Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
The first quarter of the NHL season for the Toronto Maple Leafs has been sad. With a record of 3-11-6, the Leafs occupy the 30th and final spot in the NHL standings, leaving no doubt that 2009-10 is yet another in a long line of rebuilding years for the terminally ill Leafs.
As the season progresses, Leafs general manager Brian Burke will have to make some tough decisions as to what he wants to do with some key unrestricted free agents, namely defenseman Ian White, forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, and, to a lesser extent, forward Jiri Tlusty, who currently plays with the Leafs AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies.
White has been one of the Leafs' best defensemen this season. His all-out play and steadily increasing hockey sense makes White a good bet to get offered a contract extension.
Through 20 games, White has mustered four goals and 12 points and his plus/minus rating of +5 leads a Leafs team that is chalk full of minus players. While not the flashiest defenseman in the world, White plays a consistent game, one that warrants a two- to three-year extension.
Ponikarovsky, a fourth round (87th overall) pick of the Leafs at the 1998 NHL entry draft, has spent his entire career as a member of the Maple Leafs. The 2008-09 season saw “Poni” register career highs in both Goals (23) and assists (38), amounting to a career high 61 points.
This season, through 20 games, Ponikarovsky has registered eight goals and 11 points, outlining his value as one of the Leafs most consistent scoring threats. Ponikarovsky’s ability to dig the puck out of the corner and his compete level are both underrated. He brings a ton of experience, energy and drive, something the Leafs can ill-afford to let go.
Jonas Gustavsson is still in the infancy of his NHL career and, by all accounts, looks to need a little more seasoning before we can get a true read on what he is capable of. There is no getting away from it, Gustavsson is very talented, takes away the bottom portion of the net and has a quick glove hand, all attributes of a strong goalie.
Where Gustavsson struggles is with his penchant for playing too deep in his net, his inexperience in the shoot-out, and his inability to handle the puck well. Let’s face it, once the information about his poor puck handling skills gets around in NHL circles, it will be something opponents zero in on, ultimately costing Gustavsson and the Leafs more than a few goals.
A former first round pick (13th overall) of the Maple Leafs, Jiri Tlusty continues to struggle to stay up with the big club and, for the most part, has been stuck in neutral with the Toronto Marlies.
Blessed with good hands and decent speed, Tlusty has failed to impress Leafs general manager Brian Burke and, from all accounts, may very well be on his way out if he fails to make an impact with the big club this season.
Tlusty played two games with the Leafs this season, registering zero points and a plus/minus rating of -2, hardly a fair shot, but alarming just the same. Tlusty has played a total of 74 career games with the Leafs, in which he has registered 10 goals, 10 assists and a plus/minus rating of -14, which pretty much says it all.
With the likes of Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak, Jay Rosehill, Mikhail Stefanovich, Joel Champagne, and Victor Stalberg all vying for jobs with the Leafs, Tlusty should be chomping at the bit to make the Leafs lineup and, to date, after more than three years in the Leafs system, has failed to do so.
White, Ponikarovsky, and Gustavsson should all receive contract offers at or before the end of the 2009-10 season, but I suspect, despite his perceived “upside,” Brian Burke may opt to send Tlusty packing in a deal or just flat out cut ties with the underachieving winger, clearly he is not a fit with the Blue and White, so why delay the obvious?
In the event that Burke gets the vibe that one or more of White, Ponikarovsky and Gustavsson will not resign, then he has three pretty good players that he can peddle for draft picks and/or young blue-chip prospects that the Leafs can use down the road. Either way, Burke has something of value, which is in itself a good thing.
There is still plenty of time to speculate but, by all accounts, the aforementioned four players will poise the biggest debate in Leafland, let’s just hope Burke gets it right.
Until next time,
Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter