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Maple Leafs Watch: Future looks bright even if present doesn't

So what, if anything, can be gleaned from the early returns on what promises to be a schizophrenic season of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey?

Strong efforts in wins against divisional rivals Boston and Ottawa were followed by a loss to the bottom-dwelling Bolts of Tampa Bay, where too many chances were surrendered to dangerous players such as Vincent Lecavalier.

Expect this to be the pattern this season, albeit with more losses (especially in the shootout) than wins.

But in searching for a silver lining, it’s not hard to find good omens on the horizon. Clearly the team is set in goal for the next couple of years thanks to Vesa Toskala and the defense corps has many solid elements. Luke Schenn has been a pleasant surprise, while Mike Van Ryn has clearly rediscovered the offensive skills that were hampered by injury in Florida.

Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle may seem like tempting trade bait either this season or next, but in reality, even a rebuilding team needs some stability while the transition is being made and either one is the logical choice for team captain when the ‘C’ is granted.

It will shock no one that the bulk of the teardown in Toronto will involve the forwards. While Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky have been on a great run of late, someone always scores on a bad team and the Leafs don’t even score that often.

Cruise the depth charts around the league and you’ll see the Buds’ top line is one of the least intimidating in the NHL. The names traditionally circled on opposing blackboards as those to watch just aren’t there.

But that’s not what this season is about, so it’s not a big deal. No, the lowered expectations of the Toronto brass are fine, because the trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin will be a fun one to watch for years.

Though the line hasn’t exactly burned out the red light this season – and was even altered against the Bolts when Kulemin was dropped in favor of John Mitchell – it’s the potential the three show together that is exciting.

Grabovski, essentially done a favor by a Montreal Canadiens team too deep at center to play him, has brought unparalleled speed to the Leafs lineup this season and Hagman’s not too far behind.

While Hagman’s breakout 2007-08 season with the Dallas Stars had many pundits predicting he would not repeat his 27-goal campaign, he has already shown the skill set that netted him that total last year. The amount of posts and near misses both Hagman and Grabovski have had so far will eventually become goals.

Kulemin, who has already proved his worth in the shootout, brings a grab bag of offensive goodies to the table along with a sneaky physical presence honed back in Russia. While he won’t be expected to drop the gloves, Kulemin delivered some big hits back in his homeland, often to a shocked opponent who underestimated the winger’s payload.

Altogether, the three have looked like the Leafs’ most dangerous combo so far, even if the scoresheet says otherwise. And while coach Ron Wilson has and will continue to experiment with different line combinations this season, this would be a perfect second line in the future. With disarming speed and skill, the trio would benefit tremendously from a stronger first line ahead of them, one that would cause teams to match their top defensive units on Toronto’s heavy artillery, thus drawing attention away from Grabovski & Co.

Like most aspects of this year’s campaign, patience is a virtue and the rewards may not be seen for a couple years. So enjoy the dizzying cycling game of Hagman, Kulemin and Grabovski with the knowledge that with time comes more chemistry and after that, fewer pucks hitting posts and more pucks hitting twine.

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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