Kessel will need to ignite the after-burners to keep the Leafs' winning streak alive
This season, the Toronto Maple Leafs present themselves as a properly matured team and, while a year ago they were indeed the league's youngest, they are now a much more balanced team, quite possibly a better team. If they stay healthy, they will enjoy a run in the playoffs next spring. If they don't, Ron Wilson and Brian Burke will be peddling their skills elsewhere.
Frankly, the Leafs are a good, young team that is improving and, if they win their home games, they have the capability of generating a huge and lucrative television (and online) viewing audience, while increasing critical branded merchandise sales, which is what the shareholders expect. On behalf of these fans, the board demands nothing short of sales success from its managers, delivering measurable objectives that they can control, which includes winning a slate of home games during the playoffs.
The Leafs today are certainly not an aging, washed-up team subject to frequent pulled muscles or broken bones, even with Tim Connolly in the lineup, but there will be injuries—an unlucky fall here and a bad bounce there. Thus, the equation of making the playoffs is actually contingent on the call-ups. How they react to the pressure will determine the fate of the team, as always, and as with every team.
In this sense, this Maple Leafs team has improved its chances of making the playoffs in 2012, as Leafs' management has some depth on the chart from which to draw talent, and a truly ambitious group of players that are surely being watched by all levels of management with eager anticipation, including newcomers Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi.
Unfortunately, the Toronto Maple Leafs still lack a big, imposing and talented centreman for sniper Phil Kessel, and it's doubtful the second line will remain intact over the months leading up to the trade deadline.
Either one of these three is gone: Mikhail Grabovski, Nicolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur (likely the latter). This is the benefit of existing depth that will enable Burke to wheel and deal all season long.
Will Phil Kessel match Rick Vaive's 50 goals this year?
For example, with the acquisition of David Steckel, whose skill lies squarely in the faceoff circle and who seems to be quite secure holding down a third-line centre position, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak are now displaced. Frankly, they are both expendable, as Burke is jockeying the final pieces of his puzzle: a truculent Stanley Cup-winning team. He was hired to deliver nothing less and, although promising, neither Kadri nor Bozak are truculent.
Burke is obviously betting the farm that Ron Wilson is simply smart enough and has the communication assets necessary to improve his promising players and maximize every ounce of strength in his veterans, while also inspiring daily and getting them to execute to perfection line against line, game after game, at home or on the road.
This year, the Leafs really need someone on the ice who fans can point to and say, "He is our best player." At the moment, that role is open and completely debatable. It's a role that requires leadership over and above perfect execution. So, while the young guys improve, Dion Phaneuf needs to lead by example, shift after shift, as does Mike Komiserak. At least we have ourselves a winning season and James Reimer is sporting a shutout into Game 2.
The season is young, but not the team. The coach simply needs to inspire them to victory each week. A Stanley Cup is all on his shoulders—not the captain's, or his assistants', or the aspiring rookie's, the training staff's or the new rules.
After three seasons of losing, surely his luck will change.