Toronto Maple Leafs: 10 Players Who Can Help the Leafs Make the Playoffs
The recipe for a successful regular season and subsequent playoff push may not have a specific flavour, but there are a few hard and fast rules to live by which can contribute to a potent team.
Playoff-bound teams should certainly have showcased a combination of goal scoring, defensive accountability, reliable goaltending as well as effective special teams play as evidence of their winning formula.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are currently off to an impressive start to the 2011-12 season but now look to continue their dominance in the Northeast division to prove that they have what it takes to win consistently. Ultimately, a playoff berth is their goal, but which players need to contribute to make that long-elusive dream a reality?
Let's look at 10 players who can help this Leafs team make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 NHL season.
David Steckel is an example of an interesting puzzle piece added to the Toronto Maple Leafs roster picture late in the offseason.
Steckel hasn't registered a point in his last six games played, but based on his current points production, he is still projected to finish in roughly the same place he has over the last five seasons where he has played more than 50 games.
He showed early in the season that he is capable at producing some offense by registering a goal in three straight games in mid-October. This kind of production, however unrealistic, is not what Leafs General Manager Brian Burke had in mind when he employed the 6'6" 215-pound forward.
Steckel's aptitude as a faceoff specialist is the feather in his cap on this rather deep Leafs team who are all jockeying for a place in the lineup to thrive. As of Oct. 31, 2011, Steckel was second overall in the NHL with a 60.9 percent success rate in the faceoff circle.
He has been used on the powerplay, penalty kill and has been essential to the Leafs by obtaining puck control in key situations. Steckel will undoubtedly contribute to Toronto's regular season success because of this, and thus put the Leafs in a good position to make the postseason.
Nikolai Kulemin could be one of the more underrated players in the NHL. As a Maple Leaf, he has produced offensively without being a defensive liability, which in turn contributes to his reputation as an excellent two-way player.
Kulemin has only two goals and six points in the first 14 games of the season but has the potential to bring secondary scoring to the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup on any given night. He reached the 30-goal mark during the 2010-11 season, finishing with 57 points and will be looking to repeat those numbers this year, if not improve upon them.
Known as being a powerful player on the puck, Kulemin has incredible lower body strength, making it very difficult on the opposition to control him.
Should this talented winger pick up where he left off last year, the Leafs could very well be sitting pretty in the Eastern Conference by seasons end—that is, providing a few other key elements come together.
Mikhail Grabovski may not be the largest of NHL players (5'11" 183lbs), but what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in skill and passion.
He had a breakout season last year for the Toronto Maple Leafs producing 29 goals and 58 points and has clearly been one of the strongest players for the Leafs since the start of the 2010-11 season.
Grabovski has six points in his last five games played and continues to be a dominant force both offensively and defensively.
As the Maple Leafs second line center, he and his linemates Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, will be expected to shoulder a solid portion of the Leafs' offensive expectations if they are to be considered a legitimate playoff team.
He has six points in his last five games played and five in his last three. If there was ever an underdog you would want to see flourish on the big stage, look no further than Joffrey Lupul.
Both he and Phil Kessel seem to have developed some incredible chemistry, and together have lit the NHL on fire to open the 2011-12 season. Lupul is currently sitting in eighth overall for points (16) and shares the top 10 with fellow linemate, Kessel.
After coming back from a series of injuries that had both limited his abilities and opportunities in the NHL, Lupul has since been on the sweet road to recovery as a Maple Leaf. Should he continue down this road for the Leafs, this team may indeed see playoff action on the horizon.
For anyone who loves NHL hockey and has been living under a rock so far this season, Phil Kessel has been putting on a goal-scoring clinic for the Toronto Maple Leafs since the start of the 2011-12 season.
Kessel has 21 points in 14 games played and five in his last five. He is also tied for first overall with 10 goals on the year. To date, he has only been kept off the scoresheet three times all season. If you're looking for the most dominant offensive threat in the NHL, look no further than "Phil the Thrill," at least for the time being.
The key for whether Kessel and his goal-scoring heroics can push the Maple Leafs into postseason action will ultimately come down to consistency.
Can Kessel maintain his incredible scoring touch over a full 82 NHL games? If he can stay the course, he'll not only have a career year for himself but likely solidify a playoff spot for this forward-looking Leafs team.
