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Why The Leafs Are A Great Story So Far

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

By any standard, the Maple Leafs are having an unspectacular season.

Start with the record, 5-4-3. They have been outscored 41-35.

They are 19th in goals against, 17th in goals for, 12th on the power play and 23rd in the penalty kill. They are 1-3 in the shootout.

And yet, they are a great story because they compete, never so brightly as when they scored five unanswered goals Saturday to drub a pretty good Rangers team 5-2.

The Maple Leafs are more than anyone thought they would be, especially, in the early going, for a handful of reasons:

The Ron Wilson Effect: Let’s start with a disclaimer. Wilson and last year’s coach Paul Maurice were playing wildly different hands. Half of the team Maurice couldn’t get into the playoffs is gone and while Mats Sundin represents an irreplaceable component, the Leafs have gotten better goaltending with Curtis Joseph backing up Vesa Toskala. Mike Van Ryn, the surprise of the early-season to many, has left no one lamenting Bryan McCabe’s departure. Luke Schenn has been a revelation. You could argue that Wilson had a better team than Maurice. What you can’t argue is that Wilson has done marvelous work with what he has. Look no further than the urgency he has injected in Matt Stajan’s game. Under Wilson, Alex Steen is morphing into a first-rate defensive forward. Wilson praised Schenn’s game to the skies and then quietly sat him out for a few shifts Sunday in Carolina after the 19-year-old started looking a little overmatched.

Hunger: Don’t think that after three seasons in the minors, John Mitchell had any interest in going back to the American Hockey League. Mitchell has made the most of his playing time and established himself as a player willing to work the boards and head to the net. Likewise Dominic Moore who played with the Rangers and Penguins. He was waived by the Wild before finding what looks like a permanent home with the Leafs. Ian White lost his position and spot in the lineup. Against Carolina, White was terrific. Wilson has sat Anton Stralman out of a third of the Leafs’ dozen games. Hunger is a wonderful motivator.

Niklas Hagman: Just a terrific player. Hagman has three goals and eight points and has been the Leafs best forward. How talent-rich are the Dallas Stars that they could let this guy go?

Cliff Fletcher: Hagman was a Fletcher free-agent signing. So was Jeff Finger who has teamed with Schenn for the club’s most dependable pairing. He has set a steady as she goes atmosphere in a volcanic hockey market.

Speed: The Leafs are finally built for the post-lockout NHL. Jonas Frogren and Pavel Kubina will set no land-speed records but the rest of the defence is fast. The Leafs have enviable speed at forward thanks to Mikhail Grabovski, Moore, Mitchell, Hagman, Jason Blake and Nikolai Kulemin.

Fitness: The Maple Leafs are noticeably more fit than many of their opponents. Look at the way they blew by the Rangers on Saturday and dominated the last half of the third period against Carolina.

Lowered expectations: Maurice and then-GM John Ferguson declared last year’s Leaf team would contend for the Stanley Cup. This year’s club has far more humble aspirations: they want to compete every night.  As any wife will tell you, lowered expectations, happier marriage.

Defence:19th might not seem like that much for goals against but consider last season when the Leafs finished 27th.

Avoiding penalties: Sunday’s game in Carolina was a step back but the Leafs sit third in the league with 12 minutes in penalties assessed a game. For a franchise perennially among the league leaders, that’s a spectacular improvement.

Schenn: It’s not just that Wilson considers him his most dependable defensive defenseman. Schenn has given the Leafs a stake in the future, a player to gauge when things aren’t going well, and believe me, those times are coming. Not since Wendel Clark, another tough, honest westerner, have Leaf fans had a player this good to watch from Day 1. 
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