Leafs at the Halfway Point: 5 Surprises and 5 Disappointments of the 2011 Season
The Leafs currently sit in seventh place in the NHL's Eastern Conference at the halfway point; however, they are only two points away from having the fourth-best point total in the Conference.
Needless to say, the Leafs' season so far as been a glowing success, given the team has had to deal with numerous injuries, a new batch of players getting used to each other, their number one goalie going down for an extended period of time and, who can forget, a pretty terrible penalty kill for most of the season thus far.
Even with some of the success does come some failures, so with that we'll take a look back at some of the Leafs' best surprises this season, as well as some of their failures.
Disappointment: Philippe Dupuis
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Dupuis was signed to a two-way contract with the Leafs in the offseason. He previously played with the Avalanche.
Dupuis was brought in to be a good two-way forward and be an adept penalty killer. However, with no hands whatsoever and helping the Leafs to the worst penalty killing in the NHL lands him a spot here.
He was never supposed to be an offensive dynamo; however, defensively, he was supposed to be a stopper. Halfway through the year, he's been demoted and Darryl Boyce has more than filled the void in his absence.
Surprise: Jonas Gustavsson
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After a pretty up-and-down start, Jonas Gustavsson has taken over for James Reimer and has become the pseudo-No. 1 goalie for the Leafs after Reimer returned from injury down a peg.
Not only has Gustavsson given his team a chance to win, but he's made big big saves and won big games.
It's a good dilemma to have sometimes when your original back-up is showing he can handle No. 1 duties.
If anything, the Leafs have another trade chip on their hands in pursuit of their coveted No. 1 center.
Disappointment: James Reimer
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James Reimer lit the NHL up when he first entered the league; however, half a season into the NHL it appears Reimer has a book out on him. He's been weak on breakaways, has a hard time stopping and fighting through screens and, most notably, has a very weak glove hand.
After he received an inadvertent elbow to the head courtesy of Habs Captain Brian Gionta, Reimer's lost quite a bit of confidence and courage to step outside of his crease.
Failing to cut down angles and play aggressively, Reimer has paid for it giving up weak goals and now finding himself firmly attached to a seat beside Air Canada Centre patrons.
Reimer has the talent, but will he pull it together in time to salvage the season?
Surprise: Jake Gardiner
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The very smooth skating, slick puck handling rookie has taken the entire Leafs staff by surprise and has earned himself a spot on the big club this season. Despite some in zone gaffes and some plays where he looks overmatched on the penalty kill, Gardiner has looked pretty confident in his first half-season in the NHL.
His skill, hockey sense and passing ability has already passed fourth-year defender Luke Schenn and has earned him a spot on the team's second unit powerplay and more average ice time than the Leafs' supposed shut-down defender in Schenn.
To say you weren't surprised by how Gardiner handled the NHL and the ice-time would be an outright lie. Personally, I never even had him pegged for the top eight defenders before training camp started. I had Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, John Michael Liles, Cody Franson, Keith Aulie, Carl Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and Matt Lashoff ranked ahead of him.
Disappointment: Luke Schenn
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Speaking of Luke Schenn, he lands in my disappointment pile again. As per his usual stunt, he's in the midst of another down year, following a breakout campaign. He seems to go good, then bad, back to good, then reverting back to atrocious.
His end zone coverages have been suspect, he can't skate for the life of him, and to be honest, his defensive abilities appear to be a tad overrated, at least right now.
Schenn's one responsibility on the penalty kill is to move players out from the front of the net. What keeps happening though? Schenn appears to try and block shots rather than let the goalies make the save. The result? The puck being brought back to center ice.
Heralded as a shutdown defenceman, Schenn received the least amount of ice time against Detroit this past Saturday—even Keith Aulie got more than he did, and only saw the ice twice in the final period of the game.
Luke Schenn, it's time to pick up the pace!
Surprise: John-Michael Liles
John-Michael Liles is the elder statesman on the Leafs' defence, but so far this season, he's been the team's MVP on the back end.
What makes him so valuable? He plays in all situations, is calming out there, he can shoot the puck and he blocks shots. In four words or less, "he does it all."
Not having watched much of Liles, I went into the acquisition with an open mind, at least hoping for the best. What I got was a complete surprise. Liles is the straw that stirs the drink. He's the main reason the power play has been so strong, and he's the main reason why guys like Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner are thriving now in a Leafs jersey.
I'm hoping the Leafs can sign him in the offseason and keep him around for years to come.
Disappointment: Nikolai Kulemin
Kulemin is starting to pick up the pace a little bit on the scoresheet; however, he still remains snake-bitten as he searches for that 30-goal touch he had from a season ago. With only four goals and 16 points in 41 games, Kulemin is far from his expected totals.
Kulemin's name has been mentioned in trade talks recently, but if he doesn't show his real ability, the Leafs will just hold onto him as they will likely not get what he's really worth in the trade market.
Expect his numbers to climb in the second half of the season as the Leafs get healthier (hopefully) and they begin their push for the playoffs.
Surprise: Phil Kessel
The Leafs' leading scorer and No. 2 leading scorer in the NHL, Kessel has been marvelous this season and a model for guess what—consistency!
After being plagued by goal-less droughts and pointless droughts that could run for 10 games at a time, Kessel has been quite strong, recording points in 33 of 41 games.
Kessel has scored 24 goals this season, but it's his work in both ends that has earned him a place here. After seasons of finishing with a plus-minus rating of -20 and -8 the previous two seasons, Kessel is up at +6 this season, and it appears to be climbing if he can keep up this torrid pace.
To say you were expecting him to be nearly leading the league in points is again an outright lie. Kessel—all I can say is, keep up the great work.
Disappointment: Colby Armstrong
His presence on the Leafs' team usually means the Leafs win. Last season when he was healthy, the Leafs won a high percentage of games, and again this season, the trend holds steady.
Another thing that held steady this year was Armstrong's real lack of staying healthy for an extended period of time. Armstrong, who kept a concussion from the team, remains out with concussion-like symptoms and a return date is not yet known.
Colby needs to stay healthy, otherwise that $3 million contract looks like a waste of money. Armstrong is the vital part to the Leafs' attack, and the Leafs definitely miss his presence both on the ice and in the locker room.
Surprise: Joffrey Lupul
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The best palindrome in the NHL currently, "Lupul" has been playing the same backwards and forwards this year, meaning he's been just as good defensively as he's been offensively.
After sitting out nearly a year from a nasty back injury, Lupul has returned to his former self prior to the injury. In actuality, he's been much better.
With one more goal, he'll join Phil Kessel as the Leafs' only 20-goal scorers this season, and the only Eastern Conference team currently boasting that luxury.
Lupul's got one of the best wrist shots in the game, and his extra effort in the gym in the offseason has really showed in both his durability this season, as well as his production.
On pace for over 90 points, Lupul is well on his way to a career year this season playing next to Phil Kessel.
All I can say is, where is Mats Sundin now, because he'd kill to be playing with wingers like Lupul and Kessel.