a blog by Dr.Joey Only
(An over-view of this Leafs teams strengths and a look at how they fare statistically in the NHL).
Shawn Marcum commented before the the Blue Jays season of 2010 that they were better than anyone was giving them credit for as the sports pundits predicted they would lose 100 games. The insult of a 64 win prediction seemed to motivate the team to play harder with a ‘we’ll show them’ attitude.
Much is the same for the 2010-2011 Leafs as Captain Dion has repeatedly stated that whatever happened in the past has nothing to do with the team Toronto is icing this year. This Maple Leaf is far better than anyone has given them credit for, before the season began I watched some television sports pundits predict that the Leafs would finish around 12th in the east missing the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year. I highly disagree with their professional conclusion, I believe these Leafs are going to go further and compete harder than anyone expected. They will make the playoffs. After the first five games the Leafs are proving to be a very balanced team. They have secured 9 out of 10 possible points two weeks into the season.
Brian Burke has wisely retooled this team with a few dollars to spare in a very short period of time. As important as what Brian Burke did do to rebuild this team over the summer, it is equally important to recognize what he did not do. He kept Ron Wilson on board to coach this team which I think was a wise move. Burke never chased after the high priced free agents that were available unlike New Jersey who landed a top scorer in Kovulchuck but at a very high price which has weakened their team on the whole. Instead of landing a costly superstar Burke looked for speedy, hardworking underdogs to grab at a bargain price therefore creating a balanced and hard working team.
Burke kept faith in Grabovski who I personally would have rid the team of after last years showing, paid Kulemin enough to keep him in blue and managed to dig up some real talent at a reasonable price in Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg and Clarke McCarthur. The biggest surprise coming out of training camp was the intelligent play of Tim Brent. The team was good enough as it was that they could afford to let Nazem Kadri, a sure star in the Leafs future, to work on his game at the AHL level.
So far his plan has worked, the Leafs are third in the league with 3.4 goals per game. The Leafs are outskating their opponents and forechecking their enemies into visible frustration, drawing penalties and being the first one in on the puck. Their power play has been better than the 17.4% they boast which is still good enough for 13th in the league. They will improve on that category based on how well the PP has been setting up and moving around, it’s a matter of time before they really start to click on it. This is almost the faster, tougher and grittier team Brian Burke wanted, I’m sure he’s not satisfied yet. The Leafs are already second in the league with 148 hits and13th in blocked shots with 73, Leaf fans are at least satisfied that they are finaly getting their money’s worth.
The biggest improvement for this Leaf team is their defence corps and goal-tending which is eating up a large portion of the teams budget. Leaf fans were screaming for Burke to trade Kaberle in the offseason with the hope that they could land a top scorer in return, but the GM knew that Kaberle’s skating and passing are irreplaceable for the salary he earns. Since the lockout Kaberle has been one of the best point producing defencemen in the NHL.
Luke Schenn has added fifteen pounds to his frame and at twenty years old is already playing as though he is a veteran, he’s moving the puck better and is hitting everything in sight. Schenn and Phanuef are the two top hitting defencemen in the league. Captain Dion’s 19 hits are good for 6th overall while Schenn’s 18 hits land him at 8th in the NHL. Being paired with Tomas Kaberle, Schenn has taken on the role of the stay at home defencemen so that Kabs can be the intelligent set up man and puck moving defencemen. The very sight of Dion Phanuef instills fear into his opponents for he hits with everything he has to offer. Let’s not forget the power potential of Bauchemin and Komiserek. Bauchemin has also blocked 12 shots which is good for 17th in the league. Bauchemin could stand to improve on his give-aways for which he has logged 6 though he is also credited with 4 take-aways (sixth overall in the NHL) which might make up for some of those blunders.
