The Toronto Maple Leafs entered the 2011-12 NHL season as a team that was expected to compete for a playoff spot, but also a team most predicted would fall short.
When examining the team's roster heading into a new season, a lot of people (myself included) have a habit of picking around the edges and looking for minor improvements or guys who had down years that might be able to provide some added production.
Three games into this year it seems that we should have been looking at our stars.
Phil Kessel has 8 points (5 of which were goals) in 3 games to start the year. It goes without saying that those are incredible stats but those are incredible stats! Even more impressive (or at least more surprising) is that Phil Kessel is +7. Say what you will about +/- as a statistical indicator, it does measure results and hockey is, after all, a goalscoring competition.
Kessel has often been Ron Wilson's whipping boy when it comes to poor defensive performance from his forwards and rightfully so. This year though, Wilson has been praising Phil's commitment to the defensive game and it really has been impressive to watch the Kessel's back-checking so far this year.
Granted, Kessel's shooting percentage sits at a lofty 45.5% which is seriously inflating his production, but you've got to like what he's brought to the table so far. It's early, but it looks like Kessel has taken a step forward which is an odd thing to say about a guy who has put up three consecutive 30 goal seasons.
Dion Phaneuf has also looked an awful lot like the Dion of old. With 3 points in 3 games and 11 shots on goal, Phaneuf is providing some very nice offense from the backend. He's also averaging close to 26 minutes of icetime per game and, like Kessel, is +7.
This is the Dion we were hoping for in January of 2010.
Perhaps the biggest relief for LeafsNation has been the play of James Reimer. While many may have confidently asserted that he was 'the real deal', I think that the more realistic faction of Leaf fans were a little uncertain of exactly what to expect from Reimer (see our statistical look at Reimer and his comparables here).
Reimer has done a great deal to assuage these fears, putting up a .927 save percentage and a 2.34 GAA. Other than a rough third period against Ottawa, he's looked every bit like the goalie that went 20-10-5 to close out last season.
I know it's early. I know we're not going to go 82-0 and that Kessel isn't going to score 137 goals. But I also know that our star players have all looked pretty darn good and that 3-0 is the best record that we could have through 3 games. That's something worth getting at least a little excited about.