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Tim Thomas #30 of the Boston Bruins stops a penalty shot by Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 31, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Boston Bruins 4-3 in an overtime shootout. (Elsa/2011 Getty Images)
Tim Thomas #30 of the Boston Bruins stops a penalty shot by Mikhail Grabovski #84 of the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 31, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Boston Bruins 4-3 in an overtime shootout. (Elsa/2011 Getty Images)

DAVID SHOALTS

Grabovski, Lupul give the Leafs punch Add to ...

Sometimes the older fellows hanging around NHL press boxes say, the best trade is the one you don't make.

Two players who represent both sides of that hockey axiom played big roles in the Toronto Maple Leafs' late-season turnaround, which fell just short of the playoffs when the Buffalo Sabres mathematically eliminated them Tuesday night by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Mikhail Grabovski and Joffrey Lupul can accept much of the credit for adding punch to the Leafs' top two lines this season. Since Lupul made his Leaf debut Feb. 10 after a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, the Leafs scored 77 goals in 26 games for an average of 2.96 a game, a nice jump on their season average of 2.69 goals a game.

Most of the increase is due to improved production from the Leafs' top two lines. Lupul was installed at left wing with centre Tyler Bozak and right winger Phil Kessel and seems to be the player Kessel needs to work with, since Bozak remains stuck in his season-long scoring rut.

On the other scoring line, Grabovski is having a career season with 58 points and works so well with wingers Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur that they were the Leafs' most reliable scoring unit until Lupul and Kessel started clicking.

The funny thing about that is the only reason Grabovski is still a Maple Leaf is that general manager Brian Burke could not find anyone willing to take his $2.9-million (all currency U.S.) salary in a trade last summer. Those who know say Burke was willing to accept little in return other than gaining the salary-cap space from Grabovski's departure.

If that happened, no one could blame Burke. Grabovski was coming off a 35-point season after signing a contract extension that looked to be a big mistake on Burke's part.

Leafs head coach Ron Wilson groused that Grabovski was out of shape last season and there were some shenanigans at the Vancouver Olympics that drew the attention of the local authorities. No one would have wept at his departure.

Six months later, that seems inconceivable.

Grabovski, 27, obviously took stock of his career and went to work. He is one of the fittest and quickest on one of the NHL's speediest teams. Kulemin, who scored his 30th goal against the Caps Tuesday night, and MacArthur, who assisted on it, are also enjoying huge jumps in production thanks to their centre.

Kulemin, 24, has 57 points, 21 more than his previous high of 36, while MacArthur, who turns 26 Wednesday, has 62, 27 better than his previous best of 35.

Lupul, it can be argued if you ignore what he accomplished since arriving in Toronto, is the other side of that trade axiom. There is a case to be made that maybe Burke shouldn't have traded for him.

After all, Lupul was out of action from December of 2009 to December of 2010 with back problems combined with an infection. He was still trying to find his way with the Ducks when Burke and Anaheim GM Bob Murray started talking trade.

Burke was willing to deal defenceman François Beauchemin, which was also questionable. Beauchemin was an important veteran presence in the youthful Leaf dressing room. But Burke needed to goose his scoring and when Murray was willing to add prize defence prospect Jake Gardiner, the deal was done.

As a Leaf, Lupul has 17 points in 26 games. Those statistics do not turn your head but they did make a difference in the production of the Kessel line.

A case in point was the Leafs' second goal in Tuesday's entertaining 3-2 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals. Kessel made a beautiful pinpoint pass from the left boards across the front of the net to Lupul, who redirected the puck into the net for his 14th goal of the season.

Colleague Kevin McGran of The Toronto Star passes along this interesting stat: Before the Lupul trade, the players on the Leafs' top two lines scored in the same game 17 of 54 times, which is a .315 percentage. After his arrival, they scored 11 of 26 times in the same game, for a percentage of .423.

Again, maybe those stats don't raise eyebrows, but on a night when the Leafs' playoff hopes finally crashed, they are more evidence the team is headed in the right direction.

 

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