Tim Brent and the Secret to Maple Leafs' Success: Third Line's the Charm

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IOctober 12, 2010

LONDON,ON - SEPTEMBER 23: Tim Brent #37 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates in a pre-season game against the Philadelphia Flyers on September 23,2010 at the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario. The Leafs defeated the Flyers 3-2 in a shoot-out. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the new fan-favourite on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tim Brent, might be living somewhat of a dream right now.

He last scored a goal in the 2006-07 season as a member of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the first of his career, and came into this campaign with the Maple Leafs with merely a prayer of making the opening-night roster.

Well, after scoring twice in two games and now holding a tight grip on the third-line center position, it's safe to say Brent is having a career-changing start to the 2010-11 season as a Leaf.

Before this season he had bounced around the NHL as a rarely-used, grinder-type player, who saw more travel time on a bus in the minors than up with the big boys in the NHL. He started his career in Anaheim where he appeared in 15 games, scoring the lone goal of his career during that time, before being shipped off to Pittsburgh in July, 2007. He played one game there, then went to Chicago where he saw two games wearing the Blackhawks attire.

He landed in Toronto last season where he saw one game in the blue and white, but missed the majority of the AHL season with a pectoral injury.

Thus, he started this preseason with exactly 19 games of NHL experience, and one measly point. Not much of a resume to make a case for suiting up full-time for the Leafs, but after five very strong exhibition games he now finds himself as one of the most talked about Leaf players in this young season.

As the center of the third line between Fredrick Sjostrom and Colby Armstrong, he's able to play with two players who collectively have played over 700 games (Armstrong: 362, Sjostrom: 425) in the NHL—more than enough experience available for Brent to soak up.

All three players are known for their gritty style of play and their tireless work ethic, but through two games it's apparent that these three players make up what might be one of the most hard-working lines in the NHL. It's early yet, but the proof is in the pudding, or in this case the stats.

It's not so much the goals and points that the coaching staff will be worried about on this line (though Brent's two goals thus far are certainly welcomed) but the plus/minus each night. It's this line's job to shut down the other team, and so far, so good.

Brent sits at a plus-two, while his wingers are both plus-one. That doesn't seem like much, but on a Leaf team where last season the plus/minus looked like they were competing in a golf tournament, rather than a hockey game, it's a much better start.

As a line, they play about 13 minutes each game, plus whatever time they spend killing penalties, adding up to around 15 or 16 minutes per night. They're a group of players who have played a major role in the Leafs' two-game success in keeping pucks out of their own net; with just three goals against thus far.

They've also killed off all seven times they've been shorthanded, something that would have been near impossible through two games last season. Yes, that is not a typo, the Leafs are perfect on the PK so far. Crazy.

Sjostrom, as he's known to be, is like a water bug on the ice. He's everywhere he needs to be, making plays, throwing his body around and a wizard in his own end with the puck. He sees the ice like few on the team, and his defensive prowess is second to none.

Armstrong is the workhorse of the trio, as he's often seen down low in the corners, fighting off defenders for the puck. He's hard-nosed and willing to go in the dirty areas to benefit the team. He's the perfect third-line player. He's the perfect Burke-like player.

Needless to say, the third line has been important in the Leafs' 2-0 start, and they've played a crucial role in the early success at both ends of the ice.

With 80 games remaining this season, it's hardly time to start calling the Leafs legitimate contenders for the playoffs let alone anything else, but early on two things are clear. One, this Maple Leafs team is much better than they were a year ago. Two, the third line of Brent, Sjostrom and Armstrong are going to play a much bigger role in the team's success than some may have thought before the games began.

They'll get their biggest test thus far when they face off against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first road game of the year, and you can bet Brent and his pals will get more than one opportunity to be the shut-down line against Crosby.

Just another example of Brent's career changing before our eyes—gone from a forgotten man stuck in the minors, unable to find his place, to taking faceoffs against the best player in the NHL, on arguably the Leafs' most important line.

As for Leaf fans, all they're worried about at this point is that Brent keeps living that dream, and nobody pinches him.


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