The Maple Leafs are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference (7th in the league), against everyone’s better judgement — the smart money being that the Leafs will be a non-playoff team and probably a lottery pick team. And by everyone, I mean everyone except for Ian Dudgeon (@Dudgee) and I. Most people that write about the game had them finishing out of the playoffs again and if I’m being honest, I saw everyone else’s prediction via email first and thought I should be throw them a bone. While the key will be avoiding the characteristic season-crippling slump, this start means considerably more in a 48-game schedule and I wouldn’t have expected 8-5 through the first 13 games, especially not with Joffrey Lupul and Carl Gunnarsson going down early.

What’s perhaps most promising of all is, contrary to last season’s hot start, the Leafs‘ play might be sustainable. Watching this Leafs team cycle and battle on the boards has been refreshing. Scoring off the rush is incredibly hard to do in this league, requiring extraordinary skill from both forwards and defence. Effective cycling is a better way of tiring the other team, scrambling the coverage and is something you can get running in most games. There seems to be full buy-in and it bodes well for the season if Carlyle’s team can  keep executing their detail-oriented systems. Under “The Coach That Shall Not Be Named,” the Leafs played flat out and were typically very sloppy defensively. Without speed, they had no game, which was most apparent in their back-to-back games last season. But last season was last season. The only carry over that seems to exist is that they can score in bunches (5th in goals for, league-wide… 3th in the Conference).

A more defensively responsible game (2 goals allowed or less in six of the last seven) that uses a cycle is something that is easier to sustain and it looks like that can still use their speed, generate a cycle and play a tight-checking 2-1 game if need be. That adds a lot to their arsenal. It also engages all their lines. Colton Orr isn’t going to receive a tape-to-tape 100ft stretch pass from Mark Fraser cleanly often (or ever). Grinding down low and being strong on the boards is something that he can be successful at.

While we are on the topic of the fourth line, we are now seeing that the Leafs are leading the league in hits and fights—they’re a team that will not get beat up. What it boils down to is that this team is looking closer being able to make the playoffs if they can win every which way. If the Leafs get there, they will meet up with various types of teams in the playoffs and being able to play any brand of game is essential. In the mean time—and while they keep building up their experience—they are banking extremely valuable points for when they will eventually have a rough patch of 2-3 games, like every team does throughout the season. It’s still early, and a lot can happen. The extent of Reimer’s injury is obviously something of concern for the Leafs management and fans alike.

Some player notes vs Philly:

