With the Toronto Maple Leafs sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference one game shy of the halfway point, there is no arguing their playoff chances are slim to none. However, ever since the calendar flipped over, the Maple Leafs have gone 3-1 in the last nine days.
With a record of 16-20-4, the Maple Leafs are one of the last teams people would expect to have won three of its last four games. However, despite the team's below-average record and poor play to wrap up 2010, players such as Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin have been getting a lot more attention lately.
Why? Because all three have been on fire for some time now.
Kessel, who slowed down considerably after a rapid start to the season, has 12 points, including seven goals, in his last 12 games. In 40 games this season, Kessel has 17 goals and 12 assists, putting him on pace for 34 goals and 24 assists for a total of 58 points. This kind of production is not what the Maple Leafs acquired him for, but is certainly much better than what he was giving them just a handful of weeks ago.
After two mediocre seasons, Kulemin has finally found his game. His 15 goals, 14 assists and 29 points are just one, six and seven short of his career-highs respectively. His impressive statistics put him on pace for 30 goals and 28 assists.
His production can be credited to a recent explosion of offense. Kulemin has 14 points in his last 15 games, including seven in his last five.
With 12 goals in his last 14 games, Grabovski may be considered the most surprising of them all. Just one season ago, Grabovski was being criticized for his lack of aggression and streaky production. The Belarussian's 17 goals and 15 assists put him on pace for a career high of 35 goals and 31 assists.
Even with all the production the Maple Leafs' top offensive players have been putting out lately, there is one very important factor that cannot, and must not, be overlooked: the importance of the American Hockey League.
Joey Crabb, Tim Brent, Darryl Boyce and James Reimer (not to mention the likes of Francois Beauchemin and Kris Versteeg) all spent their share of time in the AHL, and have all been positive contributors to the Maple Leafs this season.
Crabb played 256 games in the AHL before the 2010-2011 season. He has played eight games in the NHL this season recording four assists. He has even been credited with re-uniting the duo of Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
Brent played 302 games in the AHL before signing in Toronto during the offseason. He has been a staple on the penalty kill this season.
Boyce scored his first NHL goal a little over a week ago against the Ottawa Senators. In five games this season, Boyce has one goal and two assists.
The only goalie of the four, Reimer has made four appearances this season, posting a goals against average of 1.87 and a save percentage of .947. In three starts, Reimer is 2-1-0. Before joining the Maple Leafs this season, he played in 29 AHL games.
If Maple Leafs fans were to focus on the lesser-known players rather than the players on rapid point streaks just a bit more, they would realize what is perhaps the biggest part to their recent success.
The above statistics prove that the American Hockey League is not only a tool to use, but a great one at that. Who knows? Maybe playing in the AHL will help first-round draft pick Nazem Kadri blossom into a great player.
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