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Friday, November 4, 2011
Daily Debate: Can Leafs, Wild, Oilers keep it up?

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

The Leafs have leaped way out in first place, while the Blue Jackets are nearing a franchise nadir. Scott Burnside and Craig Custance delve deeper into the future of these teams -- and more.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. To rip off a little Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times Thursday night as the surprising Toronto Maple Leafs swept into Columbus and handed the Blue Jackets their 10th loss of this young season. They chased former rookie of the year Steve Mason with four goals on 11 shots en route to a 4-1 victory. With the win, Ben Scrivens, who was between the pipes in his first NHL start, and the Leafs now are the top team in the Eastern Conference with a 9-3-1 record.
Ron Wilson
Looks like Ron Wilson might have a little stability after all.

It was their second win in 24 hours, having beaten New Jersey in Newark the night before. On this night, it wasn't the league's leading scorer Phil Kessel (still weird to say that, no?) driving the Leafs bus, but Clarke MacArthur with two goals, call-up Joey Crabb with his second and offseason acquisition John-Michael Liles with his first with the Leafs. In short, with Kessel chipping in one assist, this was a team effort. Even the Leafs penalty killers were on their game, denying hapless Columbus on four man-advantage attempts.

So, is it time to take the Leafs seriously? Is it time to give coach Ron Wilson some credit instead of perpetually wondering when GM Brian Burke will can his old friend?

Custance: I'm hesitant to give a team too much credit following a win over the Blue Jackets. I really feel for Steve Mason right now; that was a rough performance. But it may be time to give the Leafs some credit, especially considering they're winning while their starting goalie recovers from whiplash. (We're not calling it a concussion, right?) We all thought Toronto's season would hinge on how James Reimer played, and yet it continues to pile up points without him. Scrivens? Are we seeing Reimer 2.0?

I picked the Leafs to make the playoffs this year, and so far they've looked the part. You're right, if they keep it up, we'll be talking contract extension for Wilson instead of contract termination.

According to an NHL source, contract extension talks haven't started yet with Wilson but that will change if he continues to guide this team to the top of the conference. But the one area to watch is the Leafs penalty kill. Right now, Toronto sits at 71.7 percent -- No. 30 in the league. If we're truly going to take this team seriously, that needs to improve. It was perfect Thursday night, but the Columbus power play isn't exactly a test. That's an area to watch.

Can you imagine going to Las Vegas next summer and Kessel is a Hart Trophy finalist and Dion Phaneuf in the mix for the Norris?

Burnside: Well that's a bit of a stretch (the Vegas part) and pretty sure Kessel won't have to worry about having his feelings hurt by being picked last at the All-Star Game. As for the Leafs, we'll now be talking about them in terms of needing a significant collapse to miss the playoffs as opposed to the annual second-half surge that has seen the Leafs fall short, well, every year since the lockout. And now it gets interesting, not just for the Leafs, but for other surprising teams. How do you maintain that winning attitude when you've been accustomed to losing? Edmonton, which blanked Los Angeles 3-0 on Thursday to start its big road adventure, and Dallas or even Minnesota, which spanked Vancouver 4-1 on Thursday, will have to answer that question, too. Still not sure the Leafs can do it, but the league is always a more interesting place when the Leafs are competitive.

As for Columbus, oh my; where exactly is rock bottom for this franchise? All kinds of rumors last week about changes at both the GM and coaching positions. Thursday night's performance won't do anything to alleviate the pressure on ownership to make a change. The Blue Jackets are in Philadelphia on Saturday (yikes), but then don't play again until next Thursday. I hate those win-or-you're-fired scenarios, but how does ownership allow this to continue without some significant move? As for Mason, every day reinforces the notion that a) firing Ken Hitchcock was a monumental misfire for Scott Howson and b) Mason was the ultimate flash in the pan.

Custance: As you know, Scott, major changes always seem to come during those long breaks in the schedule, so you can't help but wonder if sweeping changes are on the way in Columbus -- regardless of what happens Saturday. This problem is much deeper than Mason, but Scott Howson certainly gambled when he stuck with Mason, while making dramatic changes elsewhere on the roster. Mason has done nothing to reward that faith.

A much better story is the Oilers. You pinpointed this current road trip as the test to see if Edmonton is legitimate, and it certainly passed Thursday night against the Kings. Nikolai Khabibulin has been great for Edmonton, but the team in front of him managed his workload against Los Angeles, blocking a bunch of shots. Ryan Smyth was booed in his return to Los Angeles but can laugh about it after scoring the game's first goal. As we head into Friday's game, the Oilers and Maple Leafs lead their respective conferences -- just like we all predicted, right?

As a Michigan State alum, I'm required to point out the job Corey Potter is doing on defense for the Oilers. He scored his second goal of the season Thursday and now has eight points this season. He's getting more ice time than any other defenseman on the team. Like our friend Mark Spector pointed out on Twitter Thursday night, either his play is going to drop off dramatically or the rest of the league missed out on a pretty good defenseman.

Burnside: One game into a stretch that will see the Oil play 10-of-12 on the road, and so far so good for Tom Renney's young charges. Before I leave you to your weekend, my friend, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the work of the Minnesota Wild this week, a team I know you took a look at this week. I continue to take some guff from my colleagues for having picked the Wild to finish in the playoff grid in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.


But with their 4-1 thrashing of Vancouver on Thursday night, the Wild have won three in a row, including sweeping the Wings in a home-and-home. What is perhaps most interesting to me is that Josh Harding has been the guy for all three victories. He's 3-0-1 with a .964 save percentage and 1.22 goals-against average this season. Good for Harding, who has always shown promise but never been able to assert himself as an NHL starter, but not a great situation when Niklas Backstrom is making $6 million to open the door at the end of the bench.

Still, rookie head coach Mike Yeo is clearly going with the hot hand, and it's working as the Wild are now 6-3-3 and sit fourth in the Western Conference. Pretty good work considering Dany Heatley is off to a slow start with just three goals in 12 games and Mikko Koivu has just one goal.

Custance: They're an interesting team because GM Chuck Fletcher feels like they're going to be much better at the end of the season (and next season for that matter) than they are right now.

"We made some tough choices this summer, made a conscious decision to get younger and add a lot of talent," Fletcher said when we chatted this week. The Wild have been very patient with that young talent and some of the most promising players are still working their way up the organization. I give Fletcher a lot of credit for resisting the temptation to rush Minnesota's prospects.

"You can't rush them. When they're ready, they're ready," Fletcher said. "It's a tough league for young players. As we've seen, only a few of them can stay and be successful at this level."

In the meantime, the veterans are winning games for Minnesota. Like you mentioned, 27-year-old Harding has been outstanding for the Wild. And how about Matt Cullen? The Minnesota native now has six goals for the Wild. You mentioned just one goal for Koivu, but it was a big one. He sent a game this week into overtime with a late goal in Detroit then assisted on the game winner. As usual, he's doing everything else to help win games while the scoring comes.

"The way we're building a team for the season, it's going good," Koivu said. "When you look at the goals-against, I think that's something we're very happy with."

I'd still be surprised if this team made the playoffs, but you're looking pretty smart right now, Scott. As always, great chatting with you. Have a great weekend.