Searching for Steen
The Maple Leafs have a lot of reasons to be very concerned about Alex Steen.
Fortuitously for the young Swede, the fact the team is winning and suddenly is receiving gobs of goals from its blueline corps has hidden the fact that his sophomore season, thus far at least, has been a disaster.
In 14 games, he has one goal, three assists and 31 shots on goal. He has been bumped from line to line, even spending time alongside No. 1 centre Mats Sundin in an attempt to get some jump into his game.
Nothing has worked. He might have played his worst game of the season Monday against Atlanta, a contest in which he was not only again ineffective on the attack but was also giving away the puck in key areas of the ice.
One straightforward way to deal with the problem in a time-honored hockey fashion would be to send Steen to the minor-league Marlies to work on his game.
Except the Leafs can't do that, at least not without fear of losing the 22-year-old former first round pick on waivers.
One of the subtle changes contained in the new CBA, you see, was that the numbers of games needed before players had to pass through waivers en route to and from the minor leagues was changed, an alteration that particularly impacted players who signed their first entry league deals at 21 years of age or older.
Steen was 21 when he inked a deal with the Leafs in Aug., 2005, and that meant once he played 80 games he would need waivers to go to the minors.
He hit that mark five games into this season.
If he'd been signed when he was 19 or 20, he wouldn't have needed waivers to go back and forth to the minors until he'd played 160 NHL games.
That's the difference a year and a new CBA made.
Had the Leafs been aware of that which would be unfolding, they might have dealt with Steen differently coming out of camp.
But they just assumed he'd get rolling a lot sooner than this. He hasn't, and that's one of the reasons GM John Ferguson sat down with him in Tampa on Wednesday in a bid to encourage him to start playing with more aggression and fire.
another pointless night, his 10th of the season an assist on the first Leaf goal of the night.
Now, like the player plucked from baseball's Rule V draft who has to stay on a major league roster all season, Steen has to be a Leaf and never a Marlie unless he were to accept a two-week conditioning stint at the Ricoh Centre.
It could be worse. Steen at $770,180 for this season is still a much better bargain than Vancouver's Ryan Kesler, who signed a $1.9 million-a-year deal with the Canucks this season after the club had to match a surprise offer sheet from Philly.
Kesler has no goals in 13 games, and even his teammates are speculating whether he's feeling the pressure of his new contract.
"I'm sure it didn't at the start but the longer this goes on, the more it must weigh on him, for sure," said Vancouver winger Matt Cooke.
Maybe the same goes for Steen, but in a different way. The Leafs might have been able to swing him to Edmonton along with Tomas Kaberle for Chris Pronger over the summer, but Ferguson didn't want to part with Steen after his strong rookie campaign.
Steen has to be feeling the expectations created by that decision. Otherwise, how to explain why he's become such an ineffective, peripheral player?