|The Toronto Maple Leafs have fallen on lean times since the NHL lockout, but they appear to be on the verge of rewarding their patient and passionate fan base. |
Playing professional hockey in the center of the hockey universe is no easy task, and the Maple Leafs think they have the right man in general manager Brian Burke – one who preaches “truculence” and has won a Stanley Cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks. Now in his fourth season as Maple Leafs GM, Burke has assembled a skilled team that can score goals seemingly at will. He has made important free agent signings and orchestrated two significant trades to acquire cornerstone pieces of the team.
The Maple Leafs are off to a hot start this season and boast the league’s top scorer in Phil Kessel (10 goals, 10 assists). Burke and head coach Ron Wilson, who both served in those positions for USA Hockey at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, have developed a plan to build around youth and the early returns have been positive. They were the NHL’s fourth-highest scoring team before last night’s games, averaging 3.18 goals per game and the Maple Leaf power play is clicking at 17.6 percent.
Kessel is clearly the go-to guy in Toronto but his supporting cast is one of the strongest in the Northeast Division. A resurgent Joffrey Lupul is the Maple Leafs’ second-leading scorer (eight goals, six assists) and recorded a hat trick last night in New Jersey. Newly-acquired center Tim Connolly is healthy and back in the lineup for Toronto and those three have formed a dynamic trio for the Maple Leafs, affording Wilson a chance to slot players in better positions.
Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur and Tyler Bozak are skilled players that have added secondary scoring in the first 11 games, yet have scored just five more points combined (25) than Kessel alone (20).
Team captain Dion Phaneuf anchors the Maple Leafs blue line, and Wilson recently said he thinks Phaneuf is one of the best defenseman in the NHL. His play supports that sentiment - with two goals and nine assists and a +8 rating, Phaneuf is Toronto’s third-leading scorer and averages around 28 minutes per game. Youngster Carl Gunnarsson’s game has taken a big step this season, and Wilson has paired him with Phaneuf on a regular basis. Once thought to be trade bait for the Maple Leafs, Mike Komisarek is putting together a fine season, drawing big minutes for the Maple Leafs with trade pickup John-Michael Liles.
James Reimer took the NHL by storm last season when he was recalled from the Toronto Marlies. With the Maple Leafs in a goaltending pinch, he started 37 games last year and posted a 20-10-5 record. The 23-year-old Manitoba native made veteran J.S. Giguere expendable, enabling Burke to go young with his new goaltending tandem this season. Reimer is currently on injured reserve, and backup Jonas Gustavsson has seen most of the action in his absence.
| || || |
|Prospal (5) ||Kessel (10) |
|Nash (6) ||Kessel (10) |
|Nash, Prospal (10) ||Kessel (20) |
|Dorsett (26) ||Brown (26) |
|MacKenzie (+5) ||Kessel (+9) |
|Mason (2-8-1) |
|Reimer (4-0-1) |
|Mason (3.11) ||Reimer (2.58) |
|Mason (.889) ||Reimer (.912) || |
|• Tonight’s contest is the first and only meeting between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets this season. Columbus earned a 3-2 victory at Air Canada Centre on Dec. 30, 2010 – the only meeting between the two clubs last year. Toronto has played at Nationwide Arena on three previous occasions, and the Blue Jackets are 1-2-0 in those contests. The Maple Leafs’ last visit to Nationwide Arena was a 6-3 win back in the 2009-10 season. |
• The Blue Jackets have won back-to-back homes games after Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Ducks. The wins come after the club opened the season winless in its first four games at Nationwide Arena. Overall, the Jackets opened the season winless in their first eight games (0-7-1), but have rebounded to go 2-2-0 in the last four.
• Rookie center Ryan Johansen has notched the game-winning goal in each of the Blue Jackets’ two victories this season (the first two goals of his NHL career). He is only the third player whose first two NHL goals were game-winners in his team's first two victories of a season. The others were Marco Sturm with San Jose in 1997 and Hall-of-Famer Howie Meeker with Toronto in 1946.
• The Blue Jackets are 0-2-0 against Eastern Conference teams this season. Toronto holds a record of 1-0-1 in games against the Western Conference.
• Scoring the first goal of the game is not all that important to the Maple Leafs. They are 4-3-1 when scoring first this season, and unbeaten (4-0-0) when their opponents open the scoring.