Toronto Maple Leafs: Profiling the Top 5 Game Changers of the 2011-12 NHL Season

Steve Wolosewich@@stevewolosewichContributor IIIOctober 28, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs: Profiling the Top 5 Game Changers of the 2011-12 NHL Season

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    Heroes come in many shapes and sizes, some more likely than others. But one thing they all have in common is their ability to affect significant and positives change when they are needed most. 

    Whether by their determination, dedication, athleticism, composure, or pure raw talent we call these extraordinary individuals "game changers".

    With the 2011—12 NHL season now under way, lets look at the five most compelling Toronto Maple Leafs likely to emerge as top impact players.

No. 5 Mikhail Grabovski

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    The evolution of Mikhail Grabovski continues.

    After experiencing relative obscurity in his days with the Montreal Canadiens and early on as a Toronto Maple Leaf, Mikhail Grabovski has since proven that his significance as an NHL player should not be taken lightly. Fans have even affectionately nicknamed him "Crosbovski" playing off his, at times, jaw dropping offensive flare.

    Although a notoriously slow starter, Grabovski recently showcased some overtime heroics against his former team, scoring a sensational goal that gave Toronto its fifth win in seven games. He took a quick pass from John-Michael Liles deep in the Montreal zone and completed a reverse 180, backhand—to—forehand maneuver, snapping the puck by Carry Price on the far side.

    He single-handedly brought a full house at the Bell Centre to its knees...

    But although Grabovski nearly hit the 30 goal mark last season enjoying his best points total thus far in his career (58), it's not just his offense that makes him a game-changer. He was referred to as Toronto's best all-around player by Ron Wilson at the start of the season because of his strong two-way game.

    Mikhail Grabovski's dedication, work ethic and maturity both on and off the ice has elevated his game to an all-time high. If his linemates, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, continue to gel as they did during the 2010-11 season, we could be looking at an extremely potent Maple Leafs team, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of this Belarusian dynamo.

No. 4 David Steckel

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    You can't win games without scoring goals. Likewise, you can't score goals without gaining puck control.

    Enter David Steckel, faceoff and PK specialist. Although winning faceoffs is not widely considered tantamount to scoring goals in the NHL, it is difficult to argue that his contributions have been any less significant to the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-2-1 start.

    Bringing with him a 62.3 percent success rate with the New Jersey Devils last season, Steckel has won key faceoffs in the defensive and offensive zones that have directly impacted the outcome of games. With Ron Wilson rotating the lines because of the recent absence of Tim Connolly and Tyler Bozak, Steckel has been an incredible (and understated) positive force for the Leafs.

    His 6'6" frame also puts a big body in front of the net which gives him even more of an upside. Apart from these attributes he has also scored 3 goals in the last 4 games.

    If he continues to produce offensively as well as maintain the other elements of his game he was originally acquired for, Steckel will undoubtedly be a game-changer for the Leafs well into the 2011-12 season and certainly the dark horse on this short list of players.

    All for the price of a fourth round draft pick? The Leafs are laughing all the way to the bank.

No. 3 Phil Kessel

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    Isn't it time to put this debate to rest? Phil Kessel is indeed the franchise player Brian Burke acquired him for. If there are still any naysayers out there, look no further than his blazing start to the 2011-12 season.

    Kessel leads all NHL players with 16 points and nine goals in just nine games played. The soft spoken Kessel would usually avoid the extra attention heaped on him in Toronto, but if he should continue to score at this rate, it would be to his advantage to prepare for the onslaught of media praise and fanfare.

    This dynamic sniper recorded his first hat-trick as a Maple Leaf on October 8 against the Ottawa Senators and followed that up with three more multi—point games in his next five. He has only been kept off the scoresheet once so far this season and finished last season on a 10-game point streak. (

    Phil has always been regarded as an elite goalscorer, but has scored none prettier than his first of two on October 15th against the Calgary Flames. Tyler Bozak fired a seeing eye pass from deep in Toronto's end to break out a speeding Kessel in full stride. Although Calgary defender Chris Butler seemed to have the angle, Kessel cut in from the right and snapped it short side in the top right corner.

