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Hockey sticks of the Toronto Maple Leafs first line from l-r Kris Verteeg, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. Unique is that all three shoot right. Photographed after Leafs practice Oct 8, 2010 at the Mastercrad Centre. (Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum)
Hockey sticks of the Toronto Maple Leafs first line from l-r Kris Verteeg, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel. Unique is that all three shoot right. Photographed after Leafs practice Oct 8, 2010 at the Mastercrad Centre. (Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail) (Fred Lum)

Jeff Blair

Leafs top line: The right stuff Add to ...

The kids are all right. No, really: Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg and Tyler Bozak, the Toronto Maple Leafs' first line, are all right-handed shots. That's an oddity according to the percentages, which say that in any typical season 60 to 66 per cent of NHL players shoot left-handed. Is it anything beyond that?

Depends how you coach against it. One former coach said he'd simply tell his players to force everything to the left-wing side, because it makes everything happen on the backhand. That could especially be the case on the road when the home team has the last change. But that won't be the case Saturday, as the Ottawa Senators play the Leafs in Toronto, after opening the season at home on Friday night.

Head coach Ron Wilson says the quickness and awareness of all three players makes it more of a quirk or wrinkle than something to be worried about. It can be an asset, he explains, in that it forces the forwards to move around more.

And it's no secret that Canadian-born players tend to shoot left-handed. The New York Times, in an article on the eve of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, spoke to an executive with Easton Sports who said inventory numbers show more right-handed sticks get sent to the United States while more left-handed sticks get sent to Canada.

Versteeg played left wing with the Chicago Blackhawks last season and said as long as players are in their natural position it shouldn't matter which side they shoot from. Bozak said he didn't even notice it when they were first put together until people started pointing it out. If there is a difference, it gets lost in the ebb and flow of the game.

"It helps that both Phil and Kris are effective both on the forehand and backhand," Bozak said. "Plus, we're moving around so much as a unit that I'm normally trying to find them at different spots on the ice, anyhow."

Toronto general manager Brian Burke saw enough of Bozak last season to respond with an unequivocal yes when he was asked in an off-season e-mail exchange if he really thought the slight 23-year-old was a first-line centre. Bozak, Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin composed a nominal line down the stretch last season but Wilson quickly slid Versteeg into the spot, believing - correctly, so far at this callow stage of the 2010-11 season - that Versteeg's patience allowed him to maintain possession of the puck without getting happy feet or happy hands.

With Kulemim a left-handed shot, the chance remains that Wilson could flip Kulemin and Versteeg.

Versteeg was a useful player with the Blackhawks. But first line? That seemed a reach. Given the stature of Kessel and Bozak - although Kessel has a stocky, muscular game - tradition would dictate a bigger winger - a bit more of a plunderer and pillager.

But Versteeg says that's a factor. "I don't see anybody on our line who would be scared enough to give up the puck in order not to take a hit," he said. "I think there's a lot of hockey sense on our line. We all like to move the puck quickly and we all have pretty good vision and a knack of finding each other.

"We felt almost unstoppable at times in the preseason," he added.

Versteeg will take Wilson's kudos, but says he personally felt guilty of hanging on to the puck too long in the preseason and slowing the game down.

Bozak said the key to the line's continued success will be its ability to "find the soft spots in the other team" and he acknowledged being on a line whose modus operandi is puck possession "reminds me a bit of playing the game as a kid.

"I'm pretty sure all three of us grew up playing on the best lines on our teams," he said. "So we grew up trying to make moves all over the place instead of simply dumping and chasing. It's a lot more fun."

Nothing wrong with that. Right?

 

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