Putting their unbeaten record in regulation on the line in tonightâ€™s game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking for offense from new sources.
Owners of a 2/21 powerplay, and with just 7 of their 13 goals coming from someone not wearing the #81, its become clear that the Leafsâ€™ early successes have been more the work of a one man magic act than 4 line team play.Â If this sounds familiar, its because last yearâ€™s hot start was predicated on the dazzling offensive production from the aforementioned Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur.Â But after an even better record after 4 games, an unreliable offense emerged and the Leafs tumbled down the standings behind a 9 â€“ 19 â€“ 4 record to close out the year 2010.
The Leafs schedule will soon turn from favorable to formidable after tonightâ€™s tilt with 7 of the next 8 games on the road including visits to Philadelphia, Boston and New Jersey.Â Its not a stretch to suggest that it will be in these next 2Â – 3 weeks will prove whether or not the Leafs are a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference.Â While it was positive to see the Buds grind out a point Monday night, too many players have been absent from the score sheet thus far.Â Very simply, for Toronto to have a meaningful season the rest of the top 9 forwards have to show up in numbers.
Because of Kesselâ€™s phenomenal start (basically winning games 2 and 3 on his merit), any drop off on the score sheet could be felt heavily in loss column.Â So who amongst the Leafs most urgently needs to pick up the slack?
For all the accolades worthy of lauding upon Phil Kessel, consistency isnâ€™t one of them.Â While Kessel was brought in by Brian Burke to be a central offensive cog of a playoff bound team, heâ€™s not the type of player to create offense every night.Â Simply put, his streakiness is so prolific that regardless of his fantastic play through four games heâ€™s not a lock to score 34 more goals in the next 78 games.Â So while heâ€™s been the hands down best Leaf so far, he will cool off.
When he does, it is imperative that the slow starting troika of MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin fill the void.Â With just 2 goals and 2 assists between the three of them, last yearâ€™s best line remains a work in progress.Â They have been guilty of over passing, and havenâ€™t proved to be a terror when up a man.Â However, itâ€™s hard to place a substantial amount of fault on the unit, which has seen its share of bad luck both on and off the ice.
Of the three, Macarthur is the hardest to castigate as his debut was delayed by suspension, and heâ€™s still coming back from an elbow injury that got infected.Â Grabovski took a pretty serious hit to the head and took a puck off his boot in the preseason, both wounds surely hindering his production.
Of the three, it is 30-goal scorer Nikolai Kulemin who is most concerning.Â With neither suspension nor injury to deter him, the hard working Cossack leads the trio with a modest 2 points.Â What is disconcerting is that heâ€™s recorded a mere 3 shots over 4 games.Â For Kulemin to be most effective, he ought to be registering about 3 shots a game.Â In a paradoxical twist, the teamâ€™s results should improve if the Magnitogorsk native is willing to be a bit more selfish in the offensive zone.
On the back end, John Michael Lilesâ€™ game has been worthy of the 22 minutes of ice heâ€™s seeing, but the results havenâ€™t yet abounded.Â Liles, brought in during the offseason to QB the PP has only registered 1 assist (which came on the man advantage) and has looked out of sync with Phaneuf on the special teams.Â His purported vision and timing were supposed to help Dion reclaim his previous scoring touch.Â Phaneuf has showed strong out the gate, yet the two lefties havenâ€™t found the desired chemistry.Â Perhaps pairing Liles with Cody Franson might produce a better result, as the Leafs havenâ€™t had a legitimate right handed PP threat at the blue line since Pavel Kubina.
Finally, we come to a pair of third liners in Colby Armstrong and Matt Frattin.Â The former has been effective on the PK and dogged on the fore check, but has yet to prove he can reclaim his recent 20 goal ways. Â No matter how affable he might be, he must produce something tangible to justify his pay.Â If Armstrong continues to score in the high 20s/low 30s, his contract will be more burden than boon.
Frattin is a different case altogether.Â From his rollercoaster back story to his dominance in the preseason, the Hobey Baker finalist from a year ago makes you pay attention to him.Â Heâ€™s clearly got a big league skill set, but has been awfully raw in his 5 games with Toronto.Â Heâ€™s got wonderful instincts in all zones, but has been snake bitten past center ice.Â With Joe Colborne chomping at the bit in the Ricoh and Nazem Kadri looking to take back what he feels is his spot; Frattin will soon see the fickle nature of professional sports.Â He played his way onto the team, and he can play his way right off it.
Further complicating the matter for Frattin is the yet undetermined injury to Tim Connolly.Â Given his waiver status, a slumping Frattin would be the ideal candidate to ship out to the minors to make space should the American forward return to the lineup.Â Or debut.Â That Ron Wilson stated Connollyâ€™s return during the road tripÂ unlikely suggests Frattin wonâ€™t be the victim of contract attrition for at least a few games yet.Â Bottom line is that if he isnâ€™t working out, heâ€™ll be replaced.
Thereâ€™s no need to panic just yet, as in the short term the Leafs have handled being a one line team with great success.Â Yet itâ€™s unsustainable.Â For the future success of the franchise, attention must be paid by the coaching staff to improve the Leafs scoring effectiveness on the cycle and with puck possession.Â Improvement in either area will see marked improvement at both even strength and on the power play.
In Brian Burkeâ€™s attempt to hoist a Stanley Cup in Toronto, heâ€™s moved towards bringing in depth contributors to augment and support key offensive pieces.Â Heâ€™s liked the early returns on the top guns, but now the rest of the team grab some rope and start pulling. Â On paper, any of the top three lines should have the combined skill and tenacity to be a contributing force offensively.
Yet with the easy part of the season coming to a close, the Leafs can ill afford shaky scoring and an impotent powerplay.Â If the Leafs do falter, it canâ€™t come as much of a surprise.Â The writingâ€™s been on the wall since game 4.