Thursday Mail Bag
For Leaf fans, there are really three races to watch.
First, of course, is the club's pursuit of the Carolina Hurricanes, holders of eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Suddenly, all those emails from November claiming iron-clad mathematical projections that said the Leafs couldn't possibly make the playoffs look a little premature. That's the east. And that's sports.
Tonight, the combination of a Leaf victory in Philly against the tough Flyers and a Buffalo win over Carolina could have the Leafs within two points. Either that or a Leaf loss and a Canes win and the margin could be sixth.
The second race worth watching would be where the Leafs are in the overall standings, and thus how high the Boston Bruins will pick with this year's first round selection from the Phil Kessel trade. This morning, the Leafs are 23rd overall, tied in points with 22nd ranked St. Louis, with the Blues having played one fewer game.
All 14 non-playoff teams go into the draft lottery at the conclusion of the season, but you can only move up a maximum of four places. That's why the top five picks are somewhat erroneously called "lottery picks" because they have a shot at the first selection overall.
As of today, the highest that Boston pick could be is fourth overall, and that's if the Bruins won the lottery. The odds of that would be 3.6 per cent.
The third race, meanwhile, is where the first round picks are currently held by the Leafs after pre-deadline deals with Philly and Boston. They can't be improved by the draft lottery, and as of today they'd be the 27th and 29th picks of the first round. Given the way the Flyers and Bruins are playing they probably won't improve much, but as it stands Boston is only six points clear of 12th overall Calgary. So there is some room for improvement if the B's swoon down the stretch.
Now here's a few questions hanging around from errant mail bags:
Q: At what point do we start to evaluate Ron Wilson's effect on the team? The roster has been substantially turned over during his tenure, and the team's performance has remained unchanged. I know that the team is young, but it’s not just the level of play that has been static: players new and old continue to make the same mistakes on a regular basis. The power play has an entirely new lineup but employs the same strategy and gets the same terrible results (and ditto for the penalty kill).
Joseph Krengel, Toronto
A: Not sure when this question came in, but if Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are changing the way Leaf fans think of them today, shouldn't the same be the case for Wilson? If he was to blame for the team's mid-season record, then he deserves credit for this late season push which has carried into March from February. There's a bunch of reasons for it, the play of Kessel specifically, but James Reimer is giving the Leafs their most consistent play in the crease in years. It's amazing how many coaches turn smart when they have a hot goalie, and how many look dumb when they can't find someone to stop the puck.
Q: Do you see Burke going after David Backes this off-season (assuming the Blues don't re-sign him before he becomes available)? He seems like Burkes kind of player - big, hits a lot and scores goals.
Avi Shainhouse, Boston
A: Backes was certainly a player Brian Burke targetted last summer as one that might shake free if the Blues couldn't match his asking price. Well, they did. Backes signed a five-year extension last fall worth an annual cap hit of $4.5 million.
Q: Hey Damien, do you think Kessel's hot streak at all has to do with Lupul? I know Lupul hasn't got a lot of points but ever since he arrived, Kessel's been on fire. Does he add something to the line that doesn't show on the scoresheet? Thoughts?
Nigel B, Toronto
A: You might be on to something, and clearly, it's tough for any single player to get hot without help. Lupul's been solid, more of a north-south player than Kris Versteeg more example, and the team's record since his arrival is very good. I just think Kessel is always going to be streaky, just like a lot of scorers. More than his goals and points, quite frankly, I think you're seeing a hungrier player these days, but this is the same guy who was getting eight shots a game a month ago and getting nothing out of it. That happens with scorers. Moreover, he's 23 years old. If you're the Leafs, you have to believe there's still lots of room for improvement.
Q: Hi Damien. Just curious what you see as the future of Gustavsson with the Leafs. I can't see him as the goalie of the future in Toronto with Reimer succeeding just as he has done at each level. Given Jiggy's groin issues he might be signable as back-up/mentor to Reimer for a significant cut on his current hit.
Terrence Ryan, Mount Pearl
A: This could play out a few different ways. It's hard to see Giguere returning at any price. Gustavsson hasn't been written off yet, but Reimer has zoomed to the top. One of Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens or Jussi Rynnas could, in theory, be moved in the off-season for help elsewhere. I wouldn't write off Gustavsson just yet; it could be getting a re-set in the minors is the best thing that has happened to him. Besides, you need a greater sample size from Reimer to prove he's a bona fide No. 1 netminder. This story isn't over yet. As the Leafs learned from the Pogge/Rask case, it's better to wait and be sure what you have before you trade a goalie away. San Jose could probably tell you the same thing re Miikka Kiprusoff.
Q: Do you think the Leafs should have picked up Niklas Hagman off of waivers? I don't know what's all involved in that, but, in my view, Hagman is still a sound left winger at $3 million per season (contract runs through next season). His numbers are a bit down this year, but, so what? Leafs need some help up front and they don't have to give up anybody to get him.
Rob Bartlett, Peterborough
A: I like Hagman. But he didn't make a significantly positive impact in Toronto or, specifically, on Wilson or Burke. Why bring him back?
Q: Hello Damien. What are your thoughts on the Leafs’ younger defencemen — Phaneuf, Schenn, Aulie and Gunnarson. Are they legitimate top-4 d?
James K, Toronto
A: Schenn and Phaneuf are for sure. Aulie and Gunnarson are getting the chance to prove they are. Gunnarson had 23:27 of playing time against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night, Aulie had 22:02. That's six straight games of 23 minutes or more for Gunnarson, and Aulie has played at least 19 minutes in every game since he was recalled Feb. 10. Gunnarson is more of a puck mover, and he's getting power play time now that once went to Tomas Kaberle. Aulie has fit well at times as Phaneuf's partner, but last weekend it seemed like the puck was a grenade on his stick. So really, we're just starting to find out about these guys. If I were to guess based on what I've seen, they look like the third pair on a good team. But they're getting the chance to prove they can be much more, and that, really, is the true value of giving them so much opportunity in the wake of the departures of Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin.
Q: Hey Damien. I keep hearing about how the Leafs need a centre for Kessel, yet I also hear he's near the top of the league in shots taken. How would a better centre give him more chances than what he's getting? Is the feeling that a top-drawer centre would get Kessel get more "quality" shots? I know right now he seems to take a lot of shots from odd angles, which seem like a waste of effort. Thanks.
Steve Bond, Oshawa
A: Shooters have to shoot, and you may not always like their shot choices. When it comes to finding a centre for Kessel - and it's too early to entirely rule out Tyler Bozak, although he ideally looks like a No. 3 - it's about a player who can get him the puck it prime scoring areas. In other words, its about more than the number of shots. That said, Kessel is the kind of player who not only generates his own chances, but can create for others. I think the search for a centre, specifically, is a little bit overblown. I think it's about finding him better linemates, period. And Lupul may be an example of that.