October, 23, 2006
TORONTO (CP) -- The take on the Toronto Maple Leafs before the start of the NHL season was that they'd struggle to make the playoffs.
Even new coach Paul Maurice agreed that it would be nip and tuck all the way.
Nine games in, the Leafs are laughing. They have 11 of a possible 18 points, which puts them on pace to finish with 100 - enough to get into Stanley Cup play.
Now comes the tricky part: after a home date Tuesday with Ottawa, there'll be five away games in the following six. This challenge in the next two weeks will go a long way toward determining if they can maintain their top-eight status in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs are in Ottawa on Thursday and Montreal on Saturday, return home to play Atlanta on Monday, then start November at Tampa Bay, Florida and Buffalo.
It'd help if they could win more shootouts. They were involved in their fourth this season in losing 5-4 to the New York Rangers on Saturday, and they've lost three of them. It was a significant factor in their missing the playoffs last spring. They went 3-7 in shootouts last season. Those were seven lost points, and they only missed the playoffs by two.
Maurice says he'll devote more practice time to shootouts and try different players if need be, although he's not conceding the Leafs are without any tricks in hockey's circus act.
"We're too early in this campaign to look at trends,'' he said.
Darcy Tucker, with two more goals Saturday to his season's total up to seven, has been Toronto's most productive forward.
Mats Sundin is getting more ice time than he did under Pat Quinn and he's shooting more, and the combination of the two guarantee big nights for the captain. Kyle Wellwood seems to be a natural fit on Sundin's flank but Maurice hasn't been able to settle on a permanent winger on the other side.
The defence corps is an unsettled area with players in and out due to injuries, and it remains a team weakness with Pavel Kubina in street clothes. Tomas Kaberle, as usual, is the steadiest of the lot. Bryan McCabe has been mediocre, and not worth the US$7.15 million windfall he's getting this season. Hal Gill has been criticized for being too slow but Big Hal's plus-five is the best plus-minus rating on the team so give him a pat on the back and send him back out there.
Look for rookie Brendan Bell to get more and more ice time as his confidence grows. Bell is opening eyes, and he won't be the man going down to the Marlies when Kubina returns.
Andrew Raycroft has been adequate in goal. His .915 save percentage is sixth best in the East. He'll make a great save and a minute later miss a shot that doesn't appear especially difficult, and he's not stealing games as predecessors Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph did, but goaltending is not currently a topic of heated debate.
The power play is in the bottom third in percentage of success in the 30-team league, while Mike Peca has substantially improved the penalty killing in boosting it into the top third.
There have been eight lineup changes and a new head coach since last spring. Five players in the lineup Saturday were in the American Hockey League's Marlies with Maurice last year. It takes a while for any team to adapt to such a radical makeover. The Leafs are still feeling their way along.
More aggressive forechecking would help. More diligent checking by everybody is a must, which is something Sundin keeps harping on. The discovery of a shootout specialist or two would work wonders.
Yet, beginning the fourth week of his team's schedule in fourth place in the East has to put a smile on the face of GM John Ferguson. There's a long, long way to go, but the Leafs are laughing right now.