For the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans, the last two seasons of hockey have combined for some roller coaster level of emotions. Â There was the bringing in of Brian Burke, the general manager with the pedigree to lead this team back to respectability, and back to the playoffs, with ultimately the goal of ending the Stanley Cup drought.
Then the hope was awash when the Leafs started the year off with a thud, winless in their first seven games, a stretch that they never did quite recover from. Â The trades in January that brought Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Fredrik Sjostrom, and J.S. Giguere to the organization brought about a new sense of optimism for the long suffering fans in Leafs Nation.
And when the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off the 2010-2011 NHL campaign with four straight wins, the optimism levels couldn’t have been higher. Â After a lengthy losing streak, the team is back to playing more consistently, and with complete confidence you can declare that the Toronto Maple Leafs of 2010-2011 are an improved club.
Just how much they have improved, and whether it will be enough for them to break the postseason drought this April, is another question altogether.
A look at this club with the simple naked eye will reveal things about the team that are already vastly improved over last season’s team. Â On more nights than not, this version of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a group that works hard, and while their obvious lack of scoring depth has kept them off the scoresheet at times this season, it is hard for anyone to argue that this is a team that has a much improved work ethic.
The naked eye can also discern a young team that is beginning to grow together, and develop chemistry as a group. Â The connection between Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak was highly documented throughout the summer, but now it appears players like Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, and Nikolai Kulemin have found a real niche when working together.
Going back to Phil Kessel, it is abundantly clear that for whatever reason, Nazem Kadri, Kris Versteeg, and Kessel himself are operating on a totally different wavelength than everyone else. Â After struggling to find the net early in the season, Versteeg has come on in a big way lately, and the slick puck distribution of Nazem Kadri has certainly helped him along the way.
And for the first time in a long time, Leafs fans can see real development happening before their eyes.
Aside from the aforementioned players above continuing their development, the Leafs have plenty of other young talent that is coming along nicely as the season rolls into the second quarter.
Nazem Kadri, of course, has been a key figure in the team’s success since his call-up from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. Â On the back end, Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn have both been good. Â Schenn in particular has really made leaps and bounds in his third NHL season, rounding into the tenacious shot blocker and rigid defenseman the Leafs had hoped he would turn out to be.
Schenn is logging nearly 23 minutes a game, and is the team’s top ranked player in the plus/minus category, with plus 5. Â He also has a respectable six points through the first twenty games with Toronto.
Talking about development on this Leafs team, you’d be remiss if you didn’t mention one Jonas Gustavsson.
Since the injury to J.S. Giguere, who was playing well before going down, Gustavsson has taken the reins of this team and on every night given them a chance to win the hockey game. Â ”The Monster” is looking extremely comfortable between the pipes for Toronto in just his second season, making big saves when necessary. Â In fact, it’s hard to think of a game Gustavsson has played in where he hasn’t made the proverbial “ten beller” save.
While he is still young and still very much in the development process, the time may be right for the Maple Leafs to increase the work load for Gustavsson, even when Giguere does return to health.
Delving deeper, the stats themselves vouch for the Maple Leafs.
While the numbers may be slightly skewed as one set reflects the whole season while the other just a quarter of it, there is little doubt that putting them up against each other, we are looking at a team that has made improvements over last season.
Start with the win percentage, which was no doubt inflated by the four game win streak to kick off the year, but brought back to earth during the lengthy losing streak. Â Still, this year’s version of the Maple Leafs has a .475 win percentage, while last year’s squad came in at a .451 win percentage.
The goals against are the stat that perhaps jumps out the biggest when looking over the stats.
Last season the Toronto Maple Leafs allowed 3.21 goals against per game, which was good for among the worst in the National Hockey League. Â This year, through the quarter pole, the Leafs have cut that total down to 2.65 goals against per game.
Even the powerplay and the penalty kill have improved this year, be it minimally. Â The powerplay is up nearly three percent, and the penalty kill has improved just over one percent.
The question beginning to creep into everyone’s mind is, will these improvements be enough to get the team back to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2004?
While logic would dictate that the team still has a long ways to go, and that without consistent scoring the team won’t truly be able to take flight or make noise within the conference, a quick check of the standings provides a beacon of hope for fans in Leafs Nation.
Despite a terrible stretch of winless hockey, and despite games in which the goal scoring was anemic, the Toronto Maple Leafs still sit just four points out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, and have played one or two less games than those teams in front of them.
So will the improvements made to this team be enough to get them over the hump and past the playoff drought? Â Time will tell, especially with the team playing in what is no doubt the weaker conference of the two. Â Still, at this stage of the process, the Toronto Maple Leafs are making improvements over previous teams.
And for now, that’s really all we can ask for. Â The rest will take care of itself.
Note: I will be appearing on London’s Best Rock, FM96 this afternoon for the first of what will hopefully be a weekly segment to talk Maple Leafs hockey! Â If you’re in the London, Ontario area, listen in after 2PM! Â You can also listen live at www.fm96.com