Once again, this year’s incarnation of the Blue and White offers the fan base a choice: half-full or half-empty.
For the second time in seven days, the Leafs had what the kids would refer to as an “epic fail” against the Florida Panthers, proving in the process the focus that one club has to make the post-season and the lack thereof on the part of the other.
The “half-empty” portion of the equation is pretty easy to figure out: This Toronto squad has difficulty holding leads, which becomes doubly toxic considering how often they give up the first goal in a hockey game.
So where does the “half-full’ come in? Well, for all you cynical fans out there, the Buds are now officially in position for one of the two amazing assets available in this summer’s entry draft; scoring sensation and hometown boy John Tavares or behemoth puck-moving Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman. Since the draft order is determined by a weighted lottery, it behooves a bad team to at least be in the NHL’s bottom five in this situation.
Another emerging trend that will shine just a wee bit of light on the hearts of Leaf Nation is the recent play of the once-maligned Jason Blake. The diminutive winger seems to have learned from the sharp messages sent to him via benchings by straight-talking coach Ron Wilson earlier in the season and is playing his best hockey in a Leafs jersey to date.
To wit; in Blake’s first 20 games with the Leafs this season, he tallied just 10 points. This was also the period in which he was scratched twice and missed a couple games due to a head injury.
But lately Blake has been on fire, notching 19 points in his past 15 games, including a stunning five-point outburst against the Carolina Hurricanes. His chemistry with most recent linemates Niklas Hagman and Dominic Moore (a line that essentially unites the three forwards who have been the best on the Leafs for different stretches this season) is obvious and the trio is doing it with speed and grit – witness Hagman’s recent puck-off-the-face shift that ended in a goal of the year candidate against Florida last week.
With Blake back to the agitating, driving winger he was during his career year as a member of the New York Islanders, the Leafs are finally seeing the player they signed to a big contract two summers ago.
And while the deal was still no financial steal for the Buds brass just yet, Blake is certainly proving his worth now. In fact, if he can keep up his current pace, he’ll best his career-high in points for a season. That occurred during his vaunted 40-goal, 69-point flurry for the Isles back in 2006-07. He won’t get 40 goals, but the Minnesota native will make up for that with more assists.
Blake will make $4 million per season through the 2011-12 campaign. This is probably a bit too much for a player that right now is playing on what should be a team’s second line, but due to talent, is more of a 1B to the Stajan-Antropov-Ponikarovsky combo.
With more marquee forwards, perhaps Blake even becomes a legitimate 80-point first-liner, but that will only come once the rebuild has picked up in earnest. And that may not be next season, but the season after that.
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.
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