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Goaltending, scoring could have Leafs in contention

by Dan Rosen

With only one-third of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season in the books, it's still too early to start making plans for playoff hockey at Air Canada Centre.

The discussion phase, however, has begun as the Maple Leafs appear to be charting a course to the postseason, which would be their first participation in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in nine years.

Toronto has won six of its past seven games to become one of five teams in the NHL with at least 10 wins so far this season. The Maple Leafs' 20 points put them in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Montreal Canadiens for first in the Northeast Division, heading into their game Tuesday in Tampa, Fla.

This isn't the first time these Maple Leafs have started a season well. Toronto was 10-5-1 after 16 games last season, but there were obvious flaws and eventually they were exposed as non-playoff contenders.

Maybe these aren't the same ol' Leafs anymore. Here are five reasons why:

1. Brian Burke hockey

The former Maple Leafs general manager wanted to see bruising, physical, fast, aggressive hockey come to Toronto under his watch.

It arrived a little too late for him, but Burke still should be proud because his former team is fighting, hitting and scoring its way into playoff contention.

The Maple Leafs are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the NHL lead with 17 fighting majors (18 majors overall), and they have the fourth-most penalty minutes in the League. However, only five teams have been shorthanded fewer times than the Maple Leafs (53), because less than half of their penalty minutes (124) have come from minor infractions.

So even with all the rough stuff, including being credited with a League-high 454 hits, the Maple Leafs are not burning themselves out with ticky-tack penalties.

Mental toughness also has benefited the Maple Leafs, who are 6-1-0 on the road and 4-3-0 in games when they have given up the first goal. Last season the Maple Leafs were 17-21-3 away from Air Canada Centre and 12-24-6 in games when they gave up the first goal.

2. Superb goaltending

Goaltending has been Toronto's greatest area of improvement from last season to this season, and it didn't even require a trade for Roberto Luongo.

James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have combined for a .933 save percentage and three shutouts through 16 games. Last season, the two goalies combined for a .901 save percentage and three shutouts in 46 games.

Reimer is sidelined with a knee injury, so Scrivens has assumed the No. 1 job in his absence. All he's done is produce back-to-back shutouts, carrying a shutout streak of more than 144 minutes.

Scrivens is 4-3-0 with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage in seven starts. Compare those numbers to last season, when he was 4-5-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .903 save percentage in 12 games. His improvement is a big reason the Maple Leafs have one of the best records in the NHL.

Now move on to Reimer, who is 6-3-0 with a 2.31 GAA and .929 save percentage in his nine starts. Last season Reimer started 34 games and was 14-14-4 with a 3.10 GAA and .903 save percentage.

Again, the differences are obvious. Better goaltending equals more wins -- simple as that.

3. Depth scoring

Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel
Right Wing - TOR
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 12
SOG: 65 | +/-: 5
Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, the Maple Leafs' two leading scorers last season who combined for 62 goals, have produced three (all from Kessel) through 16 games, yet Toronto is scoring at an even better rate than it did last season -- 2.88 goals per game this season, up from 2.77 per game in 2011-12.

The Maple Leafs' offense has remained strong because they are getting contributions from up and down the lineup. And the addition of James van Riemsdyk has, for now, offset the loss of Lupul (broken forearm), who likely won't be back until next month.

Seventeen players have at least one goal, including van Riemsdyk's team-high eight and Matt Frattin's seven. Nazem Kadri has helped make up for Kessel's lack of production with his five goals, including four on the power play. Tyler Bozak, who had 18 goals in 73 games last season, has improved his production with five goals in 16 games this season.

The Maple Leafs are one of eight teams in the League that has five players with at least 10 points.

Now just imagine what could happen if Kessel got hot and Lupul got back in the lineup.

4. Patience is a virtue

Remember all those cries to have Kadri up with the big club? Turns out it may have been the right decision to keep him in the American Hockey League for most of last season too.

Kadri, the seventh pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, is the perfect example of what patience can mean for a player with star potential.

Instead of stunting his growth with losing and the pressure of having to try to be the savior in a hockey-centric city, Kadri got to experience winning with the Toronto Marlies while continuing to develop his all-round game in an environment free from outside pressure. He scored 40 points in 48 regular-season games with Marlies then another 10 points in 11 Calder Cup Playoff games.


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He earned his chance for a regular lineup spot with the Maple Leafs, and because of his development years in the AHL, he's paying off now in the NHL. Kadri leads the Maple Leafs with 14 points on five goals and nine assists through 16 games. He has a team-high four power-play goals.

Patience has also been a virtue when it comes to Reimer, Scrivens, Frattin, Korbinian Holzer, Cody Franson and Leo Komarov. Save for Franson, who nearly was run out of town last season after a subpar 2011-12, the rest of these players got the proper amount of time to develop, be it in the AHL or overseas, and that has translated to success at the NHL level.

The improvement from Scrivens and Reimer already has been documented.

Frattin has seven goals in 10 games.

Holzer is averaging almost 19 minutes of ice time per game, a solid contribution from someone who was in the AHL as late as last month and is contracted for $575,000 this season.

Franson, a healthy scratch earlier in the season, has figured out his role, particularly on the power play, and has nine points and a plus-10 rating despite playing less than 16 minutes per game. He's starting to look like the tall, skilled, offensive defenseman the Maple Leafs thought they were getting from the Nashville Predators in 2011.

Komarov has given the Maple Leafs important energy and shorthanded minutes while contributing offensively with a goal and three assists.

Don't forget about 22-year-old defenseman Jake Gardiner, who is trying to find his game again in the AHL and undoubtedly will resume his role at some point with the Maple Leafs.

5. Carlyle effect on the 'D'

Players are not going to play for coach Randy Carlyle unless they are committed on the other side of the red line. The players in the Maple Leafs' lineup of late have earned their ice time from their defensive-minded coach because of their commitment.

Toronto is giving up 2.25 goals per game, seventh in the NHL. The Maple Leafs gave up 3.16 goals per game last season, 29th in the League.

Why, other than stronger goaltending, have the Maple Leafs been so effective at keeping the puck out of the net?

Carlyle wants his players to pressure all over the ice. He wants to forecheck aggressively then be as energetic and as relentless in the defensive zone. He wants a swarm-like mentality, and sometimes it takes young legs to do that.

The Maple Leafs have plenty of those.

There are four teams in the NHL (Winnipeg Jets, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Columbus Blue Jackets) that have rosters with a younger average age than the Maple Leafs' 27.2.

Of the 18 skaters who played in their 3-0 win against the Florida Panthers on Monday, Colton Orr was the only one to have celebrated his 30th birthday. Eleven of the 18 were 26 years old or younger, including a 22-year-old (Kadri) and a 23-year-old (van Riemsdyk). That doesn't include Frattin, 25, who is nursing a knee injury and is on injured reserve.

The other three 30-plus players on the team -- David Steckel, Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles -- were healthy scratches Monday. Komisarek has played in four games this season, none since Feb. 2. Steckel has been active in six games.


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