At the beginning of the month, the Leafs stood tied for 10th, 4 points out of a playoff spot and 4 points out of dead last. 10 days into December, after Wedneday's games, the Leafs' situation is even murkier; sole possession of 11th, 5 points out of the playoffs, and 6 points out of dead last. As playoff hopes and quality draft positions slowly, and simultaneously, drift out of reach, the Leafs, meanwhile, in the centre of their own expanding universe, seem to be going nowhere.
For this upcoming game against the Sabres, there's a few things I'll be watching for: 1)Williams. How well will he play in his second game? I'd like to see him paired up with Mitchell because I think they might find some chemistry there with Blake - but who knows. 2)Van Ryn. Can't get back to the line-up fast enough as far as I'm concerned. Not a knock on Jamie Sifers, who played admirably in the win against the NYIslanders (17:26, +1, 3 shots), but with Luke Schenn gone from the line-up, the Leafs need a defenceman who was above Frogren, Stralman, and Colaiacovo on the depth chart when the season began. Hopefully Van Ryn is in the line-up Friday and continues his level of point production and solid play from where he left off. 3)Antropov. (Here comes the "body" of this post.) Really needs to pick up his game. The Lanky Kazakh has not had a good month so far, and if he doesn't turn it around soon, it will be a disaster. Since December began, in 5 games, Antropov has 1 goal, 1 assist, with 11 shots on goal, and is a minus 6.
It's the minus that really bothers me. At the end of November, Antro, our team's second leading scorer, was a plus 3. In just 5 games this month, he's seen that number become a negative 3. Monday's victory over the Islanders was the only game so far in December where Antropov was not a minus, coming out even, while leading all forwards in ice-time. That's better, but still not enough.
It's interesting that Ponikarovsky, who also was a minus 3 against San Jose and got demoted off the top line, has rebounded with a couple of plus games and is just minus 2 for the month now, and still a plus 3 overall for the year. You may think the list of Leafs on the plus side is getting short, but actually it just got a little longer: Ian White(+3), Hagman(+3), Van Ryn(+1), Stralman(+1), and now Williams(+2), and Sifers(+1). Antropov was once at the top of the list, back on Nov. 14th, as a plus 7.
There are players on the Leafs that have worse plus/minus then Antropov: Stajan is a minus 4. Frogren was a minus 5 after just 10 games. Schenn is minus 6. Hollweg(-7), Kubina(-8), and Kaberle(-9) are all much worse, and Mitchell and Mayers(-10 each) have struggled with plus/minus the most. But Antropov's dramatic swing from the positive to the negative bothers me a lot. As our only heralded top-six forward, he needs to be a leader, and not a liability.
The Leafs also need Antropov to be an offensive threat, ideally, on every shift. Coach Wilson, and, well, everybody, knows that Stajan can't do it all on his own. Antro needs to find his mojo and get excited and aggressive. His game is played best down low, controlling the puck, and taking it to the net. Oppostion players should be more concerned with Antropov's size and what he's going to do with it next, then they are about scoring goals. When you're 197 feet from the net, it's usually impossible to score. Antropov's defensive contribution should come when he's being defended. Obviously, the more points he puts up, the better his plus/minus will be, but even if he's in a slump and doesn't score, the more he's on the attack, the more the other team is focused on preventing goals rather then scoring their own.
Antropov is usually a very streaky player. It's hard to imagine the Leafs having any kind of a winning streak without Antropov getting hot. The Lanky Kazakh might not be our only top-six forward (hello, Grabbo!), but he may be our only hope if the Leafs are going to make a run before Christmas at getting back into contention. Unlikely as it sounds, I believe he can do it, as long as he plays hard and stays positive.