Bit by bit, Paul Ranger feels the game coming back to him.
After a slow start - which was to be expected after sitting out three seasons
and then playing last year in the American Hockey League - Ranger's game is gathering some momentum.
Early on there were some mistakes -- and some that wound up in the back of the Maple Leafs' net -- but as he has found his timing and his confidence has grown, he is inching closer to being a solid shutdown defender who can also offer up a little secondary offence.
All things considered, Ranger has been a pleasant surprise for Toronto with a goal and five points to go with a plus-5 rating, which is third best on the team.
He has also been Toronto's most physical blue-liner with mark Fraser on the sideline for 13 of the first 17 games.
"The biggest challenge for me was working through the personal stuff to get back here," Ranger said. "Everyone goes on their own personal journey and you have to figure out what you want in life. In re-establishing myself here that has been my biggest challenge and I think it is going well.
"People keep asking me how I managed to come back physically and I don't know, I mean, I just worked at it. I never really believed that I couldn't do it."
Ranger was drafted 183rd overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2002 and before retiring prematurely for personal reasons, had developed into a pretty good puck-moving defenceman. In his best year (2007-08) he scored 10 goals and 31 points in 72 games.
Last season with the Marlies Ranger managed eight goals and 25 points in 51 games and this season, his points have been gravy as he has been asked to concentrate on keeping goals out of his team's net.
"The game has changed in the three years that he was gone," Carlyle said. "There's not the same amount of hooking and holding and blocking out that was allowed. There's a lot more freedom on the ice surface and that has been an adjustment for him. We're asking him to be specifically a stay-at-home defensive defenceman.
"He wasn't that when he played before. He played for John Tortorella and Torts wanted him up in the play a lot. It does take time, but he's a big man that has a lot of NHL quality skills and we're just trying to refine those."
When Ranger was with the Lightning, he played at around 210 pounds. Now he is up to 230 pounds and he is a much more physical player.
"I was more of a two-way player in Tampa Bay and Randy has asked me to take on a role of playing a solid defensive game," Ranger said. "I have a new attribute which I never really had in Tampa which is physical strength. I worked out and grew a lot. I had shoulder problems back then so after I got those fixed I was able to lift more."
Ranger said he cherishes to role of being a more physical player.
"I do," he said. "It's different. It's something that I have learned to add to my game."
As the season progresses and Ranger becomes more acclimatized with being back in the NHL, the Maple Leafs will reap the rewards of being patient with him in the early going.
On the limp
Veteran centre David Bolland faced the media for the first time since being injured Nov. 2 in Vancouver.
"It hasn't been the best time," said Bolland, stating the obvious.
In 15 games with the Maple Leafs, the two-time Stanley Cup champion has six goals and 10 points and is plus-4 - good numbers for an individual whose main job is to shut down the other team's best offensive players.
Bolland said he doesn't like to critique his own play, but did offer, "Everything was rolling and things were going well and something like this happens it really crushes you."
For now Bolland is restricted to simply resting. He has been told to not put any weight on his left foot for at least a month so he spends a lot of time parked in front of the TV. He also said he gets to spend some quality time with his new daughter.
"When you get cut like that or any kind of injury it's always a scary moment," Bolland said. "It was just a freak thing; it's hockey. When you go in the corners and you're wearing sharp blades...there was just a little opening in my foot that got cut."
Bolland insists he harbours no ill will toward Kassian.
"No not at all," he said. "It was a fluke play. It's a hockey game."
Looking at the positives
In Friday night's shootout victory
over the hard-checking New Jersey Devils, coach Randy Carlyle said he liked the way his team skated and the fact they were able to draw penalties. In Saturday's loss in Boston
Carlyle also saw some positives.
"It was probably one of the more physical games we have played in all year in the second half of a back-to-back series," the coach said. "I liked our forecheck after the first period. You always try to not be the bearer of bad news all the time and you have to accentuate the positives that are taking place.
"We told our players there are a lot of good things going on out there, but we have some areas in which we'd like to improve on. We feel in the last two games we have gotten somewhere from our preaching."
The Maple Leafs are not getting much offence from their defencemen thus far. Through 17 games, Toronto defenders have just three goals; two by Dion Phaneuf and one by Paul Ranger.
Last season the Maple Leafs had 19 goals from their defencemen, which ranked 16th in the NHL.
"I just don't think we shoot the puck enough from the point," Carlyle said. "I think we seem to be very cautious. We preach to our group that you aren't trying to score goals from there all the time; your job is to get the puck on net.
"With today's goaltenders, most of them have the bigger pads and there [are] lots of rebounds. We want to give our forwards a second opportunity to get a rebound and score a goal from in tight."
Leafs cautious with man advantage
A lot of NHL teams use the one-timer from the point as a weapon on the power play, but by placing right-shooting defenceman Cody Franson on the right side and left-shooting defender Dion Phaneuf on the left side, the Leafs don't have it as an option.
Carlyle said he has thought about switching them, but worries about how it would affect their ability to defend.
"If you have the opposite hand picking the puck up off the wall that is a trigger point for the opposition to pressure up top," Carlyle said. "When you have your stick on your right side usually you can handle the puck better and you see more of the game in front of you. Also your pass to your partner is more natural."
Keep the shot low
Speaking of shots from the point, Carlyle said the coaching staff (and probably his teammates) has talked to Phaneuf about keeping his shots a little lower.
You may recall it was a high Phaneuf slapper that broke teammate Joffrey Lupul's arm in a game last season.
"I told him and the message is, when you are shooting from the point you are not shooting to score," Carlyle said. "It's dangerous for our forwards that are above waste high and if you can keep the puck down in the area of 18 inches to two feet, it is better. We had that conversation and he agrees."
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