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Deja vu: Mediocre Maple Leafs back where they started at all-star break

TORONTO - One year after the blockbuster trades that brought Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere to Toronto, the Maple Leafs find themselves in the exact same place they started.

The team rolled into the all-star break with a mediocre 19-25-5 record, putting them on pace to finish well out of playoff position with 72 points. That's actually two points behind where they ended up a year ago.

There was a surge of optimism around the organization last Jan. 31—the day Giguere was acquired from Anaheim and Phaneuf and checking-line forward Fredrik Sjostrom (along with prospect Keith Aulie) were brought in from Calgary. That excitement seems long forgotten now.

The Maple Leafs dropped six of seven games heading into the break and are well on their way to a sixth consecutive year outside of the post-season. While Phil Kessel heads off to the all-star game in Raleigh, N.C., the rest of the team will be looking to regroup.

"I think it's an excellent four or five days not to do too much," Sjostrom told LeafsTV this week. "Just relax and try not to think about hockey. Kind of empty the brain. It's good to get a break mentally (and) physically."

One of the team's biggest problems is keeping the puck out of the net. Toronto is averaging 3.06 goals against per game—leaving it tied for 24th in the league.

That is particularly troubling given that more than half of the payroll is tied up with defencemen and goaltenders.

The biggest disappointment has been Mike Komisarek, who carries a cap hit of US$4.5 million but is averaging less than 15 minutes of ice time per game. That's roughly the same as Jay Harrison, a former Maple Leaf who is earning the league-minimum $500,000 salary with Carolina.

Others with similar numbers include: Vancouver's Andrew Alberts ($1.3 million), Washington's John Erskine ($1.5 million) and Matt Gilroy of the Rangers ($2.1 million).

Phaneuf's play has also drawn plenty of attention, mostly because his offensive numbers have continued to drop. The captain has just one goal on the season and still hasn't scored on home ice at Air Canada Centre since joining the Maple Leafs a year ago.

However, coach Ron Wilson has been relying more heavily on Phaneuf of late and he seems to have rediscovered his physical game.

The most pleasant surprises have come up front, where free-agent pickup Clarke MacArthur leads the team with 40 points. Linemates Mikhail Grabovski (team-leading 20 goals) and Nikolai Kulemin are also in the midst of good seasons.

Kessel's year has been up and down. With 19 goals, he's on pace to surpass the 30-goal plateau for the third straight season but has a team-worst minus-19 rating.

The most interesting subplot for the remaining 33 games will be seeing how coach Ron Wilson uses his goaltender. AHL callup James Reimer has put together a strong showing in his first eight NHL games and earned the last start before the break. Jonas Gustavsson and Giguere will also be clamouring for some time in the crease.

Away from the arena, there will be a lot of focus on what GM Brian Burke can accomplish at the trade deadline, but once again the hope will be focused on next season.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

"We truly believe that we have what it takes here to contend for a playoff position," Wilson said when training camp opened in September. "We've seen after last year (with Philadelphia) that you can get into the playoffs on the last night in a shootout and end up in the Stanley Cup final.

"We've got good goaltending, we've got as deep of defence as I've ever had as a coach and an exciting group of forwards."

The optimism has long since faded.


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