At the outset of the season, with a few early wins under the belts of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the debate still raged as to whether or not Brian Burke had successfully cobbled the pieces of a winning team together during the offseason.
At the end of the day, it was agreed that until a top-line centre was acquired to enable Phil Kessel to work his magic, the Leafs would, at least, linger. Indeed, they lingered, and now there is hope for a playoff run.
In these past few months, it has become clear that the team's bottom three lines were playing as well as could have been expected, with highly-touted newcomer and recently disposed Kris Versteeg being a wild card. But the second line, featuring Clarke MacArthur, truly blossomed—in reality, providing Burke with a bonus trading chip in Mikhael Grabovski.
Surely Burke is hot on the trail of Brad Richards. If he is able to convince Joe Nieuwendyk to part with his coveted centre, especially given Dallas' ownership issues and the prospect of the Stars not making the playoffs, then Grabovski is expendable. Nazim Kadri is now ready to make the jump, and so are a handful of very talented first-rounders.
In the wake of Tomas Kaberle heading over to Beantown, Burke will be testing his theory that the Leafs defence has been shored up properly under his leadership. Burke could and should send that newly acquired first-round pick down to Dallas along with Grabovski to secure Richards in the next week.
Kaberle's not-so-surprising departure leaves room for a call-up—although Brett Lebda will adequately fill his skates in the short-term—and it's likely that recently acquired Jake Gardiner, given his puck-moving skills, will be eyed by the coaching staff.
It's been a very frustrating season to watch the Leafs goalies—J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson—struggle through their injuries on a team that was being reconstructed from the pipes out.
Yet, it's also been exciting in that the team obviously enjoys three great young prospects, led by James Reimer, all being vastly improved each day by goaltender coach Francois Allaire.
On a positive note, both Mike Komisarek and Dion Phaneuf have improved their on-ice production recently, using their big bodies to move men from in front of the net, but both will continue to work on improving their respective puck-moving skills.
Hopefully, however, both have been duly influenced by the work ethic and improvement of Luke Schenn, the team's real All-Star this year.
So, a quick win over Ottawa, and it's four points—assuming a loss on the other side—away from Buffalo. A playoff spot may, finally, be within sight.
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