Crystalizing Maple Leafs Team Set to Tackle Tough East on Way to Cup

Graeme BoyceCorrespondent ISeptember 28, 2010

TORONTO - SEPTEMBER 27: Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres during a preseason NHL game at the Air Canada Centre September 27, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)
Abelimages/Getty Images

I like the non-Leafs distractions this year.  It seems more business and less circus, more straight-forward.  The on-ice product is encouraging.  Indeed, we've seen many young and very promising prospects enjoy a taste of the ACC and the earnest benefits of playing in The Big Leagues, yet most importantly (for us) they now know what is expected of them, if they truly expect another invitation to escape the junior ranks. 

Without Kadri, who I doubt will crack the lineup, The Leafs will be expecting a lot from Christian Hanson.  If Hanson falters - though I don't think he will - then we can expect a flow of inexperienced and under-achieving centremen, until blueline injuries beset another team, enabling Brian Burke to trade for a Phanuef-approved centreman, augmenting Bozak, Grabovski and Mitchell.

Thus the top lines upfront for Toronto are becoming cemented, at least from among those asked to provide the scoring punch and those asked to provide just the punch.  Of special note, while we have enjoyed a week of professional scrimmages, I think The Leafs have been playing with a mature toughness about them. 

The Leafs' special teams are performing well, even, dare I say, improving, and so Burke and his counterparts around the league must be weighing their strategic options with the real games around the corner, especially with the wonderful pre-season goalie woes facing Habs fans and Savard's lingering concussion in Beantown.

With an entertaining victory against the Sabres under their belts, the Maple Leafs, despite a few bad bounces last week, have sufficiently pared down their roster to provide a glimpse of the team being handed over to Ron Wilson to coach into the playoffs next spring.

We are not privy to the between game banter, or Wilson's motivational speeches, and as opposed to last year's incredible optimism, with the exception of a notable Mike Komiserek hit early, Toronto fans have been witnessing the evolution of a professional hockey team. They blend size and chemistry, while clearing the puck with speed and efficiency and then effectively putting it between the pipes.

With respect to the aforementioned rookies and prospects, the interesting element in this Leafs' rebuilding period—which we were warned was at least a two-year time frame—is that we actually gave 65 players a decent shot.  However, many did not perform well. 

Over the past month, while standing on the precipice of a new season, we've discussed several intangibles required to enable a championship season.  Among these we've mentioned the positive attitude needed in the dressing room, as well as the unlucky break and the string of injuries, missed shots, missed chances, blown opportunities, and ill-timed retaliations. Also under question is the ability of the coaches to "connect" with their players, and the anticipation required to maximize player combinations. 

The talent at the NHL level is unmatched.  In order to be drafted, each player must have somehow displayed a consistent level of talent and spark in order to catch the eye of a scout.  They are taught positioning without the puck, not to rely on fate, luck or timing, and they begin to accumulate statistics as they mature.

Speaking of statistics, and defining success ultimately, are there new jobs for new coaching assistants to count and collate the per-second on-ice percentages, in totality? Will people record things like balancing minutes on ice, and the percentage of time hitting and finishing checks, shooting and blocking pucks, or specific special teams' work?  If I'm an agent, and my player doesn't have the scoring punch, yet offers punch nonetheless, how is that punch valued?

It is a new economy after all.  "I'll give you $1 mil a year to provide 13.4 hits per game, and not just any hit, but a full on glass rattling bone crushing hit."  The Maple Leafs would not have it any other way.  This is the truculence required, seeing that Kessel is on his way to a 50 goal season.