The Big Fella on D
Since calling up Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie from the AHL Marlies, the Leafs have played two partially good games and three strong ones, resulting in three wins and two losses.
A loss to Vancouver in which the Leafs dominated the third. A sloppy, wild win over Nashville, with the Leafs coming back from a 4-1 deficit. A solid win over Jersey, a tight loss in Montreal, another solid performance over a curiously listless Dallas squad.
It's pretty clear that both Kadri and Aulie have added to the strength of the team, evidence that Brian Burke's management team knew what it was doing while those - like myself - who worried that both youngsters were being elevated too quickly were being needlessly pessimistic.
Maybe it was breaking with the plan to recall the kids. But both have clearly looked like they belong in the NHL, and the team has been better, certainly better than it was in a listless, two-game road trip to Florida.
Kadri, 19, and Aulie, 21, made the Leafs the youngest team in the NHL, a curious reality given all the hand-wringing over the loss of two first round picks to acquire Phil Kessel. The current Leaf power play includes only one player over the age, so charges that Burke has completely thrown away the future to win now may have been inaccurate, or at least overblown.
Lots has been written on Kadri, but Aulie is also an intriguing player.
The Calgary-Toronto trade that brought Dion Phaneuf to the Leafs still seems wonky from a variety of standpoints. It's understandable that the Flames wanted the offence they were getting in Matt Stajan and Nik Hagman, and they clearly wanted Phaneuf out of the dressing room.
Freddie Sjostrom was a spare part. But how the Flames were convinced to include a viable prospect like Aulie in the deal seems a little inexplicable. They were more inclined to give up one of their other blueline prospects, probably John Negrin or Toronto-born Matt Pelech, but the Leafs insisted on Aulie. Why? Well, Burke asked v.p. of hockey operations Dave Poulin to get input from his pro scouts, and Poulin came back with Aulie on the recommendation of scouts Rob (Cowboy) Cowie and Steve (Ghost) Kasper. Burke asked for other names. Cowie and Kasper again came back with Aulie, and only Aulie.
It actually held up the deal for a day, and then Aulie was included. Maybe the Flames felt that in Jay Bouwmeester, Robyn Regehr, Mark Giordano plus White in the NHL, and with T.J. Brodie, Negrin and Pelech in the minors, they had plenty of depth.
But right now, that piece of the deal looks very useful for the Leafs. In five games, Aulie has played in the 10-14 minute range, adding a very simple approach to the Leafs third defensive pair. He moves very well for a big man, and apparently may even have added an inch since the trade, measuring in at 6-foot-6 these days.
He's more of a long-armed, suffocating defender, rather than a mean, hardhitting type. Something along the lines of what Jeff Schultz supplies on the Washington blueline. The Leaf defence corps now includes Phaneuf, 25, Luke Schenn, 21, Carl Gunnarson, 24 and the 21-year-old Aulie. Even Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek are hardly old men at the age of 28.
This may not be a good team, or a contending one, but it's a very young one at pretty much every position. It wasn't a young team when Burke arrived, which next Monday will be two years to the day.
Whether the assembled youth will be good enough to produce a winning team, we'll have to wait and see.