Way back at the beginning of December, the Leafs went on a 3-game western road trip out to California and Arizona. The first game, against the L.A. Kings, began with (a common thread at the time) Toskala letting in the first shot on goal. The Vesa played well after that, however, stopping the next 32 shots, and the Leafs finally broke through with Stajan and Grabovski scoring 1:21 apart early in the 3rd. Finger added an empty netter and Toronto prevailed, 3-1. 24 games into the season, and the Leafs had a record of 9-9-6 and looked like they might be a team with some character.
The very next night, the Leafs went to San Jose to face a well rested, prepared, motivated Sharks team. The Leafs had the cards stacked against them to begin with. It was their second game in two nights on the road, in a different time zone, and they were playing one of the very best teams in the league. Even still, the Leafs seemed woefully and curiously unprepared for this game. The first period was a slaughter. Joe Thornton had a goal and three assists, leading the Sharks to an early 4-0 lead after just 20 minutes.
“If we somehow could have survived maybe the first 10 minutes of the game, we would have found an equilibrium, but it was over by then. That was one where you throw the white towel in the corner."
...said Wilson after his first game against his former team. While the Leafs were horribly outmatched in the first period, they kept the game respectable in the 2nd and 3rd, eventually losing 5-2. Of note, Hagman, Grabovski, and Schenn all finished the game plus 2. Still, the sensation of being thoroughly defeated was deeply felt. Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, and Kubina were all minus 3.
“Really, the game was over after the first 10 minutes" said Thornton, who obviously found the game extra meaningful and gave a performance to match.
“Guys were definitely motivated to play against the old coaching staff,” said Setoguchi. “I definitely felt a little jump out there." The Sharks were clearly geared up to go against their old coach, but did Wilson have any special enthusiasm to succeed against his old mates? Added Setoguchi, "You don’t want Ronnie bragging". Oh, really.
"It's not any different than any other game... I've got a team that I have to prepare. I'm not on a sentimental journey here, that's for sure."
...said Wilson the day before, downplaying any suggestions that he might have had high hopes for his return to San Jose. Still, it must have been disappointing, especially so since it was Wilson's best players who failed him the most, right from the beginning of the game. For a coach returning to face the franchise that fired him, this was in no way similar to (the Number One 1993 regular season moment) when Pat Burns returned to Montreal. It wasn't going to be that kind of a season either.
The next game was in Phoenix. While Wilson gave no prior indication publicly that he was extremely frustrated with the loss to the Sharks, nor with any one specific player, his response for the next game was to start Tomas Kaberle on the bench and to keep him there for the entire first period. Kaberle then went on to play the worst two-thirds of a hockey game I've ever seen him play. Registering a minus 3, Kaberle was on the ice for all 4 of Phoenix's goals in the 2nd and 3rd and looked just terrible, as a 2-2 first period tie became a 6-3 blowout.
When the road trip ended, the magic and sparkle of Wilson's presence was a little dimmer, the rebuild took a step back, and the Leafs resumed their campaign of deconstruction. Key players, specifically Stajan and Antropov, suffered blows to their confidence that they've never fully recovered from. Perhaps they were riding an overconfident wave to begin with, believing themselves to be World-Class first-line forwards (due mostly to Stajan's unexpected early success) but the grim reality of the San Jose thrashing seemed to have drained their Mojo considerably. Antropov especially seemed effected, scoring just 4 goals in the next 24 games while his once respectable plus/minus began to plummet.
Antropov is one of only 4 players who has appeared in all 60 games for the Leafs so far this year. I've gone through every game, one by one, and checked the box scores for his totals, then looked at each 12-game span and compared them. The first 24 games and the last 12 are decent and consistent numbers. Games 25 through 48 however, beginning with the game in San Jose, are underwhelming and even worrisome, reflecting a player who's playing well below his capabilities.
The first 12 games: 4G, 5A, 9P, +5, 32 Shots
Not a bad start to the season. On pace for 60-70 points and most remarkable is the plus 5. He was held without a shot for 2 games in this stretch.
Games 13-24: 5G, 4A, 9P, -3, 41 Shots
Again, not bad, and though the plus/minus has fallen, it's still respectable enough. Not once in these 12 games did Antro fail to register at least one shot, and he's averaging well over 3 a game.
Games 25(San Jose)-36: 4G, 7A, 11P, -9, 25 Shots
This is actually Antropov's most productive stretch for points, but a closer look shows that 9 of those 11 points were picked up in 4 consecutive games in which the Leafs as a team scored an amazing 21 goals (3-2 NJ, 5-8 Bos, 7-3 Pit, 6-2 Atl). In the other 8 games in this set, Antropov has just 2 points. His shots per game has dropped below 2.1, and his plus/minus for these 12 games is a scary minus 9. He is held without a single shot 3 times.
Games 36-48: 0G, 6A, 6P, -5, 29 Shots
Zero goals. Zero. The plus/minus is still on the wrong side, and the shots continue to be under 3-a-game.
Games 49-60: 7G, 2A, 9P, -1, 37 Shots
Antropov ends a 16-game scoring drought by collecting 3 goals in 3 consecutive games. His point total is exactly the same as the first two 12-game sets, and his plus/minus is back to a very respectable level. Maybe most importantly, the shots for these last 12 games is back to an average above 3 per game. Since Burke's suggestion that the timing for Antopov might be right for a "change of scenery", the Lanky Kazakh has produced 4 goals, 2 assists, for 6 points in 7 games, is a plus 1, and has averaged 3.7 shots per game.
There's only a week left before the NHL Trade Deadline, yet the Leafs still have 4 more games to play until then, so I'm surprised that a team hasn't already snapped up Antropov to save him some of his workload before they get him. For that reason, I don't think the Leafs are going to get their asking price for Antro, but I'd still be very surprised if he completed the year in Toronto and isn't, a week from now, on a team bound for the playoffs. Not a sentimental journey, for sure, but if it gets you to the Cup Final and a 4-year deal from somewhere...