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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, left, tries for a wraparound past New York Islanders netminder Dwayne Roloson on Monday, Nov. 23, 2009 in Toronto. (NATHAN DENETTE)
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel, left, tries for a wraparound past New York Islanders netminder Dwayne Roloson on Monday, Nov. 23, 2009 in Toronto. (NATHAN DENETTE)

Islanders show Leafs how it's done Add to ...

Win or lose, last night's game at the Air Canada Centre was going to come as a bitter pill for many of the Toronto Maple Leafs' faithful.

After all, here was the latest, greatest local phenom, John Tavares, back in his hometown and playing for the opposition - the New York Islanders.

Leading up to the game, he had played the part well, too, reminiscing about growing up a Leafs fan and going to Maple Leaf Gardens as a boy to root on Mats Sundin.

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With nine goals and 19 points after 23 games, Tavares had also entered the game as his team's top threat, one the Leafs held in check and off the scoresheet. Problem was, the youngster's teammates proved up to the task, and with a heroic 58-save effort from Dwayne Roloson, New York skipped town with a 4-3 overtime win despite being badly outplayed for much of the game.

Talk about salt in the wound.

"They were skating well and they were hungry, coming off a good win for them [Saturday against Washington] so hats off to Rolie," Tavares said of his teammate, 21 years his senior. "He was obviously our best player tonight. Sometimes they're not always pretty. It's a big win for everybody."

Bigger still are the implications.

While Toronto deserved a better fate last night after outshooting New York nearly three to one, the fact remains the Leafs now trail the formerly lowly Islanders by 10 points in the standings, just one sign that the financially troubled franchise is taking steps in the right direction.

GM Garth Snow addressed that route yesterday, saying how, two years earlier, he had charted a course for his franchise by telling the season's ticket holders and sponsors to be patient as they followed a path of assembling a new foundation through the draft.

Snow refused to call this particular journey "rebuilding" - never mind tanking - nor would he admit that the Isles team that took the ice last season was anything less than competitive.

And yet, after an ugly 61-point campaign marred by injuries, they won the draft lottery and landed the top prize in Tavares, who had shattered junior hockey records and pushed the envelope everywhere he'd been.

"We simply set a direction where we would build through the draft and develop our talent and sprinkle in free agents when it made sense," Snow said. "I've stuck to that plan. We feel that in order for us to get to where we want to go, that's the direction we have to take."

As for his inspiration, Snow pointed to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks, teams that fell hard and, a few years later, are now three of the NHL's top teams.

Given their state of affairs, with an outdated building and millions in losses every year, it's hard to blame the Islanders for attempting to be next in line.

The plan in Toronto, however, is much less clear. As the losses add up, changes are likely on the way.

Leafs GM Brian Burke made a lot of noise about wanting to deal for Tavares in the leadup to June's draft, but the reality is that the Islanders were never going to part with their meal ticket. Owner Charles Wang had watched, after all, as the Penguins drafted their very own Canadian wunderkind in Sidney Crosby four years earlier and then had the new building, the wins and even the Cup all fall into place.

That's a lot to lay on the shoulders of Tavares, who has yet to hit many heights at hockey's top level, but there were encouraging signs last night.

The highlight was a third-period breakaway attempt that had the ACC buzzing.

Whether Tavares can carry his team up the mountain that is the NHL standings is difficult to say given the current supporting cast, but their steps forward this season have been encouraging. Including Tavares, the Islanders had four homegrown first-round picks play key minutes up front last night - among them the overtime goal scorer, Josh Bailey - and could add yet another top 10 draft pick again next summer.

The Leafs' next first-rounder, meanwhile, will come in 2012, and through 22 games, steps forward have been difficult to find. And it's hard not to wonder, especially after yet another loss, just what a star from their own backyard would look like on their side.

Follow on Twitter: @mirtle

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