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A very interesting story is beginning to develop out west. The Anaheim Ducks top prospect, defenseman Justin Schultz, has been the best blueliner in college for the past two seasons. We’re talking about a 6’2 well-rounded defenseman with strong skating ability, slick passing ability, a very good point shot and a boatload of upside. During his age 20 and 21 years in the NCAA, he’s scored 34 goals and 91 points in 78 games played for Wisconsin.  There’s the potential here for a future top pairing defenseman. Remember the Gardiner-Lupul trade last season? Schultz was a big reason that trade happened because the Ducks believed (and they may be right) that Justin was the better of the two talented young blueliners. Now here’s the thing: he has not yet signed with the Ducks and is due to become a league-wide free agent this coming summer.

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Image: The Star

Few 25 year old NHL players have had careers as interesting as that of Kris Versteeg. Sure, there are guys who’ve done some great things early, but Versteeg has definitely had a weird past couple years.

After some good seasons and eventually a Stanley Cup win in Chicago, he was sent to the “center of the hockey universe” in Toronto, wasn’t given a fair shake (or at least he and many others believe), got dealt to Philadelphia and didn’t do much of anything, and now is producing big time in Florida.

We knew something was up with Versteeg when he was sent packing out of Leafland and basically couldn’t wait to jump on the plane. And in the past few days he’s made some comments that sort of paint the picture as to why things didn’t work out with our beloved Maple Leafs.

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Photo: Abelimages/Getty Images North America

In what proves the process is a huge joke, Daniel Alfredsson led fan balloting for the 2012 All Star selection followed by Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, meaning Kessel and Lupul will have to selected by the League. Democracy has indeed failed.

You have to feel for poor Dion Phaneuf, who was second highest vote getter among defencemen. He will have to skate alongside 4 Senators in the opening lineup and his D partner is Erik Karlsson, who will undoubtedly score three points the opening shift and still finish a -2.

Kessel garnered the fourth most fan votes among forwards, and Lupul was 5th. The two are 4th and 5th in the points scoring race and are the only two to have played more than 30 and never gone more than a game without a point.

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Photo Credit: www.medvescak.com

On 17th of December 2011 Zagreb’s most prestigious hockey club, Medveščak Zagreb, celebrated their 50th anniversary. To mark and celebrate this event the KHL sent one of their most decorated and historic teams – Dynamo Moscow. To put it in North American perspective, Dynamo is close to the Leafs or Canadiens in terms of their European rating.

16th of December 2011. I am invited to attend the press conference which is going to be held at one of the hotels closest to Medveščak’s home arena, Dom Sportova (Home Of Sports). It’s only logical since the Russian team will have to depart soon after the game to meet their demanding KHL schedule. I feel extremely honored and lucky to be able to attend because even if hockey is still a growing sport in Croatia, it was always my dream and where I live opportunities like this one don’t come along very often.

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Image: sbnation.com

As you no doubt aware, the NHL Governers agreed Monday night to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan for realignment, in an effort to reduce team travel and shake up the structure of the playoff system. Gone would be the two-conference, six-division setup that fans have grown accustomed to since the mid-90s, to be replaced by a four-conference system in which each team is guaranteed home-and-home matches with all other teams.

The recommended format — which must pass the NHLPA approval process before becoming official — also promotes inter-conference rivalries, while preserving traditional rivalries which built up under the former (er, current, for now) system.  While there are several advantages to the new system, which addresses many concerns voiced by fans throughout the years, there are a few disadvantages to adopting this approach also. And since this is a Toronto Maple Leafs blog, I’m sure you’re all wondering how exactly these changes will affect the boys in blue. We’ll get to that a bit further down.

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There is just something special about an athlete who transcends a normal level of skill by such a large margin that you have absolutely no hope of replicating it, even seeing it in any other venue, at any other time, no matter how much you practice or what level of hockey you watch. Just by knowing that fact we are all even more obsessed by the greatest player in the greatest game in the world.

No, his skill cannot be duplicated by any player in the game right now. Maybe that’s because no other player works as hard on improving every single aspect of his game. Crosby is obsessed with hockey, and by being obsessed he captivates us like no other player in the game. We hang on each and every move he makes, expecting it, but still being amazed every time.

