The Leafs will return to the ice after what has seemed like an eternity.  The JVR-at-center experiment will make its debut against the Devils tonight while Smithson and Fraser will draw into the lineup.  The former is a move of necessity while the latter are indications of Carlyle reinforcing his desired style of game.

The theme of the week for the Leafs and their coaching staff?  Getting back to the disciplined, hard working game that defined this team’s unprecedented success a year ago.  Yes, the Leafs are off to a great start.  This has been in large part due to their potent offensive weapons, fantastic special teams, and a newfangled stud-goalie tandem.  Yet, the leaders of this squad have readily acknowledged that their compete level could be higher and more consistent.

Last year, this was a Toronto team that most pundits still viewed as irrelevant.  With a combination of skill and determination, one of the youngest squads in the league went out and fought hard every night to prove their naysayers wrong.  The page has turned after said season culminated in an impressive seven game showdown with the Bruins.  Nowadays, with the Leafs slowly regaining the respect of the hockey world, we are witness to one of the most difficult challenges with a young team that has seen success – remaining levelheaded, focused, and in touch with what led to success in the first place.

A lesson in the trials and tribulations of growing a young team with this style of play: the St. Louis Blues.  The Blues emerged from the murky recesses of the Western conference on the back of an influx of youth in 2008.  That team featured talented youngsters such as Backes, Perron, Berglund and T.J. Oshie.  They unexpectedly made the playoffs, got swept by the Canucks, and were commonly viewed as a team on the rise.  Yet finding a harmony with the demanding defensive game of their organization posed difficulties for the young group, as they narrowly missed the playoffs in the following two years.

With growth and maturity (and some better goaltending), the Blues rounded out their game in the 2011-2012 season and have remained a legitimate contender ever since.  They will likely remain as such for years to come, given their young core.  Granted, the personnel difference between the two teams is significant.  St. Louis has the edge in two-way players and an ability to work the cycle that is not present in this group of Maple Leafs.  But the similarity lies in the emphasis on defense and physical play within these organizations and the importance of ensuring that the young and immensely talented offensive players therein adhere to these principles.

In part, this identity will be reinvigorated with the returns of Kulemin and Fraser.  Moreover, we’ll find out if Smithson can bring a physical element and defensive presence that Trevor Smith did not.  Carlyle suggested Smithson may see time on the penalty kill with his faceoff proficiency (mandate likely being: win the draw, make sure the puck is cleared, go to the bench).  Regardless, while a lineup so heavily in flux no doubt poses some challenges, one would expect a determined and driven performance tonight at the ACC given the enormous amount of time off this group had to reflect and recuperate.

Friday morning links:

MLHS is offering free entry into a $500 fantasy contest for Saturday’s games.

James Mirtle compares this year’s team to the 2012-2013 Leafs. A quick look at some of the team’s numbers thus far.

David Clarkson is still finding his groove.  It will come, but Clarkson would be best served by sticking to his game and ignoring the incessant background whine of the Toronto hockey scene.

Traikos tries to drum up some drama in what is a conspicuously more antagonistic version of Mirtle’s piece.  Brief summary: shots shots shots, Toronto’s special teams are too good and Christian Ehroff will fix our “mess” of a defence.

Rielly will take a seat for now.  Not a big deal.  Carlyle likes to have a revolving door of his fringe defenders to keep them motivated and fresh.  He has not had that luxury this year thus far with Fraser’s injury.

Gardiner and Franson are reunited.  This should be the unit on the ice when Toronto is looking to score.


ICYMI – Snazzy new MLHS t-shirts and hoodies were launched yesterday: