Anyone who witnessed the past week of Leafs (14-9-2) hockey would be hard-pressed to argue that the West remains the stronger conference. Toronto walked into Dallas and Anaheim last weekend and took all four points from the 14-9-1 Stars and the talented-but underperforming Ducks (now under the watch of Bruce Boudreau) to move to 5-1-2 against Western Conference teams. Then, after three days between games and a chance to return home, the Leafs couldn`t extend their three-game winning streak against the freight train that is the Boston Bruins right now.
Not Bad for a Pair of Rookies
They were born on opposite sides of the border and don`t even play the same position, but there`s plenty that connects Leafs rookies Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner. Both men arrived in Toronto during the 2010-11 season (Frattin as a college signee and Gardiner in the Beauchemin-Lupul deal), both men moved up the ranks by playing NCAA hockey, both used impressive pre-seasons to propel them into early NHL dury and both men are making an early mark on the 2011-12 Leafs after slow starts. Neither one is exactly setting the NHL on fire stats-wise (Gardiner has no goals and seven assists, while Frattin has two goals and three assists), but they are quickly adjusting to the speed and physicality of the pro level and becoming more and more visible as contributors. Frattin began the season looking like he was afraid to jump into the rush as a fill-in for Clarke MacArthur on the second line, but has since developed a physical edge and has shown a willingness to get involved offensively. Gardiner, meanwhile, has grown increasingly comfortable as a puck-moving defenceman and, despite still getting caught out of position every now and then, remains one of nine Leafs on the positive side of the plus-minus ledger.
Gustavsson Finds Consistency
Lost in all the talk of James Reimer`s pending return to the line-up (he`ll likely dress on Saturday, but may not start until next week) has been the productive recent play of his back-up. Jonas Gustavsson isn`t exactly making anyone forget Optimus Reim or challenging him for the starting job, but the Monster has demonstrated the kind of steady, reliable play (at least in the last few games) that a team needs from its goaltending understudy. Over his past five games, since he regained sole possession of the No. 2 spot of the depth chart from Ben Scrivens, Gustavsson has looked more settled between the pipes and the results have shown: a 4-1 record with a.927 save percentage over that stretch (4-0 with a .944% prior to Wednesday`s loss to Boston). Getting Reimer back and playing at close to 100% remains critical for the club, but a consistent Gustavsson not only mitigates Reimer`s potential struggles upon returning, but also helps control the trickle down development of the rest of the organization`s goaltenders (Scrivens, Mark Owuya, Jussi Rynnas).
Two issues with people talking as though Bobby Ryan to the Leafs is a foregone conclusion: 1) it serves as an excellent example of the `Toronto is the centre of the hockey universe` thinking that other cities despise us for; and 2) it counteracts much of what Brian Burke has effectively done for the franchise in terms of top-to-bottom improvements. It can`t be disputed that Ryan is a major asset, but here`s the deal: 28 other teams are thinking the same thing. Who doesn`t want a 24-year old coming off exactly 100 goals over his first three NHL seasons? Regardless of the fact that Burke drafted him, or whatever relationship the Leafs GM still has with Anaheim GM Bob Murray (and really, how eager is Murray to deal with Burke after how Beauchemin-for-Lupul/Gardiner is shaping up?), any trade match comes down to a matter of assets and who is willing to cough up the most for the former Owen Sound Attack star (this isn’t an attempt at a salary dump by Anaheim – they’re seeking a premium return). Which brings me to my second point – Burke has done a tremendous job since arriving in Toronto at not only adding established star power (Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf), but also bringing in viable depth and restocking the farm system. Sure, some of those assets will ultimately be peddled as the team inches closer to contending, but the Leafs appear to be on the right track at the moment and while the right Ryan trade could provide the club with an added dimension, the wrong trade could undo a good chunk of the work Burke has done to this point.
Injury Winners & Losers
It’s hard to keep track of who’s coming and going on the Leafs’ IR list these days, with so many players seeming to succumb to or return from injury on what seems like a daily basis. Despite some among the battered and bruised returning of late, the team is still without a full complement of players, with Reimer, Colby Armstrong, Matthew Lombardi and Mike Komisarek remaining out. While the line-up will still undergo some shake-ups as that quartet comes back, it is beginning to take shape once again with most of the team in place. That is good news for Frattin, Tyler Bozak and Keith Aulie, but could mean trouble for Joe Colborne, Joey Crabb, Mikhail Grabovski and Cody Franson. The good news players have thrived and appear to be locking up spots that were previously thought to be insecure at best. Frattin has demonstrated sufficient versatility on the wing that he should find a consistent role on the third or fourth line regardless of Armstrong’s return, Bozak is entrenched as the top line pivot and Aulie continued to see ice time alongside Phaneuf despite the return of Carl Gunnarson. However, there are only so many spots to go around, so Colborne and Crabb, who could be among the first sent down as Armstrong and Lombardi come back, Grabovski, who is already struggling to find a role at the suddenly-deep centre position, and Franson, who found himself back in the press box against Boston, could all get (literally) short-shifted.
What’s Coming Up
@ Boston (Saturday); @ NYR (Monday); vs. New Jersey (Tuesday)
Saturday at Boston offers an interesting test to see just how mentally tough these Leafs are. Even if they don’t win, staying close and competitive while visiting a team that clearly has their number would be an accomplishment in and of itself. If they can’t gain two points in Beantown, the pressure builds for a back-to-back pair of games at Madison Square Garden and then at home to New Jersey. Of course, the biggest storyline of the week is the pending return of Reimer.
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Written by Ben Fisher