It would be an egregious understatement to say that things have not gone well for the Toronto Maple Leafs so far this season.
Winless in eight, last in the league, and last or close to last in every single statistical category; the season teeters on the brink of becoming a complete write-off before Leafs fans have even had a chance to change their calendars to the month of November.
But despite their record-breaking poor start, there are at least three factors suggesting the Maple Leafs can straighten up, fly right and make something out of the remainder of the season.
Much Easier Schedule Ahead
It’s not an excuse to say that the Leafs have faced the very best of the NHL in their first eight games.
Those three teams represent four of our eight losses so far.
Also tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for tops in the NHL are the Colorado Avalanche, who also handed the Leafs a loss. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York, and Colorado are a combined 30-8-8 so far to start the season, and it’s no wonder they’ve beaten the Leafs by a combined score of 26-10 in those five losses.
Further to the point, the seven teams the Leafs played in their first eight losses have a combined record of 46-20-11. That equals 103 points in 83 games. Statistically, the Leafs have been playing the equivalent of a cup contender every night to start the season!
Luckily for the Leafs and their fans, things get significantly easier for the next eight games. Especially games against the Ducks, Wild, Lightning, and Hurricanes; none of whom have earned more than three victories and all of whom would be out of the playoffs if they started today.
The combined record of the Leafs’ next eight opponents is 30-32-13. That’s only 83 points in 85 games. A team with a similar record would be firmly in the league basement.
Toronto has a golden opportunity to make up lost ground.
Phil Kessel’s Imminent Return
The Toronto Star reported recently that head coach Ron Wilson hinted that 22-year-old sniper Phil Kessel could be cleared to play as early as Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Expectations for Kessel are astronomical in the wake of the Leafs’ disastrous start and Leaf fans are braced for disappointment. But, for a team that has managed a meagre 15 goals in its first eight games, Kessel will certainly provide some measurable boost to the offence.
Kessel need not play like superhero, however, to provide the spark Toronto needs. All he has to do is provide some scoring chances and pot a few goals to increase team confidence.
As they say, scoring is contagious and Kessel is the man most likely on the roster to get the proverbial snowball bouldering down the hill.
Gustavsson’s Ready to Take the Reins
Marred by false starts so far this season, Jonas Gustavsson is finally ready to suit up in goal for the Maple Leafs, and the timing couldn’t be any better for the ambitious young goalie looking to claim the number one job.
The best goalie not in the NHL last year is eager to prove he is one of the best goalies in the NHL this year.
To quote Gustavsson himself, as reported in the Toronto Sun : "I'm a goalie and I want to play...I know the best goalie gets the ice time and if I play good I'm going to get the chance. We (Toskala) will be good teammates and try to push ourselves, but my goal is to be the No. 1 goalie."
Toskala’s been injured and awful, and MacDonald was never meant to carry the load. Gustavsson is getting the start tonight versus the Ducks and any sort of positive result will ensure he’s the de facto starting goalie going forward. That fact alone will provide stability.
And let’s not forget that there is a reason why GM Brian Burke went all the way to Sweden to sign Gustavsson.
We’ve all heard this before, but it bears repeating: Gustavsson is 6’3”, 192 lbs and only 24 years-old. He posted an incredible 1.03 GAA and .961 SV% for Farjestad in 13 games during their playoff run in the Swedish Elite league last season.
Fans in Sweden think he may be an even bigger talent then their reigning national netminder Henrik Lundqvist.
It’s not unabashed hyperbole to suggest that Gustavsson could be the equal of his Swedish compatriot Lundqvist; but even if he doesn’t live up to the hype right away, just having a reliable presence guarding the twine will go a long way towards restoring the team’s tender confidence.
So cheer up Leafs Nation, all is not lost.
The toughest part of the team's schedule is likely behind them and the next eight games should be easier then the first eight; their best scorer has yet to lace up his skates but will in the line up soon; and they've got a hungry monster ready to make his name for himself between the pipes in the NHL.
None of the above will change the unfortunate fact that the losses accrued are there to stay, but they undoubtedly do provide a reason to believe.