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Dowbiggin: Leafs finally moving near the head of the class

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Which is to say it's time to acknowledge that the Toronto Maple Leafs have graduated from shop class to sitting with the smart kids in the NHL.

Yes, Toronto was all-in against Boston the past two games, but they showed that they can fight along the ropes against a heavier opponent and, not only survive, but get three of four points against the division rival. They don't get everyone's A game yet, but they're getting close to it.

In today's NHL that respect says a lot. Compared to where the Leafs have been the past decade, it's stunning.

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No one will make a case for the Cup from this group yet. Unless they can add an elite part or two in this impossibly tight free agent market it may never happen (though they have the salary cap space). The playoffs, maybe a series win will be enough to send Toronto crazy. For one year that will be enough.

Here to stay

There will be a turf war over who's responsible for the bump. Brian Burke fans will (justifiably) mention a number of the moves that are now paying off, not the least of them leaving Nazem Kadri in the minors to germinate properly.

Ex-coach Ron Wilson will also be able to say he did the inevitable babysitting of many of these players who are now maturing.

But in a league where teaching is critical, current Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle has done The History Boys with many of the unformed parts he inherited. We can do without the John "Bluto" Blutarsky routine, but there has been an upgrade in skill and accountability with it.

So for puckheads waiting for Toronto to go away in 2013, looks like you're wasting your breath.

Edmonton in need of a pick-up

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In another part of the forest, the two Alberta NHL franchises have taken diametrically opposed strategies to improving. Neither is working.

Edmonton has adopted the Tank Offensive, aka the Pittsburgh Penguins gambit. Tank for several years, acquire Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with lottery draft picks, then win the Stanley Cup. The Oilers have aced the first part of the strategy, collecting a string of No. 1 overall picks with a series of abysmal finishes.

Sadly, the Oilers under Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini have used the No. 1 pick like a rookie on a spending spree, buying nothing but high-performance vehicles such as Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. Great stuff for going 180 km/h on the open road.

The problem is that much of the NHL's driving is on bad surfaces in lousy weather. You need to find an SUV or a pickup truck to do the errands in the neighbourhood if you're going to succeed in the playoffs. Here the Down Lowes have left the garage empty.

With the clock already ticking on big contract extensions for RNH, Ales Hemsky, Yakupov, Ladislav Smid and Sam Gagner (plus a major question mark in goal), the Oilers need to flip the Ferraris for a few Ford 150s. But word from the Alberta capital is the Oil aren't ready for that yet.

If so, get set for another No. 1 pick in Northern Alberta.

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Different tactic, similar result

Down south in Calgary, the Flames have gone in another direction. Under president Ken King they've adopted a spackle-and-repaint strategy since missing a Cup in Game 7 in 2004. As in, keep Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff in place and decorate around them with whatever's handy.

(Toronto fans saw this approach in the Mats Sundin years, as Toronto hung onto the Blue Swede till he was getting senior's discounts on the TTC. Letting an asset deteriorate to zilch has worked as well in Calgary as it did in the T-dot.)

Flames executives pride themselves on saying they'd never inflict the Edmonton hair shirt approach on their wonderful fans. So they added a series of warm bodies via free agency and trade to get into the playoffs or, at the very least, stay ahead of the Oilers in the standings. They're ahead of Edmonton. Playoffs? Not so much.

The sum total of redecorating with the Mike Cammalleris, Alex Tanguays and Dennis Widemans is a house realtors like to call "a fixer upper". Lay people call it a dump. Iginla (on the final year of his contract) and Kiprusoff have lost much of their market value. There's no organizational identity. The fans have caught on, and while the corporate suits give King a little cover by filling the pricey seats, everyone knows where this is headed.

While new coach Bob Hartley pumps sunshine, most Flames channel a different vision, that of co-owner Murray Edwards playing management heavy in the just-concluded CBA mess. Result: a fourth straight year of missed playoff revenues for Calgary. The Flames are about to become one of the worst franchises for the next ten years. Time for a new plan.

Tweet nothings

@ Ken_Rosenthal Vladimir Guerrero has offer from independent Quebec Capitales and agent also has spoken with Long Island Ducks. Hat tip to @ TradeDeadliner . / @dowbboy

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