Mid Season’s Best

Mid Season’s Best

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With the first half of the season in the books, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit firmly entrenched in fifth place in the East with an impressive record of 15 – 10 – 0.  So who should we thank for the great successes so far at the midway mark?

Top Forward:
In the least interesting reveal of the article, Nazem Kadri wins this first Middy™ by a wide margin.  He took the team lead in points in the third game of the season and hasn’t looked back, having tallied 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 25 games.  His arrival to the Leafs may have had few more layovers than anyone hoped, but he’s now showing every night just why Brian Burke was right to draft him seventh overall in 2009.

His creativity off the rush is as effective as it is electric, beating defenders using his speed, strength or tremendously deft hands.  His sublime passing skills have made him a threat from anywhere on the ice.   His decision making could be better (and his face offs, he’s 44.8% on the draw), but making one move too many is endemic to a player with his high skill level.  He’s been something of a specialist, generating a lot of offense in limited minutes against secondary lines, and is deserving of a bigger role with the club.

Top Defenseman:
A late signing coming into the year, it would be hard to predict Cody Franson would lead all Leaf defenders with 15 points in 22 games (his 14 assists tie him for the team lead with Kadri), or that he’d man the top unit of the power play.  But he’s doing both, while playing on the shockingly-competent pairing with Mark Fraser.  Franson provides a solid outlet pass, and seems to float low shots on net with ease.  He’s a boon to the Leafs sustaining pressure in the offensive zone, a dimension few other defenders on the club can bring regularly.

After a frustrating first season with Toronto in 2011-12 that saw him feature regularly in the press box, it was no certainty that he’d even be on the team this year.  It looked dire indeed when he started the season as a healthy scratch again.  But such is the life of the rangy defender, who has always had a penchant for putting up points if – ye know – ever given the chance.

But I will say this, his advanced numbers suggest that while he’s been great for the Leafs, he’s been doing so on incredibly favourable matchups.  According to www.behindthenet.ca, Franson and Fraser get the most favourable zone starts of any regular leaf defenders, while playing against second and third (and quite possibly a lot of fourth) lines.  Were it not for his glacial start to the season, you’d be reading about Dion Phaneuf right now.

Much like Kadri, Franson is being sheltered, although more dramatically, and it appears that he’s in line to regress somewhat.  That’s an ill omen for a player with his history of press box visits.

Comeback Player of the Year:
Brian Gionta looked to have derailed the promising, narrative-friendly career of James Reimer at the start of last season.  After being concussed by the Habs captain, Reimer spent much time on the IR and returned to the lineup to deliver only middling play.  The injury and his numbers put his durability and potential as a starter in the NHL in serious doubt.

But with a 9 – 3 – 0 record, a 2.57 goals against average and .921 save percentage in 2013, Reimer has silenced his critics with his sensational play.  He’s put up nearly identical numbers to his canonizing rookie season.

What makes his resurgence so promising is that he’s still young, a 24-year-old veteran of less than 100 games, and yet his early career  numbers compare very favourably to household names such as Tuukka Rask, Cory Schneider and Jimmy Howard.  The Leafs biggest question mark heading into the season was between the pipes, and it looks like Reimer’s got the bona fides to be a number 1 goalie.

Rookie of the Year:
When measured against the competition of Mike Kostka, Leo Komarov and Korbinian Holzer, the top rookie thus far this season can only be Ben Scrivens.  His record of 6 – 7 – 0 underscores a .920 save percentage and a 2.48 goals against average and two shutouts, very proficient numbers.

Turning 27 this year, what we see is probably what we’re going to get from the affable Cornell alum, and he looks to be reliable back up or platoon-type goalie.  If nothing else, he provided good-enough goaltending while Reimer was hurt, allowing the Leafs to keep their head above the murky waters of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

And again, quality of competition in this category was, Komarov aside, underwhelming.

Boat Anchor Contract of the Year:
For the fourth consecutive year since signing in Toronto, Mike “the 4.5 Million Dollar Man” Komisarek wins the award for worst contract on the team.  Congratulations Mike!

He leads the team in healthy scratches, with 21, helping the Leafs to 13 wins over that span.  He’s on quite the streak right now, having been scratched in 17 consecutive games.

Honourable mention to both Tim Connolly and John Michael Liles who, to their credit, did their best to make this a three-horse race.  I think I speak for all of us when I say we look forward to when Tyler Bozak enters the running next season.

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Friday Morning Links:

Alec’s post mortem on the Leafs 4 – 2 loss to the Boston Bruins last night.

JP Nikota at PPP wrote an in-depth piece on the development of NHL defensemen.  It provides some illumination on why Komisarek and Liles are healthy scratches, and perhaps why the Leafs extended Holzer.

Daniel Wagner at the Score deserves some sort of media award for his exposé on Damien Cox’s ever-shrinking credibility.

Greg Wyshynski at Puck Daddy, hot on the heels of David Dziurzynski’s concussion,  with a piece on the place of fighting in the game.  I agree that the debate is often argued in black and white, yet exists in shades of grey.

Gus Katsaros at the Leafs Nation with a piece on the Buds penalty kill success this season.  Unsurprisingly, he indicates that much of the success is due to the absence of Ron Wilson’s ‘super effective’ system of fronting and keeping both hands on the stick while shorthanded.