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Maple Leafs Watch: Veteran tryouts

Three games into his NHL career and rookie Christian Hanson has already made his mark on the scoresheet. It’s a good omen for the newly signed Maple Leaf, who will be counted on for consistent offense next season, as will fellow college free agent signee Tyler Bozak.

But what can the Toronto brass expect from the veterans next season? GM Brian Burke has already publicly stated he will bury underachievers in the minors, regardless of stature or salary (probably more so because of salary) and if the older Leafs are smart, they will have realized that the past couple games should be considered a tryout.

While playing out the stretch in a playoff-deprived season is no fun for any pro, the rookies have been the ones taking it to the competition of late. Against New Jersey on Tuesday, the Toronto goal-scorers were freshmen Hanson, Mikhail Grabovski and John Mitchell, plus journeyman Jeff Hamilton, who has his own interesting tale.

Hamilton has done many little things right since being picked up as a free agent in March, including being lethal in the shootout and logging power play time. And while he has been better than expected so far, the same cannot be said for a lot of older players on the team.

Thinking back to the early season line combinations, coach Ron Wilson has essentially blown everything apart in an attempt to find consistent scoring. The Grabovski-Nikolai Kulemin-Alexei Ponikarovsky combo has been good of late, but that’s a recent development.

Matt Stajan piled up points early in the season as the team’s No. 1 center (after a third game benching from Wilson, that is), but has taken a back seat in the second half. Although the veteran center has set personal bests in points and assists this season, it was to be expected, given his role early on playing between Ponikarovsky and former Leaf Nik Antropov.

Lee Stempniak has also taken a step back and was even a healthy scratch recently. Since coming over from St. Louis in the trade for Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo, Stempniak’s points-per-game average has been slashed in half. Ironically, Steen’s average has doubled with the Blues, while Colaiacovo is scoring at four times his Toronto pace and staying healthy for once. St. Louis is now holding down a playoff spot in the West, while Toronto looks like a team that needs to get worse before it gets better.

While John Tavares may be just a bit out of reach in terms of draft lottery odds, the Ontario League’s Windsor Spitfires have a great young center in Taylor Hall, who could be the No. 1 pick in 2010. Like Tavares, Hall is also an Ontario boy (Kingston) and picturing him in the Blue and White doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch when forecasting next year’s results.

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.

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