by John Iaboni
October 31, 2005
(TORONTO) - One month into the 2005-06 NHL season and what have we learned about the Toronto Maple Leafs? In a nutshell: They're a work in project and here are some of the reasons why.
- Captain Mats Sundin played exactly two minutes and fifty-three seconds, leaving at the 7:01 mark of the season-opener with the Leafs in front 1-0 against the Ottawa Senators. In today's wide-open, freewheeling NHL, how many points would Sundin have contributed in the first month; how much would he have allowed head coach Pat Quinn to better balance his lines and how much leadership would he have provided? Plenty. However, Sundin is so under-appreciated as a great player that some actually thought the Leafs were better without him when the club was riding a four-game winning streak while not acknowledging his potential input to those victories or what he might have meant in some of the slim losses.
- Quinn has taken to juggling his lines and attempting to inject a better overall team defensive approach. For a while, the Leafs got away with their wayward habits but the coaching staff detected some troubling tendencies when the club was riding high. After beating the Hurricanes on October 20 for win No. 4 in a row, Quinn indicated right there and then that the Leafs were playing with fire - and they quickly got burned in the stretch since.
- The communication between Ed Belfour and his teammates needs to get on the same wavelength as the veteran goalie lives with the restrictions on entering the zones he once expertly patrolled. He made an art form of roaming to handle the puck and move it up ice quickly thereby confounding the opposition while limiting the backtracking of his own teammates. Now foes can barrel in and teammates have to make a more concerted effort to hurry back and help out. On top of that, Belfour's statistics through his first nine starts (3.79 goals-against average, .879 save percentage) are raising some eyebrows. But let's look at New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, another highly regarded, wandering-puck-handler who's reputed to be the best goalie on the planet. In his first nine games this season, Brodeur's GAA was 3.61 and his save percentage is .883. Brodeur was 4-5-0 in those nine games; Belfour was 4-3-2. Yet the last we heard, Brodeur was still penciled in as Team Canada's No. 1 goalie for the 2006 Olympics at Torino.
So month one for the Leafs has been a series of mood swings. Three losses - two by shootouts to Ottawa - followed by four wins, an emotionless defeat to the Flyers, a split that included a terrific shootout win against the Bruins, the all-that-could-go-wrong blowout versus the Sens before facing the not-to-be-taken lightly Florida Panthers.
On the plus side, the Leafs power play was a front-runner throughout most of October while the penalty killing ranked in the top eight.
Toronto's third-period production (18 of 40 goals scored for a rate of 45 per cent through the first 11 games) was best in the NHL. And The Big E, Eric Lindros, was a huge factor there, scoring seven third-period goals among the first eight he'd produced for the Blue and White.
The fact the Leafs held firm in not peddling Tomas Kaberle to the Flyers for Lindros some four seasons ago is a credit to then-also GM Quinn. Now, in the new-look NHL Kaberle is flying with unlimited offensive potential while Lindros, at long last a Leaf, can help cash in on his feeds.
The kids - Alexander Steen, Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood - have been solid and exciting. And what can one say about the October Bryan McCabe had? He and Kaberle were productive workhorses raising the possibility that both might be Olympic bound for their respective countries.
While "still under construction" is the tag that befits the Leafs right now only a full complement - Sundin included - will provide the truer picture of whether the squad, as presently aligned, can win consistently or whether changes will be necessary.