3 StarsScrivens, Orr, Fraser

  • Tyler Bozak (19:07 TOI) – 46% in the faceoff dot, which is low for him this season. Had a strong game otherwise and has been taking the body more and more which has increased his usefulness—it’s contagious for Kessel and JVR.
  • Matt Frattin (14:06) – Running at a seemingly impossible 41% “shooting” percentage, his last two goals were tips and he is finding different ways to score goals. He is playing the power-forward “lite” role to a tee. His chemistry with Kadri, their limited minutes and offensive zone starts are all factors in their early success. They are fresh from start-to-finish of the game, bear down on seemingly all their chances, and punish the opposing weaker lines night and night out (so far). Both are taking the body very well and Kadri is showing a willingness to take a pounding to make plays.
  • Mikhail Grabovski (14:58 TOI)- 42% in the faceoff dot and played against the Giroux line a ton last night. This is probably affecting his offensive contribution a bit, but he hit a cross-bar last night and had a strong defensive game.
  • Nazem Kadri (14:18 TOI) – 28% in the faceoff dot, which is something that continues to be a work in progress. As far as Frattin and he go, they are playing well beyond even the wildest expectations. They were outsiders looking in, for the most part, and have taken what was possibly the worst aspect of the Leafs team last year—an aimless, role-less third line – and turned it into a very effective “kid line,” almost exactly the same as Carlyle had in Anaheim the year they won the cup with Perry/Getzlaf/Penner—a sheltered scoring 3rd line.
  • Phil Kessel (16:50 TOI) – We expect Kessel to score every game, which is unreasonable, but he played well defensively, which looks to be something that is creeping into his game and it looks good on him. He is still getting a lot of double coverage (see JVR goal), but is passing extremely well and set up JVR with a glorious pass off the rush for his beaut. What’s the common thread between Lupul’s jump in numbers last season and JvR’s so far in the early going of 2013? Kessel’s ability to draw double coverage and his high level playmaking. I was going to describe it as understated, but the MSM seems to be finally catching onto this. 7 primary assists on the season for Kessel.
  • Leo Komarov (15:11 TOI) – A lot of people on here predicted this guy would be a fan favourite and make an immediate impact. So far, they were very right. He is making every line he plays on better. He seems best suited to playing on the Grabovski line and he is a hellova lot of fun to watch. He is literally a human cannonball with a bit of finish to his  game and lots of defensive savvy. One other aspect of his game is that he can take draws and has a great win percentage of 65% on 25 draws. He is a pain-in-the-ass, plain and simple.
  • Nikolai Kulemin (16:08 TOI) – I have been hard on this player before. Having said that, Kulie had a good game, but I maintain that he doesn’t have the skill level to complement Grabovski offensively. That’s not all there is to it, however, and his ability to win one on one battles and retrieve pucks is key to the line. They play well together and can effectively shut down the top players in the league. He has blossomed under Carlyle.
  • Clarke MacArthur “A” (13:50 TOI) – Overdue, MacArthur played a pretty strong game overall and had a great goal off a beautiful saucer pass from Kadri. His second of the year.
  • Jay McClement “A” (12:46 TOI) – 57% in the faceoff dot. It’s hard to say whether McClement is rubbing off on Orr and McLaren, but you have to think so. His dogged puck pursuit and lead-by-example play is exactly what we hoped for so far. He has been the best acquisition this club has made in free agency in a long time. To have the fourth line play as well as they have the past two games has really given them a purpose and will hopefully give the other three lines a bit more rest as Carlyle becomes more confident in their defensive responsibility.
  • Frazer McLaren (7:13 TOI) – I was not a huge fan of this waiver pickup, to be honest. But for a such a big man (6’5), he can actually wheel in a straight line. He had probably his best game as a Leaf. Big time lay down on a blocked shot and a pass to Orr for the 2nd goal of the game.
  • Colton Orr (7:38 TOI) – Everyone loves an underdog story and he is certainly the underdog story of the year so far. Orr has brushed up his game to the point where, once unable to play in the NHL, he may be able to contribute to the team’s game plan. He played both hero and villain in entertaining fashion for the Leafs in Montreal, and now a little quicker and more agile, he looks able to occasionally contribute to the cycle game.
  • James van Riemsdyk  (18:55 TOI) – Took two draws against top centerman and won both. Scored a great goal, while burning Luke Schenn badly, and was certainly determined to show up his old team for trading him.
  • Cody Franson (17:48 TOI) – Cody Franson has finally turned his game around and Carlyle has found out with makes him tick. He is getting a lot of offensive zone starts and gets to use his quick but hard half-clapper in a measured and effective fashion. He has been more physical in the last 2-3 games than he was all of last season. He has a good old-school poke check and can be difficult to play against for opposing forwards with his considerable wing-span. He has 8pts in 10 games, which is 6th on the team and absolutely fantastic. His confidence is inspiring more confidence and his game is growing leaps and bounds.
  • Mark Fraser (18:11 TOI) – More feel-good stories. Going out and getting a proper shut-down defenceman was something the Leafs were talking about doing in the off-season, but it appears the Dallas Eakins player factory is able to deliver not one but two capable ones. League leading +10 on the season to date.
  • Korbinian Holzer (11:57 TOI) – May have found a temporary complementary player for Dion Phaneuf to play with. He is a big lad, plays a sound game, has a safe first pass and can play determined physical play against the best forwards in the league all night long (at least so far).
  • John-Michael Liles (19:47 TOI) – Liles seems to be coming on more and more as the season is progressing. He was miscast and probably not used particularly well by the coaching staff, truth be told. A pairing with Kostka and some PP time with Phaneuf is helping.
  • Dion Phaneuf “C”  (27:01 TOI) – Dion played 27 minutes (so much for bringing his ice-time down) and played his usual Swiss Army-knife style of play. 1 goal. Check. Shut down the top line. Check. Physically dominating forwards on the boards. Check. We should probably just buy him out; players like these grow on trees. I’ve been fortunate to take in a couple of games this season and watched him up against Ovechkin in person; it can’t be stated enough how much he manhandled one of the bigger power forwards in the game down low. Their battles were two rams butting heads full-steam, neither one backing off, and I don’t think Ovechkin won any of them. Was extremely impressed.
  • James Reimer – Was playing a fantastic game, as he has been all season. His stretched-out save to prevent a shorthanded goal tied 1-1 was a big time turning point. We wait with baited breath and hope that a) he comes back as soon as possible, and b) this is not a groin injury that will continue to flare up. As Reimer goes, the Leafs go.
  • Ben Scrivens – Shaky start with some mishandled pucks, but got into the groove and played an admirably solid game given the circumstances. He could have done better on the last goal, but the team was in such disarray on that play. His best work was on the 5 minute penalty kill shortly after entering the fray – not an easy thing to do by any means. He was 1st star of the game for Whether or not Scrivens could carry this team for a significant portion of the schedule is a major question mark, and hopefully one we don’t have to see answered this season, but he seems capable of some spot duty.


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