Toronto Maple Leafs: Players Exceeding Expectations in the 2013-14 NHL Season
While the team's play has been uneven at best over the past two weeks, injuries have been a significant contributor to this. For the most part, Leafs fans should be relatively pleased with the 29 earned points and the third place standing in the Atlantic Division.
With this number of banked points, it seems likely that the Leafs can play right around the .500 mark over the final 58 games and qualify for the playoffs next spring.
We'll take a look at five players who have exceeded expectations with their early season play. They are likely to be key ingredients in any continued Leafs success over the rest of the regular season.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats can be found on NHL.com
Morgan Rielly has more than met the preseason expectations of fans, coaches and management. In some ways, just sticking with the Leafs was unexpected as he still has junior eligibility left in the WHL.
Rielly was too good in training camp to return to junior and has been very good on most nights so far. The talented rearguard has averaged over 17 minutes per game, and on some nights has played more than 20. He has not looked out of place very often.
He is a dynamic skater with exceptional acceleration. He has that rare ability to get back to the defensive zone to help thwart the opposing team's rush, even when caught deep in the offensive zone.
He is third on the team in defenceman scoring with eight points. If his game continues to improve at a similar rate as the season wears on, he could be in the Calder Trophy conversation.
Dion Phaneuf has not had the offensive numbers that some might have expected (including me), however he has exceeded expectations in other important ways.
Phaneuf's plus/minus rating is plus-11 right now, and that is a full seven points better than the Leafs' next best defenders in that category. Phaneuf has posted this number despite playing against the opposing team's best players on a nightly basis.
He has also averaged 24:06 minutes per night, which puts him among the top blueliners in the NHL. This places him 25th in the NHL currently.
He has registered 61 hits, putting him in the top 15 in the league among defenders. His hits are often bone-crushing and meant to leave a mark.
If Phaneuf keeps playing at this high level, it will be difficult for the Leafs to not give him a new contract that pays him in the range of some of the best defencemen in the game.
Jonathan Bernier & James Reimer
Unquestionably, the goalie duo of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer has been the best Maple Leafs story this season.
The duo has had the odd hiccup, but they are the main reason the Leafs are near the top of the Atlantic Division this season. The team has a .931 save percentage with both goalies providing outstanding netminding nearly every night.
Bernier has a goals against average of 2.16—that means his team is in every game that he plays. Both goalies, but Bernier in particular, give them a chance to win every night. Not only that, both goalies have stolen games on more than one occasion this season.
The duo has certainly exceeded expectations in 2013-14. If the Leafs continue to be outshot as consistently as they have been to date, they have to continue to post similar numbers for the team to keep winning.
Mason Raymond has been a difference maker for the Leafs in 2013-14. He's capable of playing anywhere in the top-nine forward group for Toronto.
His versatility and scoring touch have been outstanding in the Leafs' first 24 games. He has 17 points and is second on the team in scoring. Most impressive might be his three game-winning goals. Raymond has played his best hockey when the team needs him most.
The Leafs thought they were getting a third-line player in Raymond. Instead, he's delivering first-line performances on a nightly basis.