Tyler Bozak has been a chameleon of sorts for the Toronto Maple Leafs since he joined the club during the 2009-10 season. Seeing time on virtually all of the Maple Leafs lines has at the very least shown how flexible a player he can be.
Unfortunately after flying out of the gate this year with five points in his first seven games, Bozak's offense has since completely disappeared. This dropoff in production could be the effect of all of the line juggling Ron Wilson has had to do in the wake of injuries to key players.
After developing good chemistry with former linemates Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong to start the year, Bozak has since hit a bit of a wall when Armstrong was sidelined with an ankle sprain on Oct. 20.
Making matters worse, with Toronto now having to endure life without Tim Connolly for yet a second time this year, the Maple Leafs will need Bozak to be on his game more than ever before. Can he bounce back and be the glue that holds together the pieces of the Leafs playoff picture?
As he has quietly proven time and time again, Bozak will undoubtedly be a key factor in the Leafs' surge toward the postseason.
Dion Phaneuf hasn't registered any scoring in the last four games, however he has undeniably started out the 2011-12 season pistols hot for the Toronto Maple Leafs with 11 points in 14 games played.
The real improvement to Phaneuf's game, besides the obvious points production, has been his defensive consistency and game-changing leadership. He has also regained his form as a huge physical presence on the ice, throwing well-timed body checks at opportune moments.
This kind of elevated play is particularly attractive when you're the captain of the Maple Leafs, especially in the fishbowl that is the Toronto hockey market.
Phaneuf has shouldered the added pressures of being in the limelight like a champion, while still improving upon his game as a big shutdown defenseman with a significant offensive upside.
For the Maple Leafs to work together as a cohiesive unit and to eventually own one of the eight playoff spots available in the Eastern Conference by April 2012, Phaneuf has to continue to be the dominant force he has been called to be.
As has become evident since losing James Reimer to whiplash-like symptoms in the month of October, the Toronto Maple Leafs need solid goal-tending from Jonas Gustavsson should they have their hearts set on playoff action toward the conclusion of the 2011-12 regular season.
Gustavsson certainly has his work cut out for him as a Maple Leaf. With a .880 save percentage and a 3.68 goals against average, he hasn't exactly instilled the kind of optimism that Leaf fans have heaped on Reimer. But to his credit, he has three wins in his last five games played.
Keeping the Maple Leafs above .500 during Reimers' absence should effectively keep Toronto's playoff aspirations alive and well through the month of November, as well as give the Leafs the kind of depth in the goal-tending position they need to keep atop the Northeast Division.
Probably the Toronto Maple Leafs biggest factor in whether they will be seeing playoff action this season is the play of James Reimer. Although he has only played six games for the Maple Leafs so far this season, Reimer has still yet to lose in regulation.
There is no doubt that he has the talent, athleticism and composure to be an elite NHL goaltender for years to come. The question is whether upon is return he can provide kind of goaltending for this Leafs club to capture a playoff spot.
His injury has certainly been a cause for concern, but with his comeback on the horizon, he is the type of player who can single-handedly win games for the Maple Leafs.
Even if the Leafs offense continues to average 3.5 goals per game, to have a legitimate shot at a playoff spot, Reimer may very well have to bail a sometimes shaky Maple Leafs defense out more than a few sticky situations.
With a 2.58 goals against average and .912 save percentage, he represents the Leafs' best option in net to maintain a winning record into the postseason.
The Man of Mystery
Brian Burke has his fingerprints all over this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs coming into the 2011-12 season. However, he has said time and time again that he will always make a deal that makes the Maple Leafs a better team.
Without risking the future of this Maple Leafs team for selfish short term gains, I believe Burke is still very likely to be involved in both buying and selling this season.
That being said, perhaps the player who will end up being one of Toronto's most vital in their quest to find the postseason since 2003-04 has yet to be aquired.
If nothing more, this bit of speculation sheds light on the sheer amount of possibilities that exist now for this young Maple Leafs club.
With their top six players currently getting the job done offensively and star players living up to their potential, the sense of depth within the organization is a clear sign of progress.
After all is said and done, is this franchise once again playoff bound? With this current roster and strong management pointing them in the direction of success, I certainly wouldn't bet against them.