Wednesday November 4th, 2009

The Toronto Maple Leafs scored five power play goals last week in Anaheim and part of the credit, according to coach Ron Wilson, should go to someone who wasn't even in uniform.

No, not Wilson himself.

The coach credits Phil Kessel's return to practice as the spark for the outburst in what is now the NHL's second-ranked power play, a mere tenth of a percent behind Philadelphia. Kessel was less an inspiration than a role model, a dandy player with gifts that aren't transferable but are certainly demonstrable. Wilson posited that Kessel could be influential on a team without a passel of high-end forwards just by showing up.

With his surgically repaired left shoulder, Kesselv made his eagerly-awaited debut with the Maple Leafs on Tuesday against stumbling Tampa Bay -- Godot with a wrist shot. Toronto general manager Brian Burke made a considerable investment in springing the 36-goal scorer out of Boston's salary cap jail -- two-first-round draft choices and a second rounder plus that five-year, $27 million contract for the right winger-- and eventually will need some kind of return beyond a 22-year-old muse.

Kessel can fill a void of, in baseball parlance, the home run hitter. He can be a one-man rally, taking the puck and creating something dangerous. "That's what we're hoping we're going to get out of Kessel: an unbelievable amount of talent, speed, the ability to beat people one on one," Wilson said. "You can mark those kinds of players all night long, but then they see a little opening and they take advantage of it. They can bury the puck. They can have a tremendous impact on a game."

Kessel did everything but bury the puck in his season debut, taking a career-high 10 shots on net in 23:50 energetic minutes of ice time and surviving a jarring hit by Tampa Bay's Mattias Ohlund in Toronto's 2-1 overtime loss. En route to his breakout 36 goals last season for the Eastern Conference power Bruins, Kessel didn't do things all on his own. He had Marc Savard, the deftest passer this side of Joe Thornton, as his center. Toronto has no elite pivot. The nominal No. 1 is Mikhail Grabovski, who has wicked speed but hangs onto the puck like a kid at playgroup that doesn't like to share. On Monday Kessel practiced on a line with Jason Blake and center Matt Stajan, who had 40 assists last season but is not blessed with Savard's vision or touch. Still, Stajan seems capable of developing a rapport with Kessel and their initial game together suggested as much.

Of course, the Leafs best passer right now is on the blue line: Tomas Kaberle, who leads NHL defensemen in points. Kaberle and Kessel were the principals in a proposed draft-day swap that fell apart over a bizarre miscommunication over which team, Leafs or Bruins, would be tossing draft picks in as sweeteners. Kaberle is the NHL's top offensive defenseman at the moment, which gives Burke a potential chip to cash at the trading deadline if he wants to reacquire a No. 1 draft choice that he spent to acquire Kessel. Kaberle, in far better physical condition than he was last season, is in the final year of his contract.

The Leafs had been working overtime to stay afloat while awaiting Kessel's debut. In one of those freaky only-in-the-NHL stats, Toronto has accumulated twice the number of points in losses than it has in victories. The three-point games are an absurd construct, skewing the hockey landscape and producing a standings table that is practically indecipherable -- W, L, OTL, SL, Pts ... please -- but the NHL won't be going to wins-losses-games behind any time soon. The three-point games artificially create races, keeping teams closer to a playoff spot than they merit. Although the Maple Leafs entered the week last in the Eastern Conference, they were just seven points out of the last playoff spot. Their four "loser points" make their plight modestly more palatable to their fans.

Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was in Calgary last week, renting a car to drive to Red Deer to watch junior forward Landon Ferraro, whom Detroit drafted with the 32nd overall pick last June. Because timing in life is everything, a caller mentioned that the previous night Landon's father Ray, a former front-line NHL goal scorer and an analyst for TSN in Canada, said that the Red Wings' goalie, Jimmy Howard, who had stumbled around the crease on one Edmonton goal the previous evening, should not be in the league.

Holland said he hadn't heard the comment, which is surprising because the GM hears everything.

Since Dominik Hasek helped Detroit win the 2002 Stanley Cup, Holland has been defending his goaltending situation. He sounded a tad exasperated about having to do it again, although he was probably more exercised actually watching the Oilers pump five past Howard in the first two periods.

"If you judged (St. Louis' Ty) Conklin or (Colorado's Craig) Anderson at 25 (Howard's age), I'm not sure you'd have seen what you're getting now from them," Holland said of the two Western Conference goalies.

Conklin, now 5-0, won 25 games last season as Chris Osgood's Gunga Din in Detroit while Anderson, a backup in Florida, has now been stunning as the starter for the surprising Avalanche. "Goaltenders need opportunity, and Jimmy Howard's getting the opportunity to see what he can do. He played in the world juniors for the U.S., so he has some pedigree. He had a real good college career (at Maine). He spent four years in the AHL and had a good but not dominant career. The problem is we haven't been playing good defensively in front of him."

That's part of the problem. The other problem is Osgood, who was one or two Game 7 saves shy of winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the last Stanley Cup playoffs. He has numbers that eerily mirror the lost (regular) season of 2008-09. Then: 3.09 goals-against average and .887 save percentage. Now: 3.10 and .890. Before rallying with 20 saves in a 3-1 win over sluggish Calgary last Saturday, Osgood had been yanked after allowing two goals on four shots against Vancouver.

"Actually Ozzie's been much better," Holland says. "His attitude, his work habits, his conditioning. He's challenging shooters more. Really he's in a different place than he was at the same time a year ago."

Bottom line: Holland, who spends on skaters and not goalies, has no plans (or cap space) to tweak his goaltending.

On the subject of goaltending, consider the Atlanta Thrashers, who have been getting outstanding work from 22-year-old Ondrej Pavelec. Filling in for the injured Kari Lehtonen, Pavelec has a .924 save percentage and 2.60 GAA. Lehtonen, coming off back surgery, won't likely start skating until the end of November and might not be ready to play a game for several more weeks after that. If Lehtonen can play impressively in January, potentially he becomes a trade-deadline bauble to dangle to a playoff team looking to upgrade in goal.

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