Leafs Take On Florida in the Shadow of the WJC

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    With the World Junior Championship gold medal game taking centre stage tonight (7:30pm, TSN), Leafs‘ fans can be forgiven for overlooking tonight’s matchup against an inconsistent Florida Panthers squad (7:00pm, Sportsnet).

    Coming off a disastrous mini-road trip out West, featuring losses to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, the Maple Leafs will look to inject some confidence into their lineup with a victory against the visiting Panthers, who sit only 4 points ahead of the Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.

    Panthers notes:

    - The Panthers boast two dangerous offensive threats to whom the Leafs‘ defenders must pay special attention: Stephen Weiss (18 G, 20 A in 42 games) and Nathan Horton (14 G, 27 A in 42 games), both of whom have experienced an offensive resurgence under coach Peter DeBoer.

    - Former Leaf Nation whipping-boy Bryan McCabe, who has quietly become the Panthers’ steadiest and most reliable blueliner (5 G, 16 A, +4 in 42 games), makes another return to the ACC. Unfortunately for the Leafs, the propensity for taking penalties at inopportune times seems to have become a thing of the past for McCabe (only 43 PIM).

    - Tomas Vokoun, sporting an outstanding .922 sv%,  is expected to get the start in net.

    - The Panthers are coming off a shocking 6-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, which ended a three-game losing streak.

    Leafs notes:

    - Coming off a solid outing in the loss to Calgary, Jonas Gustavsson will get the nod in tonight’s matchup.

    - John Mitchell returns from injury tonight, and will take the injured Mikhail Grabovski’s spot on the second line between Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Hagman.

    - Rickard Wallin is back in the lineup, filling Wayne Primeau’s spot on the third line between Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak.

    - According to AM640′s Jonas Siegel, Mike Komisarek, who missed yesterday’s practice, has been ruled out for tonight’s game with an upper body injury. Anticipated defensive pairings are: Kaberle-Schenn, White-Beauchemin, Finger-Exelby.

    A Note on AHL Call-ups:

    There has been a minor outcry in Leaf Nation over the lack of minor-league callups in the face of the Maple Leafs’ latest injury woes.  To this I say, patience.  Many have wondered why Tyler Bozak, with 8 points in his last 8 games, continues to remain on the farm as opposed to getting a shot with the big club.  He will, but right now there are several factors working against him:

    (1) John Mitchell is returning from injury, and the coaching staff wants to give him a chance to prove himself in a scoring role.

    (2) The Marlies‘ injury situation is even more tenuous than that of the Leafs. Simply put, they are out of available bodies to send to the Leafs, and recently added a number of players from the ECHL just to patch roster gaps.  Until the AHL regulars start returning from injury, or the situation arises where the team absolutely has to fill a roster spot, the odds of the Leafs calling up a key Marlies’ player are slim to none.

    (3) The comment Burke made about Bozak not being able to help the club has been taken widely out of context by many. This was not a shot at Bozak’s skill level, or where he is at with his game. Rather, it was a comment about what Burke feels is ailing the Maple Leafs squad – and clearly, he does not believe it is the play of the forwards.

    Witness the past two games:  in Edmonton, a weak goal late in the first took away all momentum built up in an otherwise excellent opening period by the Leafs.  Despite the scoresheet, the forwards didn’t do a bad job, generating many good scoring opportunities throughout the game.  In Calgary, the defense couldn’t handle the Flames’ puck-control game, the result of which was the Leafs’ players consuming all of their energy chasing the opposition in their own zone.

    In short, what Burke was saying with that comment was, the shortcomings that cost the team the games in Edmonton and Calgary were not the sort that could be solved by adding a rookie playmaker to the lineup.   He feels that at this point – especially in the context of the Marlies’ injury situation – it is better for Bozak’s development to continue to receive prime minutes in an AHL atmosphere where he can thrive, than to play limited minutes on a Leafs’ team whose primary issues remain the defensive aspect of the game.  Hence the reason Viktor Stalberg remains with the club and Bozak has not been given a shot – Stalberg’s two-way play is not a weakness, whereas that is an area widely viewed as lacking in Bozak’s game.

    That said, Grabovski is going to be out 4-6 weeks.  Somewhere in that time, Bozak will get a shot to prove his worth.  But it is very unlikely that he receives that opportunity until the Marlies begin to get some of their own injured players back into the lineup.  In the meantime, the Leafs are quite comfortable allowing him to develop his game in an AHL environment, as opposed to the pressure-cooker of the NHL.

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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