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Today, I’d like to talk about an issue that’s been a somewhat heated topic of many discussions during the past three days. Suspensions and enforcing discipline have becoming increasingly important talking points because today’s players have made significant progress in terms of their physical ability compared to their former counterparts. The conditioning has never been better, the speed with which the game is played today is unparalleled by any former era of puck chasing. The equipment is better suited for protecting the player wearing it, but as a byproduct it has also become a devastating weapon for inflicting serious bodily harm on your fellow player.

All of the above (plus additional variables) contributed to discipline being one the most talked about points during last year. The Colin Campbell era as chief NHL disciplinarian will mostly be remembered for the lack of consistency in his rulings. This writer is of the opinion that Campbell indeed tried to be fair and just, but his “old school” attitude (which can be read from some of his rulings and dealings with the press) caused him to bow down to the stereotypes that plagued this game for decades. I also don’t think he didn’t try to be progressive, but I guess being progressive isn’t as easy when you’re part of the old guard.

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"May you have a long & prosperous NHL Â career."

Each day we see increasingly younger sports phenoms wowing us with their performances in various sports. The age of elite athletes has dropped considerably and drastically.

All of today’s superstars are younger, stronger and more developed than their counterparts of the past. Accordingly, never in the history of the NHL had there been so many young players dominating the league.

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Despite the tragic news of yesterday’s plane crash that rocked the hockey world, I’m going to try and change gears a little and keep things as NHL and Leafs-related as possible.

Why? Because we could probably use a few distractions for a minute, and anything I write isn’t going to hold a candle to the many thoughts and tributes outpouring from friends, colleagues, journalists and teammates that have a close relationship with those involved in what is surely the most terrifying hockey story of our time.

Two former Leafs were involved in the Lokomotiv crash; Alexander Karpovtsev and Igor Korolev, both assistant coaches. Their ties with Toronto still run deep, as you’ll read in a couple of the links below.

Mislav wrote a short piece yesterday that was both saddening and sincere, as you could tell he was deeply affected by the event. For someone who is more in tune with the international hockey scene than most, that sort of news has to be tough to wrap your head around. It’s been an absolutely terrible year for hockey, but we’ll keep going.

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Eariler today, a plane containing the roster of the KHL hockey club, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, caught fire and crashed shortly after take-off, merely 4 kilometers from Tunosjno-airport. Preliminary reports say that 43 of the 45 passengers on board had been killed, and that the only surviving player was in critical condition. It was later announced that Alexander Galimov is only player on-board to survive the crash.

Among the deceased are Igor Korolev, Alexander Karpovtsev, Karlis Skrastins, Brad McCrimmon, Ruslan Salei and a former NHL star Pavol Demitra who scored 304 goals and 768 points in 847 NHL games. I loved watching him play and am extremely saddened by his passing. I would like to think we’re more than a Leafs blog, so we should all express our sencere thoughts and prayers regarding this tragedy that shook the entire hockey world. In times like these, there is no NHL vs. the KHL rivalry, only togetherness and unity.

Here is a part of the statement from IIHF President Rene Fasel, it really tells the whole story – “This is the darkest day in the history of our sport, this is not only a Russian tragedy, the Lokomotiv roster included players and coaches from ten nations.”

R.I.P. hokejisti Локомотив Яросла́вль

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We get a lot of Leafs content on the site.  That makes a tonne of sense given the URL.  But every once in a while, it’s nice to take a look at some of the early storylines that could define a team’s success or failure over the course of the year.  So join me after the jump for 30 insights (okay that’s a strong word) on the league and your daily dosage of links.

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Don't Think Cooke Played In This Game

Ryan posted a very interesting article this morning, and it got me thinking. This isn’t my response to that topic, but rather a question which has a direct relation to that particular subject. How exactly do rule changes affect our perception of player ethics?

My topic brings me back to the Scott Stevens vs. Matt Cooke scenario. In short, Scott Stevens is still considered an All Star NHL defenseman and a legend while (honourable mention to Sean Avery) Matt Cooke currently holds the mantle of the most hated man in hockey.

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Mike Brown

Photo: Canadian Press

Matt Cooke says he’s a changed man and doesn’t want to hurt another player with an illegal hit. I believe him.

In fact, I doubt he’s ever gone into a season with the intention of ending as many careers as possible or anything foolish like that. Though, because of his recent past he’s become well-known as the dirtiest player in the NHL – until he punches a full 82 game season without incident, it’ll stay that way. Makes sense.

