Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the Leafs' playoff push, the Oilers' trade options and the Lightning's decisions at the deadline.
Scott Burnside: Greetings, mon ami. You saw a pretty interesting hockey game Monday night in Toronto, where the Leafs bested the streaking Edmonton Oilers (OK, streaking is a relative term when it comes to the Oilers) by a 6-3 count. I found it interesting that in the past, this kind of game always seemed to trip up the Leafs. Toronto had won two straight, but the plucky Oilers had won three and been the object of much attention with Sam Gagner’s eight-point explosion against Chicago last week. And sure enough, the Leafs gave up a goal 21 seconds in (with scoring dynamo Gagner drawing an assist on Jordan Eberle’s 23rd of the season).
Previous incarnations of the Leafs might have folded their tent. This team has shown almost no resolve since the lockout -- a period that has seen them miss the playoffs six straight seasons. Yet Monday night against an Edmonton team playing pretty good hockey, the Leafs battled back. They got goals from five different players (Phil Kessel had two, the second into an empty net), and James Reimer overcame that early goal to stop 27 of 30 shots. The Leafs got two points that in the past might have slipped through their grasp. The win moved the Leafs into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, and although they are certainly not assured of their first postseason berth since the lockout, they must be feeling pretty good about themselves as they head to Winnipeg for a tilt Tuesday night against a team that is rapidly fading from the playoff picture. That's a journey the Leafs have been all too familiar with in recent years.
LeBrun: Scotty, this is the best stretch (11 of 12 possible points) I’ve seen the Leafs play under Ron Wilson as head coach, at least when the games still matter.
Last Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, you wondered how the Leafs would react after blowing a 4-1 lead and losing in a shootout. Well, they’ve won three straight games, outscoring their opponents 12-3 and showing signs that this club should be playoff-bound.
But what really caught my eye Monday night was the play of 21-year-old defenseman Jake Gardiner, who scored his second goal of the season. He was incredibly noticeable, rushing the puck up the ice and forcing the Oilers back on their heels in doing so, finding teammates with pinpoint passes and playing a sound defensive game.
Head coach Ron Wilson sat Gardiner out for four games in mid-January -- demoting him for one AHL game -- because he felt the rookie had hit a wall.
"And now, he just seems to be energized again," Wilson said after Monday night’s victory. "Because his whole game is skating. If he’s not skating, he gets into trouble. Now you see him start to move his feet again. He’s a pretty effective player and hard to play against when he’s skating."
Gardiner, acquired with Joffrey Lupul in the Francois Beauchemin deal with Anaheim last February, has seven points (2-5), is plus-11 in the nine games since coming back into the lineup and has been a factor almost every night. The difference now is that he’s even more aggressive on his rushes, going deeper into the opposition's zone instead of just dumping the puck in after skating halfway up the ice.
"That’s seeing the game, it’s probably slowing down a little bit for him,” Wilson said. "When you first play in the NHL, it’s so doggone fast. I think the play has slowed down for him. We’ve been on him like crazy to shoot pucks. He’s been very unselfish. He wants to pass to other people. The last couple of weeks, he’s started the puck to the net, and things are happening."
Burnside: Apart from the scoring exploits of Mr. Gagner, whom you spoke to before Monday night’s game (as well as his dad, former NHLer Dave Gagner), the Oilers are a team of great interest around the NHL because they are headed for yet another year sans playoff games, so other teams are looking to pick over the carcass. Gagner’s name features prominently because of his recent surge in production, but he’s been an overall disappointment in Edmonton, falling down the team's depth chart. You wonder whether GM Steve Tambellini views Gagner’s role differently now or he sees this as an opportunity to capitalize on a hot commodity in making a deal to perhaps bolster the team’s woefully thin defensive ranks moving forward.
I’ll be surprised if Gagner’s moved, but another name of interest to a number of teams is veteran winger Ryan Smyth. He made headlines when he lobbied to be traded back to his first NHL home in Edmonton, but with the Oilers going nowhere vis-à-vis the playoffs, Smyth’s gritty style of play and veteran presence would be a welcome tonic to, what, 10 or 12 teams around the NHL? And there’s nothing to stop Smyth, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, from agreeing to a trade before the Feb. 27 deadline, then re-signing again with the Oil. I know your relationship with Smyth dates back many years to the many world championships you covered. (Sorry, I had to yawn a bit there when I typed world championships.) How do you think this will play out?
