Prior to the season, we at BCP identified eight things that had to happen for the Leafs to finish among the Eastern Conference's top eight.
With the first month out of the way and the Leafs sporting a very shiny 5-2-1 record, we've decided to have a look at the list and see where the Leafs are succeeding and where they might be falling short.
Without further ado;
1) Phil Kessel will have to continue developing - At this rate, Phil Kessel will be a 70 goal scorer. Ok, I know that isn't going to happen and so do you. 40 seems like an eminently attainable target though and 50 isn't entirely out of the question. Yeah, I would say he's continued his development.
2) Our defense will have to be better. Much better. - The Leafs are one of the league's best teams in terms of shots against per game through eight games and are 9th in the league in team GAA. Last season the Leafs were second worst in team GAA. That's a pretty meaningful improvement to say the least. On a less statistical note, Schenn has been an absolute monster on the back end.
3) Goaltending - Well, we don't have Toskala so obviously we were going to be better. The Giguere-Gustavsson tandem this season is just below middle of the pack in save percentage after the Leafs put up a league-worst .892 mark last season. The improvement is noteworthy but the numbers don't tell the whole story. Anyone who has watched the Leafs play this year knows that Giguere has shown a propensity to come up with 'the big save' when the team needs it most. As cliche as it may sound, it's absolutely true. This year we've had the timely goaltending that we haven't received at any other point since the lockout.
4) A decent second line - Clark MacArthur's six goals have led the way in this regard. Kulemin has spent all but one game on the second line and is third in team scoring. Our second line production has ensured that Kessel isn't going it alone which was one of the primary concerns entering the season.
5) A strong checking line - The top-six, bottom-six formula has finally been put in to practice as the Leafs have four lines with distinctive identities. Sjostrom, Brown, Brent have all been serviceable checkers and have played a meaningful role in keeping goals against down this season. You'd like to see Colby Armstrong pick it up a bit once he gets back from injury (4-6 weeks) but beyond that, I think you'd have to give the team a passing grade here as well.
6) Penalty kill - The Leafs have killed 86.2% of their penalties this season putting them 9th in the league. Compare that to the 74.7% and 30th in the league mark that they set last season and I think it's safe to say that some improvements have been made on this end.
7) Power play - Is it better than last year? Yeah, it is. Is it good enough? No, it isn't. We've scored at a reasonable pace to start the season but this team will likely struggle to score in five-on-five situations at some point during the year. When those struggles hit, we need the powerplay to be able to pick the team up. There's been a real emphasis on pressing Phaneuf and Kaberle at the line which puts extra pressure on the forwards to make something happen. Someone needs to develop some killer instinct coming off the side-boards or our powerplay is going to continue to struggle.
8) Development - It's just too early to say. Kulemin has been sharp, no doubt about it. Kessel has improved as well. What we don't know is how the kids in the AHL will fare when they're called upon to step in to the lineup once injuries hit. It looks like Caputi will get some time during Armstrong's absence and he had an exceptional pre-season. As the season wears on, our young players will need to continue to develop and hopefully to avoid the inconsistency that so often mars players in their first few seasons.
Of the eight keys to success we identified in the pre-season, the Leafs are only really missing the mark on the powerplay. The points are nice, the record is beautiful but the way that the team has been doing it is better still. If Ron Wilson can keep the team playing at this level, the playoffs will be an expectation rather than a hope.
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