Improved Play Means More Than Just Points

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are ranked third in the Eastern Conference during the last 10 games with a 6-2-2 record, and while that is no major accomplishment, it’s an indicator that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

I’m not referring to the late-season battle for playoff berths in the bottom seeds, which seems to happen regularly since the three-point games were introduced after the lockout, but rather the National Hockey League Trade Deadline.

Since the Leafs’ abysmal failure to start the season, fans of the Blue and White have seen their team go 9-6-6 since the eight-game losing streak. That’s not exactly the most flattering record in the NHL, but all things considered, it appears as though the franchise is finally starting to exorcise its demons, capped with an unusual win on home-ice last night against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Despite the Leafs only being five points removed from a playoff spot, although with six teams to leapfrog, what’s gotten me gleeful is the performances of some of the team’s pending unrestricted free agents.

It’s no secret that Brian Burke is not content with this current Leafs squad heading into the future. Although players like Jonas Gustavsson, Phil Kessel, Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and a few others have solidified their roles for the next few seasons, the Leafs’ roster will undergo a variety of changes in the coming years. Lucky for Burke, he’ll have the luxury of shedding half the Leafs’ roster by simply letting the players’ contracts expire this summer. The list includes Matt Stajan, Lee Stempniak, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Jamal Mayers, Wayne Primeau, Garnet Exelby, Vesa Toskala and Joey Macdonald. If the Leafs decide not to resign any of the players listed above, that would shed $21.175 million dollars, which is a whole lot of money!

Now, let’s take a look at how some of those UFA’s have been performing thus far:

Matt Stajan – 28 GP, 9 G, 21 PTS

Alexei Ponikarovsky – 29 GP, 11 G, 20 PTS

Lee Stempniak – 29 GP, 7 G, 14 PTS

Not too shabby. All of these players have picked up their play considerably and, if they can establish some consistency as a team, should see their point totals increase.

With several teams close to NHL salary cap, the stars of the league will be in short supply come the Trade Deadline, and as usualy only a few big names will be shipped to new teams. However, due to the frenzy the Trade Deadline creates amongst General Managers, several of the trades involve secondary scorers due to the affordable cap hits. Taking a glance at the Leafs’ offence, I’d say all except for Kessel are secondary scorers.

Now, the beauty of it all is that the Leafs have Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg to fill-in the empty roster spots, and they wouldn’t be inserted in fourth-line roles either.
While removing players like Ponikarovsky and Stajan could affect the short-term success of the team, especially if the “Frat Boys” continue to struggle while learning the rigors of the NHL, what type of return could these pending UFA’s garner?

With a capable cast of players who appear to be primed for an eventual role with the Leafs, could Burke manage to restock the prospect cupboard this March?

It’s all contingent on the performances from some of the players listed above. If the Leafs can remain in the playoff race, Burke will be able to maximize the value of his trade assets. However, considering the inconsistent nature of the team, this could just as easily go the other way.

Whatever happens, it’s crucial the Leafs focus on acquiring as much draft picks and/or prospects as possible at the Trade Deadline instead of making a run for the post-season.

It’s still about rebuilding, and this team is not even close to being done.

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