LeBrun: I’m going to ignore your jab at the men’s worlds because I know your lack of education on the subject makes you say silly, unjustified things about the wonderful tournament. But yes, I chatted with Smyth before the game Monday night at Air Canada Centre and asked him about the speculation that a few playoff contenders might be interested in his services.
"Obviously, it’s very flattering from that front, but I haven’t been approached at all, and this [Edmonton] is where I wanted to come back to,” Smyth said. "Time will tell, but I’m enjoying myself with the Oilers."
Given how difficult and stressful it was for Smyth and his family when he forced the Kings into moving him to Edmonton this past summer, he can hardly turn around now and ask the Oilers to move him. I spoke with Tambellini as well Monday night, and he relayed that he had no intention of going down that path with Smyth, either.
I guess what neither Tambellini nor Smyth can control is, say, a contender calling Feb. 27 with an offer neither can refuse, but the sense right now is that Captain Canada will finish the season and -- hopefully -- his career where it all started. Smyth said he’d like to re-sign with the up-and-coming Oilers, where his leadership has been keenly welcomed.
"Obviously that would be the ultimate for sure, to re-sign with these guys, no question," Smyth said.
Burnside: OK, let’s agree to disagree on the world’s longest, least compelling hockey tournament and take a look at one of 11 tilts on tap Tuesday night in the NHL. The Los Angeles Kings, who again have fallen perilously close to the end of the playoff ladder in the Western Conference (they are just four points ahead of ninth-place Dallas and have played two more games than the Stars) will visit the surging Tampa Bay Lightning.
When I was doing the Power Rankings this week, I suggested that if there was a team that could come from the back of the pack to steal a playoff berth, it would be Tampa. With the NHL’s top goal scorer in Steven Stamkos, Hart Trophy nominee from last season Martin St. Louis and Victor Hedman back and healthy on the blue line, the Bolts’ recent play is much more reminiscent of the team that went to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals this past spring than the one that stumbled through the first half of this NHL season.
Heading into Tuesday’s home date with the Kings, the Lightning are 10 points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but they have four games in hand on slumping Ottawa. As intriguing as that is, they are just eight points behind Southeast Division-leading Florida, although both teams have played the same number of games (51). The team’s strong play of late -- it is 6-0-1 in its past seven -- has clouded the issue for GM Steve Yzerman. He is no doubt fielding calls on forwards Ryan Malone and Dominic Moore and defenseman Pavel Kubina. But does he sell out key players from a team that could get back in the hunt? Yikes. Tough decisions ahead for Yzerman, whose every move worked out to near perfection last season, but who has seen his team struggle mightily for much of this season.
LeBrun: I spoke with Yzerman on Monday morning, Scotty, and it was clear that at this point, they believe they’re still in this. As you pointed out, the Southeast Division title race is not completely out of the question, although Washington and Winnipeg are also ahead of Tampa. As of this week, Tampa is not ready to pull the plug and start selling off assets. It wants to see how far this run takes it first.
"Our team is winning,” Yzerman told ESPN.com. "My approach is that if there’s any deal that potentially can be done which makes our team better now or a better team in the future that’s worth doing, I’m prepared to do it. But at this point, nothing has made sense from my point of view."
There are 11 games between now and the trade deadline. Yzerman knows that at some point before then, he’ll need to make that call, especially with his UFAs such as Moore and Kubina.
"It’s still a bit early for that in light of the fact that our team is playing reasonably well," Yzerman said. "The timing isn’t right to look at it that way. We have to keep seeing if we can keep climbing into this. ...
"We’ll see how we do in the next few games. We’ll see how it all plays out. There’s no rush to do anything. There haven’t been any difficult decisions to make at this point because any potential [trade] opportunities really haven’t made sense for us, short-term and long-term."
Until tomorrow, Scotty, and lay off the worlds.