Through five games the Leafs are 7th best in the league having held their opposition to a 2.20 goals against average with the assistance of J.S. Giguere’s fantastic goal-tending. Giguere is 8th in the league with a 1.96GAA despite having logged 245 minutes on the ice, five people above him have played fewer games. The Monster Jonas Gustavson has only played one game so far yet some of the saves he made against Pittsburgh landed on him high-light reels around the country. This proven goal-tending tandem with it’s reliable defencemen up in front has yielded great resuts, Toronto’s only been allowing an average of 23 shots a game which is best in the league. I would be willing to bet that this Leaf team will not finish last in goals against or penalty killing this year as they did last year, they have improved in every category. A strong defence corps has allowed the forwards to play a more aggressive game because they are not so worried about what will happen in the back end, they can push toward the oppositions net with speed and fury.
By investing so heavily in defence and goal-tending Brian Burke gambled that he could find forwards at a reduced price who could step up their game when given the chance to play top minutes. Two such examples are Kris Versteeg and Clarke McCarthur. Versteeg was a third line player in Chicago and is now averaging seven more minutes a game of ice-time, his two way game has allowed him to play on penalty kills, power plays and on the top line. In Pittsburth last week Versteeg blocked 4 shots making up for the fact that his line didn’t land on the scoreboard, most recently in the loss against the Islanders he forced 3 turnovers. McCarthur was also a third line player his whole career who is now seeing more minutes on the second line contributing 5 goals in 5 games. Surely Clarke McCarthur will improve on his career best 17 goals now that he’s being given top minutes, he has an unbelievable shot and eye for the net.
Every line on this Leaf team knows what it’s job is, they accept their roles and have excelled at them. The fourth line is an excellent example, they do not get top minutes but that enables them to hit the ice rested and ready to create some energy when they are needed. With Colton Orr and Mike Brown there are two proven tough guys who can fight or skate while Zigomanis has done an excellent job winning face-offs. Mike Brown leads the league with 3 major penalties proving he is willing to scrap against anyone.
The third line has done extremely well, the most under-rated Leaf of all has to be Freddy Sjostrom who has already hit 16 guys putting him in the top twenty in the NHL’s body checking department. When listening to games on the radio it seems like everytime the Leafs are in trouble deep in their zone the puck has a way of landing on Sjostrom’s stick and he rarely faills to clear it. I expect Colby Armstrong will contribute more points as the season wears on, but no one can under-rate his positive effect in the dressing room. He is a man of constant jokes who lightens the atmosphere up everywhere he goes. Other players credit Armstrong with keeping things fun, having fun makes winning easier. Players like Sjostrom, Versteeg and Armstrong may be why the Leafs penalty kill hovers at 88.9%, seventh best in the league and a tremendous improvement from their last place performance of a year ago.
We haven’t begun to see the potential of Tyler Bozak who may be one of the most under-rated first line centres in the league. Bozak is 3rd in the league with 19 power play face-off wins. Grabovski has been defensively responsible and Kulemin has played an excellent two way game. Grabovski is 11th in the NHL in road face-offs win percentage at 63.2%.
What makes me the happiest is the play of Phil Kessel who is (along with Clarke McCarthur) tied for second in the league with 5 goals in 5 games. Many people wanted to have Burke’s head for the deal he made to land Kessel, but now it isn’t looking so crazy. Kessel is explosively fast and exciting to watch. Kessel and McCarthur both have 2 game winning goals (tied for 2nd in the league) while Clarke’s 38.5% shooting percentage is 7th overall. This Leaf team top to bottom is speedy, hits hard, fights well, forechecks relentlessly, is defensively responsible and has proven to have some balanced scoring despite lacking a proven superstar line-up.
When I watch the Toronto Maple Leafs paired up against teams like Pittsburgh I see that they do not have a player of the likes of Crosby or Malkin…yet they are already more balanced as a team then the Penguins are and they have chemistry. Just look what they have accomplished two weeks into the season, for the time being they are first in the league and I for one couldn’t be happier. After all those tiresome years of losing it is safe to say that it is indeed a good year to be a Leafs fan. This is a young team who will only get better as the years wear on, the future is bright in Toronto.