In part ten of his 12 burning questions series, Derek Harmsworth takes a look at the importance of a good early start, and if the Leafs can avoid another disastrous start.
There really isn’t any other way to put it. Â No matter how you slice it, no matter how you try to spin it, or how you try to put a sugar coating on it, the cold hard fact still shines through.
The Toronto Maple Leafs were not a very good team last year.
Although their stats, and their general play, improved dramatically following the late January trades that saw them overturn nearly half their lineup, the fact remains that the 2009-2010 edition of the Maple Leafs fought inconsistency, as well as young inexperience that had them struggling most of the year.
But it could be argued that never were they worse, than in the first month of the season.
Indeed, in that opening month of the season, when the optimism of all fans throughout the league is sky high, the Maple Leafs reminded most in Leafs Nation that the road would continue to be tumultuous and rough. Â The Leafs managed to win only one game in October, and collected a measly six points (one win, four overtime/shootout losses), a record for the opening month of play that no doubt set new low standards for any team in the NHL, and in particular the once proud franchise that was the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Following the script those in Leafs Nation seem to all too familiar with, the start of the 2009-2010 NHL season was one where, had a bounce gone this way, or a bounce gone that way, who knows exactly what the Leafs start to the season would have looked like.
Despite outshooting the Canadiens 46-27, the Leafs and Canadiens went to overtime, when an untimely bounce saw Josh Gorges pot the winning goal, and put the dagger in the heart of the Maple Leafs, and their fans. Â It was a tough way to start the season, a gut wrenching finish.
And little did we know then, but it would quickly become a theme for the season to come.
The Leafs would then go pointless in their next seven games, before finally bumping the slump and defeating the Anaheim Duck 6-3, for their first win of the season, after a painful stretch of eight straight losses.
For the most part it was false hope however, as the Leafs went the rest of the month playing close games, but coming up short in various overtime and shootout losses. Â Adding to the paramount of the losses was the fact that the losses were, for the most part, against key Eastern Conference opponents.
Montreal, Washington, Ottawa, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, and Buffalo were all among the teams that inflicted defeat on Toronto in that opening month of the year, only adding to their misery, and digging the hole that much deeper.
While they played better in the months ahead, the opening month hole that they dug themselves in was one they never really could get out of. Â Through inexperience and inconsistency, it was evident for quite a time that the Leafs were more than likely going to be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs were concerned, but every time they mounted a streak of putting points together, that losing month was the proverbial monkey on the back of the entire team.
Fast forward to the 2010-2011 NHL season, which is less than two months away, and much has changed for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The roster, for the most part, has been turned over. Â Leafs GM Brian Burke having finally making progress in putting his stamp on the team. Â Only Tomas Kaberle and Jeff Finger remain from the regime previous to Burke’s.
The team has a much different look than they did on opening night one year ago. Â Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong will be in the lineup, and Dion Phaneuf will start the season with Toronto, as their captain no less.
The team will also have a different goaltender minding the nets, two players who seemed to give them a lot more confidence in the latter stages of the season.
However, much like it hung around their necks all season long last year, the opening month, and the importance of a good start, will no doubt dog them again as we head towards April.
With last year’s dreadful start still fresh in the memory of those in Leafs Nation, it will be that much more important that the Leafs get off to a good start in October. Â If they have any designs of playing past April in Toronto, a good start will be of importance, a lesson they surely learned last season.
This year, the Leafs play 10 games against 8 opponents in October, all of them Eastern Conference teams, making the early season games that much more important.
The scene set will be a little familiar too.
The Leafs will open the season on Thursday, October 7th against the Montreal Canadiens in a nationally televised game on CBC. Â They will follow up with games against the Senators, Penguins, Islanders, Flyers, Panthers, Bruins, and contests against the New York Rangers.
Like one year ago, it will be of importance for the Leafs to gain early season points, and although teams have certainly overcome slow starts to make the playoffs (Philadelphia, anyone?) the fact remains that the opening month of the season may very well tell us a lot about this incarnation of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
They will be tested right off the bat, playing five playoff teams in the first month of the season, and three clashes with the Rangers, a team in which the Leafs haven’t had the best of luck against lately.
In today’s NHL, there are no easy games, no easy nights, and no easy stretches of the schedule. Â With teams clumped so close together due to the parity in which the league has adopted, every point is crucial to fulfilling the goal of make the Stanley Cup playoffs, and for Toronto, it may well be one of the biggest burning questions going into 2010-2011.
One way or another, this one will be answered sooner, rather than later.