>>>DISCUSS IT HERE
Itâ€™s time to take a closer look at the Maple Leafs roster for the upcoming season. As much as some of the younger players have performed well this pre-season, there seems to be too many one way contracts with a death grip on much of the opening night roster.
Looking up front, Cliff Fletcher has already stated he only has one top six forward â€“ Antropov â€“ but the team must still provide a top six group. Ponikarovsky will have to put up a better effort in tonightâ€™s rematch with the Penguins. His first game this pre-season was sloppy and he seemed to lack chemistry with everyone on the club. A line that featured the young Belarusian, Mikhail Grabovski, alongside Poni and Antropov had a lot of creativity. Antropov and Grabovski would throw the puck around back and forth to each other into the attacking zone, but as soon as they gave the puck to Poni, he would throw the puck at the goalie with little attempt at providing a rebound or a goal. It could be the engine needs some oil or Ponikarovsky just doesnâ€™t quite get the new system.
A projected second line has Jiri Tlusty joining Matt Stajan and Jason Blake. Tlusty has noticeably grown as a player from last year, and he could potentially be the go to guy for the Leafs this season. His high end speed gives him time to see the ice better and his playmaking skills is thriving this preseason. Jason Blake has been playing like his usual self thus far. He has returned to his usual gritty, in-your-face self and it looks as if the pressure is off his back this year to net a wishful thinking 40 goals. Now that the asking price is down in the 20s, itâ€™s a requirement the veteran sniper will be able to accomplish. Matt Stajan has been nothing but solid so far and looked like one of the better forwards in the Monday meeting with the Sabres.
Insert Niklas Hagman, Alex Steen and Nikolai Kulemin â€“ a line Ron Wilson has spoken of on occasion. They work well together in practice and the coach is looking for Kulemin to put up a full 60 minute effort in his hurried transition to North American hockey. If Kulemin cannot gel tonight on the top line, do not be surprised if he begins the season in the Marlies. Niklas Hagman had a bit of a rough start in Wednesdayâ€™s game as the puck jumped off him quite often in the first period. For the rest of the game, Hagman provided more speed and some interesting setups for his shots â€“ a toe-drag here, a slap shot using a defensive screen there â€“ and he became a threat with every shift as the game wore down. Alex Steen was a solid two-way player; in fact, he was so solid you barely noticed him. He shut down the opposition throughout the evening but his offensive flare may prove to be lacking once again this season. In the short time he spent with him, Mike Peca molded this young Swede into a shut down machine.
That leaves the likes of Mark Bell, Boyd Devereaux, Ryan Hollweg, Jamal Mayers, Dominic Moore and John Mitchell contending for the remaining 3 spots.
Keep in mind, Hollweg will be an energy player and will be in and out of the lineup when necessary, although his presence was definitely a game shifting performance in his only appearance for the Leafs on Monday. Jamal Mayers was acquired last June, so heâ€™s likely to be a regular. Dominic Moore put up a great outing on Monday night and was by no means out of place last season for the Leafs. He put up 3 points in 30 games for the Wild and finished the year off with an additional 14 points in 38 games with the buds. Mark Bell has put his problems behind him, and last year there were signs that a top 6 forward was still lingering inside. Boyd Devereaux found his role on the third line this year, but with more depth he could be pushed to a rotating fourth liner. John Mitchell has provided two solid outings this pre-season, using his 6â€™1â€ 205lbs stature to his advantage while showing he also has a great deal of speed. I think it would be a mistake for the Leafs to demote the 23 year old.
Now take into consideration that only Niklas Hagman has a NTC for this season with the Leafs and players like Kulemin, Grabovski and Tlusty can be sent down without losing the players to waivers. I am not saying that they do not deserve to make the club, Iâ€™m merely acknowledging the simple truth that in order to not lose anyone for no return, the Leafs make start the season with the above mentioned in the AHL.
The fact is the Leafs need to make a trade. The player with the most trade bait, and in my opinion the most likely to go, is Alexei Ponikarovsky. Heâ€™s been a consistent 2nd to 3rd line player for his entire career, showing flashes of pure offensive talent at times, but has always provided a solid game. Heâ€™s netted the goals that need to be scored on occasion, almost a bit of a Gary Valk presence, but with the Leafs stocked with new young blood there is little doubt the Leafs could easily find a replacement. But one player isnâ€™t going to make up the difference.
There are 15 players competing for 12 spots. Even if the Leafs do manage to move a body, thereâ€™s still 14 guys out there ready to play. Rotate Ryan Hollweg and youâ€™re down to 13, one of which will be rotating with Hollweg. Maybe thatâ€™s all the Leafs are looking for right now â€“ a fourth line that routinely changes based on the character of the opposing team.
Micheal A. Aldred