You know, sometimes inspiration can be found in weird places. I mean, here we are, about three weeks into the season, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling out of the gate to say the least. And really, while there should be tons of notes to take and opinions to make as to why they are struggling, fact of the matter is, I haven’t a clue why.
Truth be told, maybe this team just isn’t as good as everyone thought they were after a solid pre-season that perhaps raised expectations a few notches. Truth be told, maybe this team isn’t any better than the one that stepped on the ice last year.
But really, that can’t be it.
I mean, despite their early struggles, there is no doubt Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek are upgrades on defense. Garnet Exelby is a physical guy who has made a mark early. And Jonas Gustavsson, after running into early injury troubles, has rebounded nicely and looked good so far in the games this week against Anaheim, Dallas and Buffalo.
In fact, the whole team has rebounded quite nicely. After getting their first win of the season (and only win of the season) against the Ducks on Monday night in California, the entire Leafs team seems to have turned the corner and are putting together better results.
Perhaps the product of confidence that comes with actually winning a game. Perhaps the product of new players finally getting more comfortable in their new uniforms and within their new Ron Wilson-style systems.
Either way, as me and my son spent the week celebrating Halloween (arguably our favourite holiday) one thing became very, very clear to me.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are beginning to look a lot like Charlie Brown.
What with the getting rocks for Halloween, or thinking this may actually be the time they get to kick that football.
You see, it appears the Leafs are a better team than they were once the season began, again a product of chemistry no doubt. But will this year’s team ever be able to kick the proverbial football?
Toronto is a media driven city. It’s very hard for the players of this team to do anything without it being noted by members of the media. The FAN590 did report that Jamal Mayers did in fact eat at the Burger Bar on Augusta yesterday. For the record, he gave the burgers four and a half stars.
Ok, so the above was a little fictitious, but you get the idea.
And while it certainly has never been my job to pump up the media even more than it already is, I really can’t help it this time.
It happened last season. It’s happening this season.
You see, there were times last year when the Toronto Maple Leafs played well enough to win games, but simply couldn’t find that game breaking goal to tie the game or put them on top. It looked as though the team was a pure sniper away from perhaps making a little more noise than they did. Well, that and goaltending of course.
Fast forward to 2009, and it looks like the goaltending situation has been taken care of. One can’t jump to conclusions but it looks like Jonas Gustavsson is capable of making saves and keeping us in games. He also doesn’t look intimidated going into contests, and the team in front of him has reacted accordingly.
And again, for the most part, the efforts are there.
The Leafs are starting to skate faster, hit harder, pass crisper, and show more poise and confidence with the puck (case in point, Lee Stempniak actually concluded a breakaway. Not successfully, but the shot and effort were there).
And so looking at this year, it looks again like the team is a pure goal scorer short of making things at least a little interesting.
Enter Phil Kessel.
Not too much pressure right?
Actually, I don’t think the pressure will be as much on Kessel as it was, say two weeks ago.
The Leafs actually have a win, and are racking up a few points despite the recent losses. They now have five points in 11 games, which is not exactly a number to be proud of, but the overtime-loss points have helped them dig out of the hole a little bit.
Tomas Kaberle is firing on all cylinders. Niklas Hagman is proving why the Leafs gave him a four year deal last summer. Mikhail Grabovski has finally come to play, and Lee Stempniak looks like a player reborn.
So hopefully, Phil Kessel does not feel nearly as much pressure as he would going into his first game now that the Leafs have a few points, and some better efforts to speak of in the last few games.
The big question now remains, who will be the centre that plays with Phil Kessel—the set-up man?
For this, I say, look a little further down the ice. In fact, it may not be the man you would traditionally think.
The Leafs do have a premiere set up man for Phil Kessel. But he isn’t a forward.
His name is Tomas Kaberle.
The Czech-born blueliner, is one of the best passers in the game, whether it be tape-to-tape in the attacking zone, or springing a player with a stretch pass out of the zone.
Kaberle has 13 points, 12 of which are assists. Seeing him deliver stretch passes to the speedy Kessel would certainly help the Leafs to score more goals and be more competitive in the game ahead.
An update on tonight’s game against Montreal
After last night’s heartbreaking loss in Buffalo, the Leafs held an optional practice today. Only a handful of players took to the ice. Kessel, Mayers, Rosehill, Finger, Schenn, Beauchemin, and Toskala were on the ice.
Jonas Gustavsson watched practice from the bench, and while Ron Wilson has been quiet on tonight’s starter, though it looks like Toskala will get the start.