, after all.
* Grabovski has shown more ability, passion, and two-way acumen, than most of us thought heading into the season.Â Â Playing alongside Hagman has really helped him at the NHL level.Â If fact, the best thing about Hagman’s signing may not be his reliable play and effort, but the impact he’s had on Grabovski’s overall game.Â Â That future draft pick Fletcher moved for Grabovski doesn’t seem like such a bad deal anymore, does it?
* Jason Blake has quietly put up 24 points in 38 games.Â That doesn’t come close to justifying his awful contract – not by a long shot – but at least he’s giving it an honest effort.Â Say what you will about the guy, but you have to admit he’s been far more effective this season than most expected.
* Dominic Moore.Â If Stajan doesn’t wind up with the “C”, this guy is the next best choice.Â Nobody plays with more heart, effort, and intelligence than Moore.Â Â He is the ultimate role player, the kind of bit player who doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet, but is essential to the team’s ultimate success (a good comparison might be the unheralded-but-essential PJ Axelsson in Boston).
* Jeff Finger.Â I still don’t like that size of contract for stay-at-home defenders (unless they are named Regehr or Foote), but that said, Finger has been a terrific shot-blocker and has proven he can handle some hefty minutes when required.Â Â He will be an important part of the puzzle, moving forward.
* Wendel (aka Ian) White has gone above and beyond this season, with solid play on both the blueline and the wing. Â The 11 points he has recorded so far do not tell the entire story. Although the offensive numbers may not be altogether impressive, his puck movement, defensive zone play, and physical game have all improved spectacularly over previous years’ efforts.Â ‘Stache power, baby!!!
* Vesa Toskala.Â I just don’t know what to say, other than his time as a starting netminder in Toronto – or for that matter, anywhere – is running out.Â Â At the start of the season, he signified hope, stability, and a possible first round pick.Â Â At this point, he is only one of those things: Hope … for members of Tank Nation, that is.
* Speaking of goaltenders, CuJo’s decline shouldn’t be shocking to anyone.Â Â It’s sad to see him go out like this, but not entirely unexpected.
* Hollweg/Deveaux/Mayers.Â Where is the grit?Â Where is the toughness?Â Where are the message-senders?Â Hollweg has done nothing, and scares nobody.Â Deveaux is too picky with his spots to be much more effective in that department.Â And Mayers has shown only flashes of his former pesky self.Â Â If anyone still needs an explanation for the Brad May deal, well, there you have it.
* Lee Stempniak.Â Â He’s been a bigger waste of ice time for the Leafs than Steen was, if that’s possible.Â And it’s not to knock the player himself – most people know that I am actually a fan of Alex Steen’s – but it is abundantlyÂ clear that neither player’s game fits Ron Wilson’s system.Â Â Speaking of that trade, I’d like to say that I miss Carlo Colaiacovo, but in truth, I haven’t really noticed he’s been gone.Â I guess I just got so used to him being on the shelf that in a way it seems like he never really left.
* John Mitchell.Â Â He’s a good kid and I hate to put him here, but the fact is, he has been invisible the past month or so and now sports a team worst -12 rating.Â He has shown, at times, that he belongs as a part of the future of this team.Â Â He has also shown, especially of late, that he is not yet ready to be a full-time NHLer.Â Â He needs a confidence boost, and the AHL would be the best place for him to get that.
* Team defense.Â Â I never thought I’d say it, but man oh man, does this team ever miss Bryan McCabe.Â Â Â Looking at the impact he’s had on Florida, I’m inclined to suggest that perhaps he wasn’t the problem here, after all. Â Just throwing it out there.
LOOKING TO THE DEADLINE
* Nik Antropov has been a revelation, and has proven worthy (at long last) of being selected in the first round.Â In fact, if Burke can manage to get a 1st for him, I suggest he do it – and fast.Â Nik The Stick has been remarkably healthy the past couple seasons, but speaking as a believer in injury history, there is no telling when this guy’s next major visit to the infirmiry is going to occur.Â I’d much rather he not be a Leaf when it does, considering that he will undoubtably command at least $4.5 million this summer, probably more.
* The acquisition of Brad May should make one or both of Mayers and Hollweg expendable, although with Burke at the helm I don’t see Mayers going anywhere.Â Hollweg might be moved because he has done (frankly) little of any use for this team, but he would only go as a throw-in.Â Â All the guy can do is fight, and he doesn’t even do that very well, so I can’t imagine a team offering up any kind of one-for-one for his services.
* Tomas Kaberle is playing well.Â Very well.Â [EDIT: offensively, not defensively.]Â So well, in fact, that he should bring in a hefty return at the deadline, if he follows through and waives his NTC.Â Â Pray that Florida can’t/won’t move Bouwmeester … Kaberle’s trade value will skyrocket if there is one less offensive defenseman with those types of skills on the market.
* The latest should-I-stay-or-should-I-go drama in Leafland ought to be hovering its clouds over Pavel Kubina’s house any day now.Â Will he follow Kaberle and waive, as some have suggested?Â Or will he want to stay in Toronto?Â And what will Burke’s take on it all be, given coach Wilson’s stated preference for the Big Czech?Â Â While Kubina may bring in a decent return, a young team could use a veteran presence on the blueline, and Kubina’s salary may be of benefit in terms of the cap floor.Â Â My guess is, it all depends on Bouwmeester.Â If Burke feels that he can get Bouwmeester this summer, he will jettison Kubina’s contract during the offseason trade window.Â Otherwise, #77 will remain in Toronto.
* Don’t expect to see Toskala get traded, unless it is to an injury-depleted team.Â Â The fact of the matter is, there is another year at $4 million left on his deal, and nobody is going to take that salary if he continues to look as shaky as he has been. Â Â Further, nobody will want to pay that kind of money to a backup, meaning any team that would trade for him is looking for a starter.Â And statistically-speaking, Toskala has been outplayed by all other starters in the league this year, and many of the backups also. Hate to say it, but it appears the Leafs may be stuck with him.Â Tank Nation, rejoice.
To quote Denny Green:Â “They are who we thought they were!”
The Leafs are not bad enough to finish anywhere near the Islanders (or even Ottawa at this point), so any Tavares talk should be put to rest until either (a) the Islanders figure out how to score, or (b) hell freezes over.Â Â Most likely, the Leafs will miss the playoffs, but be just good enough to finish outside of the draft lottery.Â Â As per usual.Â Â I expect a pick in the 6 – 10 range, which they will hopefully use to draft one of Evander Kane, Matt Duchene, or Brayden Schenn.Â Â And that’s not really a bad thing — any of those three would look great in blue & white in the not-so-distant future.