(Ed. note: Can you believe neither the AP nor Reuters had a picture of these three from tonight’s game?)
It’s entirely likely that none of the three will be in the NHL by the time the puck drops on the real live NHL season. But over the last few days, Brian Burke has gotten a real good look at what could, within a year or two, develop into a very, very good scoring line and, unlike pretty much every line in the entire NHL, could be composed entirely of young players that went the college route.
The trio of Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg, all of whom gave up some NCAA eligibility to join the Leafs, have been absolutely magic together, combining for four goals in the three games during which they’ve played as a line. Stalberg, a product of the University of Vermont, got the Leafs on the board tonight with assists from Bozak, who played two years at the University of Denver, and Hanson, who skipped his senior year at Notre Dame to go pro.
Stalberg also assisted on Nasty Nazem Kadri’s illmatic game-tying goal (the hands on that kid are disgusting).
And certainly, Burke and Ronnie Wilson and Maple Leafs fans would put up with a lot if they could watch a line that produced a goal or more a night. But this is a line that, somehow, has formed a preternatural chemistry, and someone always seems to be in the right place at the right time. All three seem to have more than their fair share of skill, speed (Stalberg can hit Mach 5 if he gets a couple steps through the neutral zone), and sense for the game.
Perhaps this is precisely because all three players, talented though they may be, came from the college game, which is considerably more defensively responsible than major junior and forces most skill players to at least become accustomed to playing in their own end and cleaning up messes. Case in point: during the first period, Mike Komisarek (also a former college player) pinched down to try to seal off a clearing attempt along the boards, but the puck got by him and the Penguins took it the other way. But Bozak had quickly transitioned to cover for Komisarek, and wrangled what could have quickly become an odd-man scoring chance into a harmless two-on-two situation that didn’t even yield a shot on goal.
And the best part for the Maple Leafs is that they cost the team almost nothing besides money. Of the three, only Stalberg, a Hobey Baker finalist last season, was drafted, by the Leafs in the sixth(!) round of the 2006 entry draft. Both Hanson and Bozak came to the organization as free agents, lured by a legit chance to play in the NHL pretty quickly (and indeed, Hanson played five games there last year), the fact that Toronto isn’t so bad of a hockey city and, of course, the potential bonus money that the Leafs’ copious cap space afforded them.
Having all three players, each young and dynamic and full of promise, locked up afforded the Maple Leafs the ability to go out and trade three draft picks for another former college player, Phil Kessel.
This is a line that clearly produces results, and should really be kept together, be it at the NHL level or down in the minors, if for no other reason than they, like the rest of the Leafs, are a blast to watch.