The march out of the NHL basement for the Leafs begins tonight, as the Leafs host the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina was actually one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the games heading into the Olympic break, winning 9 of their last 11 games. The Leafs had shown signs of life after picking up Phaneuf and Giguere, but went into the break on a bit of a sour note with a 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues.
Both Carolina and Toronto have a couple of Olympians returning from Vancouver. All four Hurricanes in the Olympics won medals: Eric Staal won gold with Canada, Tim Gleason won silver with Team USA and Joni Pitkanen and Tuomo Ruutu both received bronze medals with the rest of the Finns. For the Leafs, the only player returning with any hardware is Phil Kessel, but Ronnie Wilson and Brian Burke should have no problem in re-establishing their credibility with the team after Team USA’s impressive showing. Jonas Gustavsson won his only start for the Swedes, while Tomas Kaberle finished tied for 5th among scoring defensemen with a goal and 3 points on the tourney.
With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, both Carolina and Toronto will probably be seeing some changes to their roster. There’s talk that Alexei Ponikarovsky could be held out of the lineup rather than risk an injury. The biggest difference between Carolina and Toronto is the fact that, the worse Carolina does in the standings, the better draft pick they’ll get. Unfortunately for Toronto, their draft pick is in the possession of the Boston Bruins, so they’ll need to put together a serious winning streak to avoid giving Boston one of the top 3 picks.
With only 21 games left on Toronto’s schedule, every game counts, especially games against weaker teams like Carolina. With trades and roster moves hovering over their heads, and possible fatigue for some of the returning Olympians, this will be a great opportunity for newcomers like Phaneuf and Jiggy to step up and take some serious leadership roles. The playoffs might be out of the question, but a solid finish to the season will do wonders for the Leafs’ confidence heading into next year.