Simply put: Numbers games suck.
Granted, "suck" isn’t the most gracious word to use for that, but it fits doesn’t it?
The word "suck" is ugly and harsh—exactly what numbers games are. It’s harsh because those who win in the numbers games don’t always necessarily have the most talent or the attributes a team needs to complete a well-balanced roster, but it sometimes comes down to contract status and reputation.
A newly signed free agent isn’t going to lose their spot. Barring a complete collapse in their physical abilities, to sign someone to a big-money contract and then decide they aren’t who you wanted four months later is terrible management. That’s how teams get into cap trouble.
Then you get into a situation where players' reputations engulf themselves and their abilities. A player who has given a team a ton of great years is going to be supported by the staff, his teammates, and the fans no matter his struggles thanks to his years of service.
Again, for a player who could earn himself a spot, the numbers game is terrible.
Anton Stralman was a victim of one of those numbers games.
There was a point when Stralman was still a Toronto Maple Leaf that he was supposed to be the next great puck-moving defenseman. He came over from Timra of the Swedish Elite League after producing fairly well (11 goals, 15 assists in 98 games) at the top level with big expectations.
In his two years in Toronto, while his performances went up-and-down on the ice, Stralman’s final lines showed some promise. There were times when he was inconsistent and fans had passed the buck on his defensive capabilities, but by no means was he a bust: 16 points over 36 AHL games last season, and 13 points in 38 NHL games last year seemed to prove that the 23-year-old was developing at the highest North American level.
Then the offseason happened. Before Brian Burke and company signed any free agents, Pavel Kubina was shipped over to Atlanta in a team that brought toughness to the picture in the guise of Garnet Exelby.
Granted, Exelby is a defenseman like Stralman, so there was no extra space on the blueline when Kubina was dealt, but the Leafs had lost a puck-mover coming off of back-to-back 40-point season with the Blue and White, so there was room for competition between Stralman and Ian White for a bigger offensive role.
But then the numbers game came into effect. On the first day of free agency, Mike Komisarek landed a five-year deal with the Leafs to play a shutdown role. Despite owning no break-through offensive ability, Komisarek’s deal not only took up cap space, but space on the blueline as well.
Then things got even more complex. A favorite of Brian Burke's in Anaheim with the Ducks, Francois Beauchemin landed in Toronto after inking a three-year deal, bringing his big shot for the power play along with him.
So if we're playing by the rules that "any recent free agent signing is almost guaranteed a spot unless they've deteriorated physically in just three months", then Komisarek and Beauchemin landed two of the four spots on Toronto's defense.
Then factor in All-Star Tomas Kaberle and rookie holdover Luke Schenn, and things weren't looking so rosy at the top for the Leafs other defenders.
Speaking of those other defenders, there were a lot of them: Stralman and Exelby had to contend with Jeff Finger, Ian White, Jonas Frogren, Mike van Ryn (at that time), and possibly Phil Orsekovic and Carl Gunnarsson of the Toronto Marlies.
Not great odds.
As it turned out, the odds were less than great. They were terrible. Not even a month after Beauchemin had signed, Stralman was one his way out of Toronto to another crowded blue line in Calgary. The defenseman with a mound of offensive skill who wasn’t even afforded a chance to crack a revamped lineup had to crack an even deeper (and better) defense with the Flames.
Until he was traded. Again.
This time to a team that needed an offensive presence, and almost found it in their first round pick from 2009 John Moore.
Much like Andrew Ebbet, who has suited up for three different teams this season (Anaheim, Chicago, and Minnesota) Stralman had bounced between three different teams in a matter of months, but the season had yet to start. When his new team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, opened the season, you'd have to assume that Stralman was ready to throw away the keys to the U-Haul and get back to hockey.
But then a funny thing happened. As has occurred so many times before, Stralman started to take off for the Blue Jackets—another former Leaf reaching his apparent potential somewhere else.
Like Carlo Colaiacovo and Brad Boyes before him (ironically both did it in St Louis), Stralman performed like a top-pairing defenseman. At least, offensively.
He started off slowly with four points in his first ten games, but it then started to pick up. His first two-point game of the season came against San Jose on Nov. 4th, and with an assist the game before that against Washington, Stralman has tallied 11 points over his past 11 games.
That stat alone would almost be good enough to set a new career-high for the Swede, but he's already done that anyhow. With four goals and 15 points in his first 21 games, Stralman's surpassed his career highs in goals and points, and it's a safe assumption he'll beat his assists mark (12—he’s currently got 11).
While his negative eight isn't great, and 10 of those 15 points have come on the power play this year, Anton Stralman seems to have found a home with the Columbus Blue Jackets and meeting his offensive potential.
For Leafs fans, it's a shame he couldn't do it in a different shade of Blue.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with him you can do so through his profile , and you can also reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, check out all of his previous work in his archives and on Hockey 54—The Face of the Game!
Simply put: Numbers games suck.