The Toronto Maple Leafs head into their Sunday evening game against the Atlanta Thrashers coming off of a tough shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With a record of 27-27-8, at this point, every game matters for the Leafs.
Although they couldn’t solve the Pens in a shootout, the game saw some positives as Joffrey Lupul scored his first two goals as a Leaf, and Dion Phaneuf picked up his third goal of the season after he made a weak defensive play that led to a Pittsburgh goal. As they sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 62 points (five out of a playoff spot and three behind the 9th place Buffalo Sabres), players like Lupul and Phaneuf need to step up if they want to maintain their spot, or, as the Leafs Nation hopes, take over the 8th place seed and make the playoffs.
20 games remain in the 2010-11 regular season, and although the Leafs have taken a lot of heat in the media this year, there’s no doubt that they have improved since last season. Although it may be unlikely that they will actually make the playoffs, they have battled hard enough to at least sit in a position that gives them a fighting chance.
Brian Burke has been hard at work making trades that have regained some valuable picks, and brought in some experienced players. The hustle and bustle of the trade deadline and up-and-coming draft have kept him busy as he along with his Director of Player Development, Jim Hughes, have been working away on the scouting front as well.
Most recently, Burke and Hughes took in the Niagara IceDogs vs. Erie Otters game this past Thursday to catch a glimpse of one of their top prospects, Greg McKegg, who captain’s the Erie Otters team and sits 10th in Ontario Hockey League scoring with 41 goals, 38 assists and 79 points in 59 games.
The pair also had a chance to have a meet and greet with a 2011 top prospect, Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs. Strome, who currently sits third in OHL scoring with 28 goals, 64 assists and 92 points, has been compared to Bobby Ryan and Mike Richards; just the type of player Burke loves to draft. Although Strome may be ranked a bit too high for the pick Burke has, he expressed that he likes the way Strome plays and it wouldn’t be impossible for him to trade slightly higher. However, it is still a long shot.
Along with preparing for the future draft, Burke has some decisions to make in regards to some of his already drafted prospects. Kenny Ryan, Barron Smith, Matt Frattin, Ben Winnett, Leo Komarov and Jerome Flaake all need to be signed or they go to free agency.
The biggest name on that list may be Kenny Ryan, brother of Burke’s Anaheim draft pick Bobby Ryan. The ’91-born forward won a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires last season, and has recorded 17 goals, 33 assists and 50 points in 54 games this season. At 6 foot, 200 pounds, Ryan shadows his brother and could very well turn into a solid power forward with the right development.
Back to the present Leafs, there’s no question the team and grown closer and things are starting to mesh offensively for the squad. Phil Kessel chipped in with two beautiful assists last night against Pittsburgh, while also recently breaking his goal scoring slump and finally getting his touch back with eight points in his last five games.
James Reimer seems to be the Leafs’ rock in net during the latter half of this season, and with the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line continuing to produce, I’d say Toronto is right on track.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Burke tries to make some last minute moves before deadline tomorrow, and although there may not be that blockbuster trade available, Burke does need to find one more offensive talent that goes beyond Kessel’s talent status. Brad Richards would have been a good choice, but if he can’t be moved, whether it’s tomorrow or over the summer, the Leafs still need a No. 1 forward that will post at least 80-100 points per-season.
The next 24 hours will be interesting for all hockey fans, and you can bet that Toronto will be counting on something big to happen before training camp hits next fall.