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Maple Leafs Watch: Don't expect a tank job

Will the Maple Leafs get worse from here on out? Now that the trade deadline relieved them of skilled players such as Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore and injuries have sidelined linchpins Vesa Toskala and Tomas Kaberle (not to mention blueliners Mike Van Ryn and Jonas Frogren), the easy answer would be yes.

But a funny thing happened to the Buds en route to the John Tavares lottery: they started putting up mucho points in the standings. In fact, the Leafs are kinda hot right now. Thanks to a run of extra-frame contests, Toronto has earned at least one point in nine of the past 11 games, six of those being wins.

So what’s a fan to do? The Leafs aren’t going to make the playoffs and don’t seem to be tanking. The latter option is one many feel would help the team in the end, but here’s the thing: professional hockey players don’t lie down. That’s why they are professionals. Walking into the Toronto dressing room after a loss is like walking into a morgue. It’s very quiet, very subdued, and the players are bummed. Brad May is not chatty after a defeat, no matter what time of year it happens.

This fairly simple concept was put to the test recently by one beat reporter who shall remain nameless. He asked coach Ron Wilson why the bench boss had Jason Spezza’s stick checked for legality near the end of Monday’s loss to Ottawa, instead of earlier in the season when maybe it would have “mattered” more.

One possible reason that should have been obvious is that the Leafs recently acquired a teammate of Spezza’s – Martin Gerber. All’s fair in love and hockey and since Gerber is now a Leaf, why wouldn’t he help his new team out with a bit of insider info regarding a former teammate’s blade?

Wilson never addressed that possibility (nor do I have any insider info, for that matter), instead berating the scribe on philosophical grounds: The coach’s job is to win games and Wilson’s gambit gave the Leafs a power play while down one goal with just more than two minutes to play. It’s not rocket science.

One only needs to look at the great recent play of rookie center John Mitchell as proof of this. Since the deadline, Mitchell has seen a lot more ice time than his season average of 12:57. His best game of the season was probably the March 3 overtime loss to New Jersey, where the freshman pivot put two goals past legendary Devils goalkeeper Martin Brodeur and generally played like a wrecking ball.

Mitchell logged more than 20 minutes of ice time in that game and used his 6-foot-1, 205-pound frame in an impressive display of puck control. He also topped 20 minutes against Edmonton just days later.

For Mitchell, it doesn’t matter where the Leafs finish in the standings, as long as it’s as high as they could manage. He’s out there doing the job he coveted for all his childhood. No kid ever runs around the driveway celebrating a last-second loss that secures better odds at a draft lottery, so why do we expect the guys living the dream to do it?

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 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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