The Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team is creating some serious buzz around the NHL this year. With a new look, a new go-to goalie and Phil Kessel lighting up the score board, things are looking up for the Leafs this year.
Unlike last year's hot start, the Leafs have managed to sustain the momentum. This article will look at some of the reasons why the Leafs are currently tied for first in their division.
Goaltending has been inconsistent and suspect for a long period of time, that is until James Reimer came into town. Due to poor play and injuries to goalies Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere last year, Reimer was called up to play, and he hasn't disappointed.
The Manitoba native posted a 92.1 save percentage, winning 20 of his 30 starts. He isn't the flashiest player, but his basics are strong and he is mentally focused. At age 23, he has a bright future with the Leafs, providing he gets strong backup from his defence and doesn't get injured again.
Simply put, the more goals you score, the better chance you have of winning. Currently, the Leafs are in third place in the league in goals scored, much better than last year where they ended the season in 23rd place. They have increased the amount of goals scored, with 27 of their 86 goals coming from Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
Toronto's power play has also landed them in third place, with their special teams scoring 19 power play goals, which is 20 spots up from where they ended up last year. One positive thing here is that there are multiple people contributing to the power play, giving coach Ron Wilson more options and versatility.
I am going to be honest here. Before Joffrey Lupul came to Toronto, I had no idea who he was and what type of player he was. Previously, he missed many games due to injuries and went through an unfortunate blood poisoning episode following back surgery. Lupul came to Toronto last year in a trade from Anaheim. Upon coming to Toronto, he definitely has made the most of his time while playing for the Leafs.
Not only can he score, he can set up plays for this linemates. Among the NHL's scoring leaders, he is in eighth place for goals scored (11 goals) and seventh place in assists (15 assists) for a combined total of 26 points, which puts him in third place. He also has a propensity for having big games, as evidenced by his four-goal parade in one playoff game for the Ducks, and more recently, a four-point night last Saturday against the Washington Capitals.
Provided that he can sustain his level of play, his presence gives the Leafs two goal scorers and depth on the right side of the ice.
Jake Gardiner came to Toronto along with Joffrey Lupul and a product of Wisconsin's hockey program. In his first full season as a rookie, he has seven assists and is 14th in rookie points.
He is getting an opportunity to play on the power play and seems to be doing pretty well both from an attack standpoint and being careful in his own end. He has garnered praise from coach Ron Wilson, who was quoted in the Windsor Star as saying, "I think he’s helped improve our penalty killing with his speed and his good stick."
With more experience and playing time, Jake Gardiner is one young defenceman to keep an eye out for. His energy, speed and youth can be an asset down the road, especially now that injuries have ravaged the Leafs' lineup.
Even though Toronto didn't have a successful offensive year last year, however, what little they did have, MacArthur was an important factor.
Last year, MacArthur ended the season with a very respectable 62 points. He scored goals, played physical and was rewarded for his efforts with a two-year, $6.5 million contract. Leafs fans hope that last year's success can be repeated, but we'll have to wait until he comes back from his injury to find out.
A little bit sloppy last year, at times undisciplined, but boring he was not. Grabovski, or "Grabo" as he is known by Leafs fans, was flashy, tough and not afraid to dig in the corners for the puck.
After an embarrassing stint in jail during the Vancouver Olympics, Leafs ownership is hoping a mature and more focused Grabo will emerge. Look to see him score more points and log more hours this year; however, first he must get healthy. Currently, he is another Leaf sidelined by injuries but should be back in the lineup as soon as Sunday.
Good things happen to good people. Phil Kessel, by most accounts, is a nice guy. Before we wax poetry about Phil Kessel, I want to go back a bit in history. Remember how at the 2011 All-Star Game, team captains got to choose their own teams. Remember how one player got chosen last (Kessel) and how one player found it extremely amusing and started taking pictures (Alexander Ovechkin). One of those players currently sits on top of the leader board for most goals (16) and most points (30). The other doesn't even figure in the top 50 of each of those categories. My how times have changed.
Yes, folks, Phil Kessel is that man at the top. Kessel was the proverbial whipping boy for the team last year. If my calculations are correct, he is on pace to score 111 points this year—that is almost 48 goals more than last year. We know the season is far from over, but quite frankly, the difference between the Kessel of this year and that of last year is astounding, and fans are hoping the hot streak is far from being extinguished.
Toronto has always been good about drafting and/or developing players—Thomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn etc...This year is no different. With their farm team, the Toronto Marlies, on top of their division and numerous players in their system like Reimer, Gardner, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Joey Crabb, Tyler Bozak and Mark Owuya, the future looks bright.
Each of the above players have the potential to be permanent fixtures with the Toronto Maple Leafs, some already are. As evidenced by Toronto's recent spate of injuries (at one point, several starters were pulled), some of these young players are getting valuable experience and a quick education. You need dependable players from the farm team to step in, and some of the young players are doing a great job.
If the Leafs find themselves in a good position to make a run for the Stanley Cup, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have options for playing and trading should the need arise. It always bodes well for a team when their farm team is finding success as well.
I am sure most readers will agree, Brian Burke inherited a team that was free falling. A team that hadn't made the playoffs in three years, had many players with no trade contracts and a lot of talent that was not producing results. His creativity and no-nonsense approach has wielded success in markets like Anaheim and Vancouver, and Toronto was hoping that some of that success would come their way.
His vision was to blow the team up and build with a strong foundation, which resulted in three more years of of missing the playoffs. A plan like that would not produce immediate results as some would have hoped. His signing of Phil Kessel (see note below as to why I term it this way)was viewed as a failure and his continued support of his coach was not appreciated by most. In the face of criticism, Burke stayed the course and is now seeing some success. Many people have joined the Kessel bandwagon and the wins and goals are slowly but surely coming in.
He is a talented man who possesses a sound knowledge of the game, business acumen, stubbornness in getting his price and the guts to take risks (some more successful than others). You never know what to expect, and neither do his opponents. Come spring, if the Leafs are in the hunt, his opponents better watch out, he may just have an Ace up his sleeve!
I have given you 10 reasons why the Toronto Maple Leafs are poised for a breakout year. Strong goaltending by James Reimer, increased goal production, better power play and strong play by players such as Joffrey Lupul, Phill Kessel and Jake Gardiner.
Toronto has improved immensely thus far, but they still need to resolve the inconsistent play of their backup goalkeepers and stay healthy.
So now that I have given you my 10 reasons, let me know what you think. I invite you to comment on reasons I may have missed or suggestions on what you think Toronto needs to resolve in order to be successful. The forum is all yours.