The recent news about Cooke’s “changed ways” stirred up a lot of conversation around the blogosphere and Twitter. Some seemed happy about Cooke trying to make a change, others crucified them for “supporting that monster.”

One argument I’ve heard from Penguins fans who continue to say they’re a fan of Cooke, is that it’s as simple as this: “Cooke is a Penguin, I’m a fan of the Penguins, I’ll support Matt Cooke. You would do the same if he played with your favorite team.”

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Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Alexander Ovechkin might be a more frightening sight coming down the left wing, Sidney Crosby may be the best player in the world, Pavel Datsyuk might be the most complete player in the NHL but as it stands now, nobody is a greater goalscoring threat than a 20 year old kid from Unionville, Ontario. His name – Steven Stamkos.

As much as Alex Ovechkin might be offended by this notion it is absolutely true. Ovechkin has, looking at the overall skillset, more natural talent, arguably because of a physical game that is a bit better than that part of Stamkos’ game. But, when comparing their speed, defensive play, power play contributions, offensive play and shot there are a good number of things going Steven’s way.

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Photo Credit: NHL.com

The rivalries remain, but the faces change.  For all the substantial additions that the Leafs have made, the 29 other teams in the league have not been idle.  Though its anyone’s game any given night, it’s the contemplative, patient process of adding the right pieces during the summer that allow continued success over the marathon half year regular season.  Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be looking at all 6 divisions in the NHL team by team, how the Leafs compared to them last season, their improvements, additions, subtractions and the Leafs outlook against these revamped teams come the fall.

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"l'enfer, c'est les autres"

What a difference a week makes, eh? Last week, all the buzz was about the now forgotten and insignificant Dry Island fiasco (only jerks use the Woodward and Bernstein ‘-gate’).  But it’s August now and while it’s cooling off outside, things are heating up around the league.  Most significantly, Shea Weber and the Nashville Predators need a mediator and Ryan Kesler has gone under the knife. Join me after the jump for news, commentary on Weber and links

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So, how about this nice weather? Got any plans for the long weekend? *sigh*

Well, there is virtually nothing to talk about in the hockey world. The Islanders and Devils made a little noise by swinging a deal that sent Brian Rolston and a conditional pick to New York in exchange for Trent Hunter. Rolston is nearing the end of his career, but will provide veteran experience up front and likely play the point on the power play. This move also helps the Devils clear cap space in order to re-sign RFA Zach Parise. While Hunter was a serviceable player throughout his tenure with the Islanders, they needed to move closer to the cap floor, which they accomplished by acquiring Rolston’s large salary.

In other news, the Vancouver Canucks avoided arbitration with Jannik Hansen, signing him to a three-year deal.

The countdown is on until we can start talking about our beloved Leafs again. Can’t wait.

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Photo: NYDailyNews

I could try to populate this space with filler about unimportant hockey news, or speculation over Luke Schenn that we’ve all discussed for four trillion hours. But I’ll save us all from the boredom and keep this short.

Ryan Callahan re-signed with the Rangers yesterday, avoiding arbitration by agreeing to a three year term to stay in New York. With only Shea Weber and Zach Parise remaining as important names to head to arbitration (they surely save the best for last), we all get the sense that the offseason is winding down – and it is.

We’re a couple days from August, which puts us about a month out from hockey really kicking into gear again. Hold tight folks, we’re only a few Thursday Mashups away from training camp.

On to the links after the jump

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Photo Credit: Getty Images

Stupefying. Crazy. Insane. Dean Lombardi showed some balls. Paul Holmgren did everything he said he wouldn’t. Eklund kind of got something right. Does it all add up to one of the most memorable trade days in recent NHL history? When you’ve got the best prospect in hockey, and two star players moving residency you might just have to get creative with the old vocabulary to find a more suitable word for it. It’s not everyday you see two star centermen dealt, let alone from the same team.

The Philadelphia Flyers traded top goal scorer Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets for forward Jakub Voracek and the club’s first- and third-round picks. I guess that wasn’t enough for the Broad Street Bullies as they finished blowing up the team by dealing their captain, Mike Richards to the LA Kings in exchange for Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds and a 2nd round pick. Then, the Flyers signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, whose rights they acquired during this off season a third-round pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, forward Matt Clackson, and future considerations, to a nine year, 51 million dollar deal.