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Observations At The Quarter Pole

Tuesday, 11.18.2008 / 4:34 PM ET / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Observations At The Quarter Pole
Saturday, the Leafs play their 20th game of the season against Chicago. Ladies and gents, we are at the quarter pole.

With just one win in their last four games, the Leafs check in at 7-8-4 and sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings. They are five points out of 30th, 15 points in arrears of the first overall San Jose Sharks.

Time then to review what has worked, what hasn’t and what might happen.

Airtight They Ain’t: Ron Wilson’s fundamental values include team defence, penalty killing and preparation. The Maple Leafs instead stand 27th in the 30 team league in goals against.  They have been outscored 25-12 in the first period. They are dead last on the penalty kill.

Hag-Gri-Ku: Before the season, Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher wondered whether Nik Antropov was the only top-six forward he had. The line of Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin has easily been the most dynamic unit and with 18 goals, have contributed just under one goal a game. Grabovski’s nine goals put him ahead of Rick Nash, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. Acquired from the forward rich Canadiens for a second-rounder, Grabovski is the Leafs flashiest post-Mogilny forward. Grabovski and Hagman, signed as a free agent, have emerged as Fletcher’s canniest summer acquisitions.

Schensational: While his play has dipped narrowly, 19-year-old Luke Schenn remains the surprise of the season. He is always the first in when a teammate is in trouble. Definite keeper and probably future captain material.

Not Up to the Tosk: Wilson is unhappy with the play of Vesa Toskala and the numbers (3.23 goals against average and .878 save percentage) bear him out. Here are two stats to chew on: the Leafs are just 1-3 in shootouts and .500, 6-6-3 when they outshot their opponents.

Busted Beaks: Remember when the Leafs were always among the most penalized teams. Oh, how chatty they were when the calls went against them. No more. The bench looks like 20 Clint Eastwoods. Wilson has all but eradicated lazy stick and obstruction penalties. The result: the Leafs average 11.4 minutes a game, second fewest in the NHL.

Jason Jinxed: Wilson has twice made Jason Blake a healthy scratch. After a 15-goal season last season, Blake has just three this season and the former Islander has publicly mused about playing elsewhere.

Sitting Swedes: Projected to be a vital building block, Anton Stralman has endured some of Wilson’s tough love. Stralman is now getting special teams time and looks ready to build on his early season. If you think the seven games Stralman watched from the press box was a lot, consider his countryman Jonas Frogren. Signed as a defensive stopper, Frogren has been slow in adapting to the NHL game and has been scratched nine times.

Super Stajan:
Matt Stajan too spent a game in civilian clothes but the jolt to his pride has beneficial results. Stajan leads the team with 17 points (five goals and 12 assists).

Mayers Mired: The Leafs acquired Jamal Mayers to boost their team speed, toughens and defence while adding some timely offence. Mayers is an honest hockey player who is struggling. His minus-9 is the worst on the team and he has just one goal and three points.

White Knight: Scratched for the first 11 games of the season, Ian White has made himself into a jack-of-all trades. He has worked forward, defence and the special teams on the same game. White is a great story.

Burke’s Landing: The availability of Brian Burke to step in for Fletcher looms as the biggest Leafs story of the season. Fletcher insists he is more than ready to retire to Arizona. When he does leave, he will have left a major legacy.

Mats Matters: As he did all summer, Mats Sundin has refused to reveal if and where he wants to play. The Leafs say they want him back and with nearly $7 million before they hit the cap. The  Leafs have the cash, but they are faced with a vexing problem. If they are to retool, they need to allot money and playing time to young players. That ensures development and, let’s be honest, a higher draft ranking. That said, Sundin, one of the noblest players to wear the Leafs, needs to be somehow brought back into the fold.

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