The game was a chippy affair, complete with some pretty offensive plays, a nice tilt between Milan Lucic and Jay Rosehill and a tremendous shootout winner from Leafs rookie Nazem Kadri.
To be fair, there were several heroes last night for the Maple Leafs, including the likes of Joffrey Lupul, who scored two goals (one of which was on the power play) and registered an assist on the opening goal of the night.
Luke Schenn, James Reimer and Phil Kessel (two assists on the night) also had good games in their own way, helping to lift the Maple Leafs within five points of the eighth place Buffalo Sabres, who occupy the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Given the way the Maple Leafs have been playing of late and the number of players that have been stepping up, it occurred to me that there does not seem to be one player that stands out as the stud of the roster.
Based on their overall performances this season, the top six candidates for the Maple Leafs’ best player appear to be (in no particular order) James Reimer, Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin, but with the likes of Joffrey Lupul and Keith Aulie stepping up of late, a case could be made for any of them.
Going forward, it appears as if the seven aforementioned players will constantly be in the discussion as to which player is regarded as the best, with opinion widely varying.
Rookie netminder James Reamer appears to have the inside track on becoming the Maple Leafs best player long-term. Many experts refer to goaltending as the single most valuable position in hockey, a fact I find hard to argue with.
When your goalie is hot, your team and your coach look like geniuses; when your goalie continually comes up short, your team often looks to be out of synch, and your coach appears to have lost his marbles!
It’s hard to separate the likes of Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin from each other. While each player has posted career highs in goals and points, many fans look at this trio as a unit, dependant on one another for their offensive output.
The Mac-Russian line has been one of the best lines in the NHL this season, posting a combined total of 78 goals and 171 points. MacArthur leads the trio with a total of 59 points, while Grabovski has the most goals at 29. Through 78 games Grabovski has 57 points, followed by Kulemin who has registered a total of 55 points.
At face value there is not much to choose between this trio of players, but with a plus-14 rating, Grabovski has both MacArthur (minus-three) and Kulemin (plus-eight) beat.
Kulemin leads the trio with six game-winning goals, while Grabovski leads the Mac-Russians with 10 power-play goals and 231 shots on goal.
Outside of Reimer, the trio’s stiffest competition probably comes from Phil Kessel, who leads the team with 60 points, 29 goals (*tied with Grabovski), 309 shots on goal, 11 power-play goals and six game winners.
The only ugly part to Kessel’s stats appears to be his plus/minus rating which weighs in at an awful minus-21 on the season.
On the back end, Luke Schenn has been the Maple Leafs most consistent blueliner, feeding opposing forwards with a steady diet of hits (239), which ranks him first amongst all NHL defensemen, and block shots (163), which ranks him 11th amongst D-men.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf has been leading his team with tremendous leadership, often turning the other cheek when it would cost his team a chance to win the game and by playing smart at both ends of the ice.
Since the departure of Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin Phaneuf has stepped up on the power play and now leads all Maple Leaf defensemen in goals with eight (three of which came on the power play) and points (30), all while playing a spirited defensive game with a renewed focus on hitting and physical play.
Phaneuf is leading by example, finding his way as team captain and helping to form the culture that the Maple Leafs were so badly in need of upon his arrival last season.
Given his inspired play of late, Joffrey Lupul has found his way into the conversation as the Maple Leafs’ best player. While Lupul doesn’t have the stats (eight goals, 15 points through 24 games with the Leafs) to garner many votes from the fans, the fact that the entire team has been a much more cohesive unit since his arrival is hardly coincidence.
Lupul helps give head coach Ron Wilson the balanced attack the team was missing at the beginning of the season and takes a lot of pressure off Phil Kessel, often drawing attention away from the Maple Leafs sniper.
Bottom six forwards Mike Brown, Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce deserve plenty of praise for their hard work, but none of them are viewed as the Maple Leafs' best player.
This summer Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is expected to make a number of offseason acquisitions, which will likely serve to help balance out the roster and give his players a better chance to succeed in their roles.
Without direct knowledge of which players Burke is targeting (or will land), it appears as if Lupul has the biggest potential to explode next season as his body rounds into shape and he is afforded more ice time.
That said, Kessel should also benefit from a more familiar lineup and the strengths that Lupul and others bring to the table.
On the back end, Dion Phaneuf looks to be headed in the right direction, and while there are still doubt surrounding whether or not he’ll be able to return to his All-Star caliber play, his role with the Maple leafs should continue to be of the utmost important to this franchise.
As I lamented in an earlier article, there is no clear-cut candidate as the Maple Leafs’ Most Valuable Player; it appears as if the same can be said for projecting which player will be the cornerstone of the franchise, which is not all bad, is it?
So, I put it to you Leaf fans: Going forward, which player will emerge as the cornerstone of the franchise?
Until next time,