Forget the Call-Ups, Toronto Maple Leafs' Veterans Finally Taking Charge

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IDecember 8, 2009

TORONTO - NOVEMBER 23:  Lee Stempniak #12 of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots during warmup before game action against the New York Islanders November 23, 2009 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

The season started out as a disaster for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Long losing streaks, terrible play both offensively and defensively, and fans crying out for the team to call up players from the Marlies to add some life to a pathetic looking roster.

And as the losing continued and the veterans on the team continued to struggle, fans wondered if the season was lost right from the beginning.

But then something strange happened.

After a dismal five-game losing streak, and the playoffs looking more out of reach by the day, something clicked within the team and the veterans started to step up their game.

The Leafs have won six of their last nine games, including three of their last four, as they find themselves sitting a mere five points out of a playoff spot—a blessing, considering where the team has been.

So, instead of Brian Burke sticking to his promise of sending struggling players down to the minors to send a stern message, he has been able to watch his players claw their way back to pack, without the help of Leafs future players.

In fact, the current members of the team are playing so well, when the Leafs called up Christian Hanson to fill in for an injured John Mitchell, he looked slow and out of place.

He was subsequently sent back down after six games, tough luck for him, but a positive for the Leafs, who finally are making it tough for a rookie to bump their way onto the lineup; something that was a rather easy call early in the season.

Yes, a large part of the success of the team is thanks to young-gun Phil Kessel, but don't think for a second that he's been the only member of the club who has taken charge.

Niklas Hagman, the team's leading scorer with 14 goals, has been scoring threat every time he steps on the ice and is on pace for a career year in goals. Same goes for Alexei Ponikarovski who has 11 goals and 20 points, as well as leading all Leaf forwards with a plus seven.

A surprise to the team and fans alike has been the stellar play of usual goat, Matt Stajan, who currently sits tied for second in team scoring with nine goals and 12 assists. His great play was on full display in Monday's game against the Atlanta Thrashers, in which he potted a goal and an assists, as well as came up with some huge defensive plays at key times in the game to ensure the team kept their lead.

Lee Stempniak, who has been buzzing all year but had trouble finishing on his chances, has finally been scoring; adding his seventh of the season Monday night in the Leafs 5-2 win. His effort was never in question, but now that he has begun capitalizing on his opportunities, he has become quite the offensive weapon.

And yes, even Jason Blake, the man who scores on about three percent of his shots, has started to play better, doubling his goal total to a whopping four tallies, but looking like he's found his ability to finish, for now anyway.

It doesn't end with the forwards either, because for the most part the veterans on the blue line have looked like the complete opposite from their terrible play at the beginning of the season, forgetting the beat-down in Boston, of course.

Francois Beauchemin has been a stud lately, single-handedly responsible for stopping the opposition's superstars at times, as well as being more selective when deciding when to pinch, rather than doing it every time and getting caught out of position.

Tomas Kaberle, who has been the team's point-leader since the year began (now with 28 points), has continued his great offensive play, and though his toughness is always in question, there is no one better to quarterback the team or get the puck out of the zone.

Ian White, who leads the team with an impressive plus nine, has continually gotten better as the season has progressed. Over the past two weeks especially, he is proving that when his contract runs out at the end of this season, he is deserving of a major pay-raise; something the Leafs should have no problem giving him.

Credit must be given to Ron Wilson and the rest of the coaching staff as well, who must have tried everything in the book at season's start to try and get this team to play well, but they stuck with it and persevered and it has paid off.

Whatever they have done lately is working, but one thing is for sure; not giving up on their veterans was a wise choice, and one that is paying off now.

It is clear that the team is playing well, which is key with six of their next eight games at home, a place they have struggled mightily this season. If they plan on having meaningful games late in the season, these games before Christmas are vital. Win the majority of them and they'll find themselves potentially in a playoff spot come the New Year.

Something that seemed so impossible a month ago could now be a reality in just a few weeks.

In the beginning, Leaf fans were crying for the team to call up players from the Marlies, but with the veterans finally in sync and winning games, the Marlies will have to wait their turn.

While the vets turn this season around all by themselves.