If anything was evident in Toronto’s thrilling come-from-behind shootout victory in Tampa Bay on Tuesday, it was the fact the Buds stood up for each other time and again.
With hulking Bolts winger Evgeny Artyukhin wearing the black hat thanks to his wandering stick in a previous match, Toronto exacted revenge in the second period when veteran Brad May crushed the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Russian with a textbook bodycheck.
Of course, the message from May was simple: If Artyukhin wasn’t going to answer for what he did to Ben Ondrus last game in regards to stickwork, May would really give the Lightning behemoth something to get angry about. But Artyukhin wouldn’t drop the gloves. Instead, teammate Ryan Craig stepped in and was promptly fed fists by Jamal Mayers, another solid leader this year for the Leafs.
Soon after, the tables were turned when Buds defenseman Anton Stralman flattened Tampa superstar Vincent Lecavalier with a fantastic hip check. Lecavalier wanted to fight, but was quickly cut off by Leafs veteran (and former Bolt teammate) Pavel Kubina, who knew the 6-foot-1 Stralman was not in the same weight class as the much more experienced 6-foot-4 Lecavalier.
What I’m trying to say here is leadership is no longer a problem on the Leafs. The foundation has been set and whatever combination of Kubina, May and Mayers (among others) is still here next season will be a boon for a team in transition.
The next step in the road back to playoff contender status? A superstar.
I know, easier said than done. But the fact is the Maple Leafs can only do so much in the draft and even a young star such as Matt Duchene, Evander Kane or Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson cannot be expected to carry a team right away.
Thankfully, many of today’s NHLers grew up as Toronto fans and drawing free agents to a team helmed by a proven winner in GM Brian Burke won’t be difficult. But in terms of landing a big fish this summer, the pickings are slim.
Barring a trade for someone under contract with another team, the best the Leafs could do up front (where they need the most help) this summer would be the repatriation of Richmond Hill native Mike Cammalleri, who is on pace to have his best NHL season yet, but doesn’t figure to be cheap enough for the Calgary Flames to keep.
Aside from ‘Cammo,’ many of the summer’s “elite” forwards come with way too much baggage. Names like Marian Gaborik, Maxim Afinogenov, Alex Kovalev, Martin Havlat and Miroslav Satan are as much cautionary tales due to injuries or inconsistent play as they are intriguing offensive weapons.
Vancouver’s Sedin Twins – Henrik and Daniel – may be available, but only come as a package and haven’t proven they can carry a team to success.
The most alluring name two summers from now will be another local boy currently starring for Columbus – Rick Nash. Now that the Blue Jackets are playoff bound, Toronto may not look so tempting, but wearing the Blue and White (and getting maximum cash to do so) seems like a pretty good deal in a few years for a Brampton kid.
With draft picks and cautious building, who knows? Maybe Toronto does become the place to be in the near future.
This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.