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Leafs' veterans buy themselves some time Add to ...

dshoalts@globeandmail.com

This will come as a disappointment to certain players with the Toronto Marlies, but their promotions to the Toronto Maple Leafs are on hold.

However, the veterans on the Maple Leafs better not get too comfortable despite the big shootout win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday. Leafs' general manager Brian Burke is working the telephones madly, using his salary-cap room for next year as bait to land a draft pick or two and maybe unload an underachiever in the bargain.

Burke just might be spurred on in his efforts because a reminder of a trade he badly wanted to make but couldn't will be in town tonight. John Tavares, the wunderkind from nearby Oakville, was taken first overall by the New York Islanders in last summer's entry draft after they spurned Burke's many attempts to trade for the No. 1 pick in order to get Tavares.

It looks as if the Islanders made the right decision as Tavares was the NHL's top rookie scorer before last night's games with 19 points.

Going into the weekend, Burke planned to promote a couple of the Marlies to the parent team, with a couple of the highly paid Leaf veterans targeted for NHL waivers and a demotion.

This week the Leafs have three, well, easier might be too strong a word, but comparable opponents will do, starting with the Islanders tonight, followed by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday and the Florida Panthers on Friday. Burke was ready to shake up his roster because the stretch of relatively easy games would allow a couple of youngsters from the Marlies, like forwards Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson or Viktor Stalberg, to ease their way into the NHL or, in Stalberg's case, back into the NHL.

However, the Leafs were obviously paying attention to all of the talk last week as they put in their best and most complete performance of the season in beating Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals 2-1 in a shootout. The forwards are still struggling to score, but it was a masterful defensive performance against the most explosive team in the league that delayed the plan.

Thanks to the win, Burke decided to hold off on an in-house shuffle for now.

"It definitely buys the group time that way," Burke said. "You have to reward them. One thing is, they been working their asses off, so it's nice to see the result."

But Burke would like to get back some of the draft picks he gave up to get winger Phil Kessel. The best way to do it is by renting out the minimum of $12-million (all currency U.S.) of cap space Burke will have next season to solve another team's cap problems.

For example, Burke is talking to the Chicago Blackhawks about defenceman Brent Sopel, who is earning $2.5-million this season and will get $2-million next season. The Blackhawks have agreed to long-term contracts with star players Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith but cannot make it official because they do not have the cap space now nor next season to accommodate all three. So they have to move someone now to create some room.

Burke is offering to take Sopel, who played for him when he ran the Vancouver Canucks, plus, say, a second-round draft pick to solve the Blackhawks' problem. But Sopel is a decent player, so Hawks GM Stan Bowman is getting a lot of calls and may get a better offer.

Either way, look for Burke to make a move of this nature between now and the trade deadline on March 3.

Defencemen François Beauchemin and Ian White were the keys to the defensive game that helped the Leafs hold Ovechkin to a single goal. With help from the forwards, who always kept the third man high in the offensive zone to help the Leaf defencemen on the point, Beauchemin and White, who logged most of the minutes against Ovechkin's line, cut off any open ice for him.

But Beauchemin and White were not the most encouraging signs on a team that still has a mere four wins in 21 games, though. White has been the Leafs' best defenceman so far this season and Beauchemin, one of the big free-agent signings last summer, has been rounding into form for the last couple of weeks.

The most encouraging signs came from goaltender Vesa Toskala and defenceman Luke Schenn.

Toskala played his best game since 2007-08, his first season with the Leafs, although hope has to be tempered with reason since his play has waxed and waned for the last two seasons. But some long-awaited consistency from him would go a long way to easing the Leafs' terminal goal-scoring pains.

Schenn finally looked more like the 18-year-old rookie who took the team by storm last season instead of the uncertain sophomore he's been this season.

****

SCORESHEET

NOTES Tonight's game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders marks a homecoming of sorts: Oakville native John Tavares's first game in Toronto since he was the first-overall pick in the NHL entry draft last summer. Tavares, who leads the Islanders in scoring with nine goals and 19 points in 23 games, told a Long Island newspaper he expects to have about 100 friends and relatives on hand to see his first appearance in his home region. . . . Tavares will be shooting at Vesa Toskala, as the Leaf goaltender's outstanding performance in Saturday's 2-1 shootout win over the Washington Capitals earned a second consecutive start at home. . . . The Leafs may be missing defenceman Jeff Finger, who did not practice yesterday after suffering a leg injury blocking a shot on Saturday. Garnet Exelby will probably take Finger's place.

NEXT Tonight, versus the New York Islanders, 7 p.m.

TV Rogers Sportsnet

David Shoalts

 

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