The page turns on 2010 amidst difficult times for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans.
Outside of the playoffs by a double-digit margin, the Leafs petered out after a good start and longstanding problems in goal and special teams have strained the optimism of supporters.
There are, of course, some hopeful elements. Let’s take a look at the good and the bad.Let’s start with the good: Unexpected offence:
The Leafs have fruitlessly searched for a first line but the second unit has performed admirably. Clarke MacArthur
, signed as a fall flier, delivered 27 points in 35 games. Mikhail Grabovski
has already bettered last season’s 10 goals with 13 struck before the midway point. Nikolai Kulemin
is also enjoying his best season. If the other three lines performed as well as the second unit, the Leafs would be in the playoff hunt.Balanced scoring:
The Leafs are on pace to register five 20-goal scorers, Grabovski, Kulemin, MacArthur, Phil Kessel
and Kristopher Versteeg. Last year only Kessel bested 20.Best yet: Luke Schenn
has established himself as the cornerstone of the Leafs defence. Committed and talented, Schenn is playing his best hockey and should be a future all-star.Help will trickle in:
Several players who could play in Toronto are developing with the Marlies including winger Marcel Mueller
, centre Christian Hanson and defenceman Keith Aulie. Nazem Kadri
played 17 games with the big team. Jerry D’Amigo is back at the World Juniors. Leaf prospect Matt Frattin
has scored 18 goals in 20 games for the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Frattin, a right-hand shooting right winger is being talked up as a Hobey Baker candidate. Two goalies, James Reimer
and Jussi Rynnas
, are making substantial strides. Tough guys:
Before he was knocked out of the lineup with a broken finger, November 30, Mike Brown
provided plenty of toughness and excelled on the penalty kill. While the Leafs have not delivered roster-wide toughness, Colby Armstrong
has shown himself to be a flinty competitor. Colton Orr has answered the bell whenever challenged. Phaneuf fine:
While he hasn’t established himself as the club’s stud defenceman, the Leafs looked much tidier in their own end when Dion Phaneuf
returned from a cut leg.Kessel still producing:
There is no doubt that Phil Kessel
is a streaky player. He scored five goals in the team’s first five games, then nine in the next 30. But his centre, Tyler Bozak
has struggled all season and Kessel is the only gifted goalscorer on the team. He should finish with about 30 goals and considering the help he is getting, there is no shame in that.Now the bad…Monster mash: Jonas Gustavsson
hasn’t won two consecutive games all season. After encouraging spells, he has struggled under the weight of the team’s defensive deficiencies. Veteran J.S. Giguere has been about the same.Special teams:
Last season the Leafs finished dead last on the penalty kill and power play. This year, improvement has been modest. The Leafs sit 18th on the power play and 28th on the pk. Defensive backsliding: Mike Komisarek
has struggled to find a groove since shoulder surgery last season. After an encouraging start, Tomas Kaberle has had minimal impact. Francois Beauchemin has looked better since Phaneuf’s return, but the team’s average of three goals against per game is an indictment of the entire club.
Small up front:
The Leafs have yet to find some size at forward and while Hanson and Mueller should eventually lend a hand, the two are far too early in their apprenticeship to help.Second year blues:
Hard to believe but Tyler Bozak
has yet to play the equivalent of a full NHL season. Small wonder that he was not ready to step into the number one centre hole. Carl Gunnarsson
has endured his share of the sophomore blues as well.
When will the losing end?
The Leafs retain a mathematical possibility of making the post-season but they would need an unlikely string of wins to get close. A sixth straight year out of the playoffs (counting the lockout) seems unthinkable but righting poor special teams, leaky goaltending and miserable defensive play would be a magnificent task. With a largely underachieving lineup and Giguere injured, it will be tough for GM Brian Burke to muster any material for the deadline.