Speed. Sheer, flat out go-go juice.
That was the most jarring thing about the Leafs’ season-opening victory against the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
No one knows how many games the Leafs will win this season. What seems clear, however, as the club readies itself for Saturday’s home opener against the Montreal Canadiens, is that they are faster.
Much, much faster.
Boyd Devereaux, imported last season to give the club some badly needed speed, is b`ack in the minors. Instead, the Leafs are using speedsters Mikhail Grabovski
, Niklas Hagman, Ryan Hollweg, Nikolai Kulemin
and Jamal Mayers up front. Jiri Tlusty has 59 NHL games and three rounds of AHL playoffs under his belt. He too is an excellent skater. Defenceman Hal Gil, who skated as if in snowshoes, is in Pittsburgh. The burly Bryan McCabe, Florida. Their places have been taken by the much more mobile Mike Van Ryn and Carlo Colaiacovo. Content that they can keep up, the Maple Leafs no longer use players simply because they bring badly-needed speed. Ian White, prized for his speed is in the press-box. So is the fastest Leaf defender, Anton Stralman.
Grabovski, who buzzed the Detroit net consistently, plays to his strengths. “I try to use my speed every time because I play and stay in the game,” he said. Speedy Dominic Moore, who potted the winning goal in Motown, agreed with the baseball adage: speed does not slump.
“There are a million benefits. You get in on the forecheck earlier, you get more speed on the rush, you are better in transition. Defensively you’re in better position, you’re taking away their time and space, you’re never caught, you won’t be more tired.”
Jason Blake, whose speed seemed all the more eyecatching because of the Leafs slow pace last season, said the club is just going where everyone else is going.
“Look around the league,” he said. “That’s where teams are going: speed.”
“You saw a great team like Detroit had trouble when we made the rink smaller and used our speed,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Footspeed-wise, we’re probably faster than Detroit but they do such a great job of moving the puck that they can make themselves appear really fast.
“Montreal is probably faster than we are footspeed-wise and they move the puck pretty well, not like Detroit, so it’ll be another experience,” he said. “If we get caught out of position Saturday night, it’s going to be hard to catch their speedy forwards.”