    Besides the added flare he has exhibited early this year, Phil has also matured into a complete player with an improved two-way game. His confidence and conditioning may have contributed to his breakout start, but he has certainly already shown early signs that he can roll with the big boys any day of the week.

    Some may point to his obvious hot starts in years past as a knock against him. He has, after all, been known to be somewhat of a streaky player over his career. But when all is said and done, Kessel has still managed to score 30+ goals over his last three seasons. 

    Past trends aside, Phil Kessel is now undoubtedly carrying the Leafs offense on his back and for that he portrays an incredible example of what a true impact player should be.

No. 2 Dion Phaneuf

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    The Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs Dion Phaneuf embodies all the elements of a hero.

    Brought over from the Calgary Flames during the 2009-10 NHL season, Dion's notoriously feisty style of hockey was a breath of fresh air in what became a very stale atmosphere in the Leafs dressing room.

    For Phaneuf, his leadership qualities became evident as soon as he donned the Maple Leaf on his chest. He plays a strong physical game, is defensively sound and has the ability to contribute offensively in significant ways. He leads by example but is also an extremely vocal member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Besides these qualities he is also involved outside the rink and has actively worked with Sick Kids Hospital to give back to the community.

    He has been an absolute thoroughbred for the Leafs thus far, logging an average of 26 minutes a game while generating nine points in nine games, with a plus -7 rating (tied for second overall).

    His physicality and athleticism also strikes fear into the hearts of opposition, which draws attention away from other skill players to effectively open up opportunities in the offensive zone.

    “You've got to be aware if you're on the other team and he's on the ice because it can be a rush, a shot or a big hit," says teammate Jeoffrey Lupul. "I think he's a guy that when he goes against the other team's skill players they know every time he's on the ice.” (

    Perhaps the most important stat of them all is that since Dion Phaneuf was acquired from the Calgary Flames, the Leafs have a record of 50-38-12 when he is in the lineup. (

    Phaneuf makes everyone better around him and that alone should speak volumes about what he does for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

No. 1 James Reimer

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    For those who have borne witness to the Toronto Maple Leafs transformation since the start of the 2010-11 season, James Reimer is both a revelation and a godsend. And for the 23—year—old net—minder, the world is his oyster.

    After the struggling Maple Leafs stumbled mightily through the months of November and December 2010 with J.S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, out of sheer necessity, Ron Wilson employed Reimer to weather the media storm directed at Toronto's subpar goaltending situation. What resulted was surely unexpected but incredible none the less. 

    Making his first start in the NHL on Jan. 1, 2011, James Reimer proceeded to go 20-10-5 in his next 35 games for the Maple Leafs. Although Toronto ultimately came up short, eight points back of a playoff spot in the East, what he became for the organization was a beacon of hope.

    With five wins in six starts for the Maple Leafs this season, Reimer has still yet to lose in regulation, contributing to Toronto's nine out of a possible 12 points in that stretch. In fact, since his first start as a Maple Leaf, the team has a record of 25-10-6 when he is in net, a staggaring success rate for a team that had not been expected to be in playoff contention.

    Whether Reimer is Toronto's lucky rabbit's foot or not, it is impossible to ignore those numbers as he has clearly earned his way to the top of the Maple Leafs depth chart as Toronto's number one netminder.

    Unfortunately James Reimer's Oct. 22 start against the Montreal Canadians was short lived, as he suffered an injury during the first period. Jonas Gustavsson relieved him for the rest of the game, which ended in a 5-4 overtime win for Toronto. Early reports suggested Reimer's injury was nothing major, but he was experiencing symptoms of whiplash.

    "Missing in action" is certainly not the way the Toronto Maple Leafs want to be describing James Reimer in the future. However in light of his injury, it's become more and more obvious how large a piece of the puzzle he has become for this team.

    The mental strength, maturity and composure Reimer brings to every game allows him to be the game changer the Leafs absolutely need to even consider playing for Lord Stanley's Cup.

    For the 2011-12 Maple Leafs, James Reimer has simplified the equation. Without him, they're simply rolling the dice.

    With him, anything is possible. I couldn't imagine a more perfect embodiment of what a true game changer should be.