By Tim Schmitt
BUFFALO — Thumbing through the coaches handbook for the quintessential example of a bad turnover?
Toronto’s Niklas Hagman had just the thing for you Friday night.
Hagman’s incredible momentum-swinging pass midway through the second period was the kind of play bad teams suffer through on a nightly basis, and was perfectly representative of the National Hockey League’s richest — and worst — franchise.
Hagman had a teammate driving to the net and another trailing the play with the score tied at 1-1. The safe play was to hit the net, hoping the commotion in front of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller would be enough to create a rebound.
Instead, Hagman looked back, and made what proved to be an errant pass, right on the stick of Jason Pominville. In what seemed like a second, Pominville found Tim Connolly breaking down the middle.
What seemed like another second passed, and Connolly calmly deposited the puck behind Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson to give Buffalo the lead.
It’s indicative of a team that garners the most fan support — and has the fewest points through 11 games.
The Leafs keep looking for the big play, keep throwing dollars at a problem that could have long ago been solved by adhering to a simple plan of building young talent and being critical of their development.
Hagman’s nine points in 10 games nearly justify his $3 million salary, but combing through the rest of the Leafs’ payroll, you wonder what the team’s braintrust has been sipping.
Mike Komisarek — still scoreless in 11 starts and a minus-6 — was the team’s big free-agent signing, and is Toronto’s highest paid player. Vesa Toskala, who rakes in a cool $4 million, is nailed to the bench with a 5.57 goals against average. Jeff Finger and his nearly $4 million salary spent Friday in the press box, a healthy scratch for the third straight contest.
Truth be told, the Sabres weren’t the better team on Friday. Tyler Myers had his worst game as a Sabre, showing nerves and freshman mistakes we expected to see weeks ago. Another young defenseman, Chris Butler, wasn’t his silky smooth self.
But give the Sabres credit — they haven’t wavered from their mantra of finding good young players and letting them develop. When fans clamored for high-priced free agents over the summer, Darcy Regier stood firm, believing his young team was ready to ripen.
Although Friday’s 3-2 overtime win wasn’t much of an indication, it looks like he was right.
Good teams beat bad teams, even on their off-nights.
Friday was clearly one of those. The Leafs controlled the play late, outshooting the hosts 16-5 in the third, often skating circles around a team that looked surprisingly tired despite a light schedule.
Toronto even got the equalizer, getting a well-deserved point.
But two years into the Brian Burke regime, the same problems seem prevalent. The Leafs keep snubbing mid-level free agents and hoping that July 1 splashes will make the difference.
So far, they haven’t.
Contact sports editor Tim Schmitt at 282-2311, ext. 2266.