It has been an interesting start to the 2010-11 NHL season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, to say the least, as the first half has had it's fair share of ups, downs and plenty of unexpected along the way.
The amount of change that has occurred on this team since the midway point last season is drastic, as the list of players is long, and brings to mind the word "overpaid."
Gone are forwards Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Jason Blake, Alexei Ponikarovski, Jamal Mayers, Wayne Primeau, Viktor Stalberg and Rickard Wallin. On defense, the Leafs lost blue liners Ian White and Garnet Excelby. And who can forget everyone's favourite goalie, Vesa Toskala, also departing to bigger and better things?
New arrivals since the 41-game mark last season include Dion Phaneuf, Fredrick Sjostrom, Colby Armstrong, Kris Versteeg and J.S. Giguere.
A serious turn around to say the least, but the current team has performed as many would have expected. It's the players themselves that have self-proclaimed hockey experts shaking their heads when trying to figure this team out. Few could have predicted what has gone on within the club through 41 games.
Clarke MacArthur leads the team in points.
Mikhail Grabovski is the team's most dangerous player and has one less goal than the team leader, Phil Kessel.
The only two Leafs defensemen with a Stanley Cup ring have been useless.
Luke Schenn leads Leafs defensemen in goals.
And James Reimer is pushing Jonas Gustavsson for the starting job.
Sure, we all saw that coming.
If the unpredictable continues, Leafs fans will be calling for Jeff Finger to be named captain, and anointing Ron Wilson as the next owner of MLSE.
Okay maybe not, but needless to say there have been more than a few surprises since the season opened in October. One thing that shouldn't be a shock, but might be, is the progress they've made in the standings since last year. Or, should I say, lack of progress.
At the halfway point of last season, the Leafs had a 14-18-9 record (37 points). This season, they're 17-20-4 (38 points). A one point increase may seem like a small improvement. Okay, it is just a small improvement, but it's better than the alternative.
They hit the 41-game mark on a three-game winning streak, and a four-game streak on the road.
Though the majority of storylines surrounding the team are negative, there have been some positives intertwined amongst the rubble.
Most of the scoring has come from five players, who have been sharing the offensive load and all find themselves on pace for career years. MacArthur and Versteeg are on pace for 20-goal seasons, while Kessel, Grabovski and Kulemin are well on their way to 30-goal campaigns.
MacArthur has been a pleasant surprise, with 12 goals and 34 points to lead the team. He's one point shy of his season total last year, which makes you think if he's not re-signed by the club shortly, he will be before the season is up.
It's been a breakout season for Grabovski, who is the hottest scorer in the NHL, tallying 12 goals in his past 14 games. His career high is 20 goals and 48 points in 2008-09, but with 17 goals and 33 points already, he's well on his way to shattering his best. He's also just two points away from reaching his total from all of last season.
In fact, all five of the forwards leading the Leafs are on pace for career seasons or close to it. Not bad when all anyone can talk about are the offensive issues of the club, but also proof that with more playing time, almost any player can excel to a certain point.
Even Kessel, who has been getting his fair share of criticism this season, is on pace to get the 36 goals he had in 2008-09 with the Bruins.
He has 18 goals at this point, four better than this time last year, but had played just 29 games after missing the first 12 recovering from shoulder surgery. He's also lived up to his streaky nature. After five goals through 23 games, he now has six in his past seven.
Who knew it would take Joey Crabb to kick start Kessel's scoring?
For what it's worth though, he's well on his way to being the first Leaf to hit the 35-goal mark since Mats Sundin did it in 2002-03 when he had 37.
Of course, what Leafs recap would be complete without a Nazem Kadri mentioning? The 19-year-old "future star" came up to the big club for 17 games, played on every line with almost every player without finding any chemistry, and notched just six assists before being sent back down to the Marlies of the AHL.
Keep holding your breath on that one, Toronto.
As for the defense, it's been about as consistent as a magic eight ball, but the two bright spots have been Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle.
The two have made for a solid pairing thus far, as they seem to work well together. Kaberle's puck-moving skills clearly have rubbed off on Schenn, while his toughness seems to have, well, never mind.
Kaberle had 35 points at this point last season, and is up to his usual tricks this year with 28 points. He leads all Leafs defenders, as you would expect, and with nine points already, Schenn is on pace to eclipse his 17 from a year ago.
He's also the only Leafs blue liner with more than one goal. I know, ridiculous.
Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek have been literally moronic at times. Komisarek's ice time is vanishing faster than the polar ice caps, and Beauchemin may actually not know how to play hockey unless he's paired up with a future Hall-of-Famer (see: Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermeyer).
New captain Dion Phaneuf has been somewhat of a disappointment, though his leg injury that caused him to miss 16 games has certainly slowed him down. He usually has fans up in arms with his inability to hit the net, or his mind-numbing pinches sometimes, but every so often we get a glimpse of what he could once again be.
Those glimpses are just few and far between, unfortunately.
Jonas Gustavsson, who began last season battling for the starting position with Vesa Toskala (yes, you heard me correctly), kicked this season off as the backup to J.S. Giguere. Though Giguere has been effective (8-7-2, 2.80 GAA, .894 SV%) he's currently fighting through a groin injury for the third time.
It also seems like every time he gets in the net, everyone wants someone else to be in the crease. I guess that's what a Cup ring and Conn Smythe trophy get you around these parts.
Gustavsson had a 7-6-8 record, 2.86 GAA, .905 SV% and one shutout at this time last season. He currently sits at 6-12-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .896 SV%. Poor numbers, but take into account the terrible defensive play in front of him on most nights. And though he's only won three games since the beginning of December (3-6-0) he hasn't been as bad as the stats say he has.
The big news lately has been the play of James Reimer, who through four games this season looks as if he's already got NHL-ready skills. The 22-year-old Winnipeg native was the 99th overall pick in the 2006 Draft by the Leafs, and if he continues to perform at a high level, could be one of the best draft steals the team has had in a very, very long time.
The jury is still out, but right now he's the hot goalie and Ron Wilson is riding him. In his four starts (3-1-0), he's managed 30 or more saves in each, including an impressive 44-save performance against the Atlanta Thrashers.
His .945 SV% and 1.90 GAA are downright impressive, and the team looks strangely confident in front of him, compared to when Giguere or Gustavsson are between the pipes.
He's still got a long way to go, but his play right now has got to make the coaching staff feel more confident about next season, when Giguere is most certainly not going to be a member of the team.
Midseason Stud: Mikhail Grabovski
The former cast-off from the Montreal Canadiens has turned into quite the scorer this season, putting up numbers that few could have imagined, especially after his offseason troubles.
Many expected him to be mired in yet another season of mediocrity and temper tantrums, but it turns out he's the club's No. 1 center (since Tyler Bozak has all but disappeared), on a line with Kulemin and MacArthur that has some serious chemistry brewing.
He also has the spin-o-rama down pat, which has fans begging for shootouts now that he's shown he's one of the league's best.
Who's laughing now, Kostitsyn brothers?
Midseason Dud: Brett Lebda
The 28-year-old offseason free agent signing has been anything but useful for the Leafs this season. He's spent much of it watching from the press box, but for the 20 games he's been on the ice, it hasn't been pretty for the former Detroit Red Wing.
His team-worst minus 18 is shocking when you consider he's played half of what the others have. The icing on the cake may have been in the Jan. 7 win over the Thrashers.
The Leafs won 9-3, and though most players were padding their stats, Lebda played 13:54 and was a minus three.
Could Have a Big Second Half: Colby Armstrong
He's been nothing short of a warrior this season, battling through injuries, taking sucker punches to the eye and never once backing down.
He's a spark when in the lineup, and if he can stay healthy, could be on his way to a solid second half of the season.
He's a former 20-goal scorer, and though he currently has just five goals and 10 points through 25 games, he looks to be on his way to a much better stretch. And if not, well, he's still incredibly entertaining to watch. You know Burke loves this guy.
And so should you.
Could Have a Poor Second Half: Tyler Bozak
It's becoming evident that his spot on this team is no longer a sure thing as Bozak has been as close to a no-show as it gets for much of this season.
He's not a top-six player, and his skills aren't that of a third-liner. One wonders if his future lies on the Leafs, or even in the NHL.
Only time will tell, but the second half could be a rough one for Bozak.
The team's two longest win streaks have book-ended an up-and-down season, one that had waffles flying and the coaches head being called for in between, but things are looking up as of late.
Being 11 points out of a playoff spot as it stands doesn't bode well for postseason play in Toronto, but closing the gap in the next 41 games could be a building block for 2011-12.
It could also be a complete, unmitigated disaster.
And that's why we keep watching these Toronto Maple Leafs.
Like Forrest Gump once alluded to, this team is a lot like a box of thawed Eggos, you never know what you're going to get.
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