Here we are on February 28 – the day after the NHL trade deadline – and the Toronto Marlies are an improved AHL club as they head towards postseason play. Meanwhile, the Leafs, losers of eight of their past nine and moving in the wrong direction as the playoff race tightens, are left with the same personnel that just fell listlessly to Washington on Saturday.
Depending on your perspective, you either view this as Brian Burke’s expression of belief that the guys he has can get the job done, or, if you’re in the vast majority of Leafs Nation, you see it as another frustrating sign that the season is getting away from the boys in blue and that the club’s postseason drought is bound to continue.
Count me among the precious few that hold the former viewpoint.
While the Leafs don’t boast the netminding or defensive depth to compete with many members of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, their talent does seem to measure up well against New Jersey, Winnipeg, Washington and Tampa Bay, whom they will have to beat out down the stretch for the No. 8 spot. If they can simply remain in the mix into late March, they enjoy a favorable crunch-time schedule in which five of their final seven games come at home and their final four come against teams currently outside of the playoff bubble.
Sure, bringing a Rick Nash or Ryan Getzlaf on board would surely have helped the cause, but what could Burke have reasonably surrendered without jeopardizing some of the progress that the organization has legitimately made through his stewardship?
Instead of losing a young building block ala Jake Gardiner / Luke Schenn / Nazem Kadri / Joe Colborne / Matt Frattin, all five members of the 24-and-under crowd remain, with all but Gardiner and Schenn potentially around to help the Marlies with their playoff push. While the focus must clearly remain with the big club, Burke also couldn’t crumble under the pressure of recent struggles and a playoff-hungry fan base. From day one, his vision has been one of strengthening the organization from top to bottom in hopes of building a perennial contender – and he deserves credit for not letting Nash or any other hot market name change that.
Ashton for Aulie
The Leafs did actually surrender one young prospect with NHL experience in Keith Aulie, who was shipped out to Tampa in exchange for 2009 Canadian junior team member Carter Ashton.
The former Brandon Wheat King gained some fans early in his T.O. tenure thanks to a) being attached to the beloved Dion Phaneuf deal, b) making a quick climb to the big club after just five AHL games, c) being a big, physical Canadian boy and d) coming in with the ready-made “Muhammad Aulie” nickname. However, those paying attention to his continued development saw a few significant steps back in 2011-12.
Aulie was being outskated, demonstrating poor judgment and was even a liability with the Marlies, getting saddled with a -8 through 23 games. Coming into restricted free agency after this season, Toronto was going to seriously have to consider their level of commitment to the 22-year-old blue liner with young guys like Korbinian Holzer and Jesse Blacker pushing past him on the depth chart.
That being said, giving up a still-developing rearguard with that kind of size (6’6″, 217 pounds) is a significant risk – Burke even acknowledged as much in his post-deadline presser yesterday. However, that’s where Ashton comes in.
Unlike Aulie, Ashton has been producing at the AHL level this year. The 6’3″ power forward has 19 goals and 35 points in 56 games this season with the Norfolk Admirals and is a +8 over that stretch. Ironically, Ashton has a similar skill set (in an “extremely poor man’s” kind of way) to Nash in that he possesses a physical game, proves difficult to knock off the puck and demonstrates some finish around the net.
Ashton will get some big game experience as a Marlie (not that the Team Canada vet really needs it), but his fit with the Leafs is less clear. He likely won’t have any kind of role at the ACC this season and may not find room on the roster next year, so this is purely a move with the future in mind. In other words, the results of this trade won’t be known for some time but, hey, you can’t say that Burke did nothing on deadline day (discussing the Dale Mitchell-for-Mark Fraser swap simply isn’t worth my time or yours)!
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Written by Ben Fisher