While the Toronto Maple Leafs had arguably their best performance of the season in a 3-1 loss Wednesday to the Los Angeles Kings, the following night was easily their worst. “Brain dead” is how Leafs coach Randy Carlyle referred to his team’s play. Could they have performed better with Dion Phaneuf? Absolutely. In the 18 games Phaneuf has missed since being acquired in early 2010, the Maple Leafs are 5-10-3 without him in the lineup. That’s a lousy .361 points percentage. In St. Louis Thursday, they could have used his minutes to contain the likes of Alex Steen and the rest of the Blues’ offensive threats.
The two-game suspension served only to strengthen Phaneuf’s position at the negotiating table. It’s widely believed that he will soon sign a contract extension with the Leafs, worth about $49 million over seven years.
RIELLY IN LIMBO
Training camp is under way for the Canadians taking part in the World Junior Championship. Morgan Rielly is down the hall at MasterCard Centre, still with the Maple Leafs. It’s been a back and forth of will he or won’t he be made available for Team Canada. There is a roster freeze Dec. 19 for NHLers to be added to the roster. That’s the drop-dead date for Rielly.
THE BLUELINE BLUES
Cody Franson was counted on to fill a lot of the void created by Phaneuf's two-game absence. It’s hard to say how well he did, but finally scoring a goal this season (a five-on-three power play goal) certainly did a lot to boost his confidence. The Leafs have just five goals by D-men this season. One of those goals was an empty-netter scored by the much-maligned Paul Ranger. Two of the others were scored by Phaneuf.
HARDLY KILLING IT
The penalty kill continues to be a train wreck. The only positive you can take from Thursday’s effort in St. Louis is that Toronto managed to not give up a short-handed goal, snapping a nine-game streak of giving up at least one power play goal. The penalty kill was second before the month of November; it slipped to 27th prior to Friday's games.
WHAT UP WITH LILES?
It was good to see John-Michael Liles get a chance to show what he can do. But Randy Carlyle elected to scratch Liles in favour of Rielly while Phaneuf was out. The change on Wednesday came as a surprise to many, and the indications based on the morning skate suggested that Liles would indeed play. With the way the Leafs played Thursday and Phaneuf getting set to return, expect Liles to draw back into the Leafs lineup.
TIME TO STEP UP
David Clarkson and Nikolai Kulemin have disappointed thus far, but not for a lack of effort. Clarkson has generated scoring chances and has been awfully close to burying more pucks. But that eventually wears thin when you don’t have the points to show for it. Rightly or wrongly, he has acquired the pressure that comes with the long-term contract he signed. He has to start producing if the Leafs are to have any sustainable success. With regards to Kulemin, a lot has been said about his play away from the puck. But he, like Clarkson at one point, was a 30-goal scorer. Kulemin had three glorious chances to pot goals Wednesday, but was stopped dead in his tracks by Kings goalie Martin Jones. Kulemin has to show more ability to produce sometime soon.