Phil Kessel, Luke Schenn and What We've Learned About the 2010-11 Maple Leafs
Few expected the Toronto Maple Leafs to start out on such a torrid pace to start the 2010-11 NHL season and none would have expected the Leafs to be sitting atop the Eastern Conference.
However, not only are they in first place in the East but they lead the NHL in points, tied with the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Chicago Blackhawks; they're also one of two teams who have yet to lose a game in regulation (Nashville Predators, 3-0-2).
Wonders never cease, and in this case, neither has the Leafs' great play thus far.
Following two solid home wins to start off the season, the Leafs went on a two-game road trip to Pittsburgh and New York, leaving both with a victory to start the year 4-0.
Monday night's 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Islanders ended their winning streak, but they've still managed to collect nine out of a possible 10 points.
Clearly, this is not the same Leafs team from a year ago. Both the players and coaches have made that abundantly clear to the media over the past two weeks.
This is a completely new team, with a new attitude and an actual chance to go somewhere this season, especially with such a great start under their belt.
Like Ron Wilson said, this is money in the bank come hard times.
Here's a look at what we've learned about the Maple Leafs through five games.
In order for defense to win championships, it first has to win games early in the regular season. That's exactly what the Leaf's defense Leafs has done. It has been one of the best defenses in the NHL this season.
They've allowed just 11 goals through five games, which is sixth best in the league playing fewer games than four of the five teams ahead of them; they've also allowed the fewest shots per game, at just 23, a key stat for a team trying to keep pucks out of their own net.
The most pathetic part of last season's team was the penalty kill, which ranked 30th in the NHL by a wide margin.
It killed them on most nights, but that's not the case early on this season. They've allowed just two goals against, while being short-handed 18 times. That 88.89% PK has them ninth—best in the league.
We knew they would be better, but did we honestly think the Leafs would have a top-ten PK at this point? Doubt it.
But in order for the group to be doing an excellent job, it mean individuals are performing at a high level.
Tomas Kablere, after an off-season to forget, has been one of the best defensemen in the league. His puck movement and awareness on the ice has been out of this world and his passing ability on the power play is making the Leafs extremely formidable.
Kaberle is third on the team in points with four assists, is a plus 3 and is shooting the puck like he never before in his 13-year career. Burke is thanking the hockey gods he didn't get rid of Kaberle in the summer. He's been outstanding and is causing fans to quickly rethink their position on the get-rid-of-Kaberle campaign.
However, the wily veteran isn't the only one standing out on the blue line. Luke Schenn has been a beast early on, after struggling through much of his sophomore year. He came into this season looking to bounce back and he's done that in a big way—so much so that Wilson has pushed him into the top four, forcing Mike Komisarek out, who's still looking to find his game.
In my Bold Predictions before the season (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/455839-toronto-maple-leafs-25-bold-predicitions-for-the-2010-2011-season), I said Schenn would work his way off the team this year, but so far I've been entirely wrong.
Carl Gunnarsson, thought to make a strong push for the top four this year, has disappointed. In just four games he worked his way from great potential to sitting in the press box. He'll get another shot, but right now, he's the lone disappointment for the thriving Leaf squad.
J.S. Giguere, on the other hand, has been what the Leafs were missing early last year. A stand-out goalie.
Giguere has put up some impressive numbers with a 1.96 GAA and .911 SV% in his four games.
One key element to the team's success has been the speed up front, and it's led to numerous odd-man rushes and great opportunities to set up in the zone. It's not just the first-line trio of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and Kris Versteeg that's been showing off their wheels, but plenty of others too.
Freddy Sjostrom has been electric, along with the duo of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, who've shown some good chemistry even though they've started the season slumping in the goals category.
Mike Brown has been an energy boost whenever he gets the chance, and how could we forget the Leafs' leading scorer, Clarke MacArthur, who, along with Kessel, has five goals through five games.
Speaking of Kessel, his five goals and seven points have him pace for a big time season. We know he's a streaky scorer, but even the Leaf player with the highest expectations is performing better than imagined.
We also learned that Colton Orr, the teams' chief enforcer, may in fact be human. He was knocked out clean in a fight with Pittsburgh's Deryk Engelland in the third game, but bounced right back and played two nights later in New York.
Tough to keep him down, but now we know he's at least beatable. Well, unless he's against Matt Carkner, that is.
Colby Armstrong, another new Leaf, is showing his incredible board-play, where he's bringing back memories of Mats Sundin.
Okay, maybe not, but Armstrong is pretty good at it too. He's near impossible to shed from the puck and when he's chasing down an opponent, he almost always finds away to get the puck back. His consistency has been impressive.
And of course, we in Leaf Nation have only seen the side of Ron Wilson—the one who's mad, part of a losing team and frustrated with the same old questions. Now we have a chance to see him as part of a winning team.
So has he changed into a nicer man, showing the love to all those who ask him a question?
No. He's exactly the same. He just doesn't have to call out Matt Stajan anymore.
Overall, it's been a surprising start to the long season. The Leafs were only expected to make a run at the final playoff spot at best.
Only time will tell how long it can last and how long they can keep the point-streak going before they hit a bump in the road, but until that happens, enjoy your first place team Leafs fans.
Because like Wilson said, a start like this is money in the bank.
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