Friday, November 11, 2011

Some Early Season Observations on the Toronto Maple Leafs

The first month of the season has been a wild ride.  The Toronto Maple Leafs came flying off the starting blocks, taking advantage of good goaltending from James Reimer, fantastic play from Phil Kessel, and a soft schedule to sit among the league leaders in the Eastern conference. 

Then Reimer took a shot to the head from Brian Gionta and hasn't played a game since.  Gustavsson and Scrivens have really been anything ranging from very good (Scrivens' performances against Columbus and St. Louis), to very average (Gustavsson against the Penguins and the Devils), to downright awful (Gustavsson against Florida, Scrivens against Boston).  There have been some real ups and downs since Reimer's injury, but the team has managed to maintain their spot among the Eastern Conference elite for now.

A lot has happened in the first month and much of it has been completely unexpected.  Here's a list of our observations on the Maple Leafs' season thus far.

1) When He Played, Reimer Was Sharp

A lot of fans came into the season uncertain of what kind of goaltending to expect from Reimer.  The NHL is littered with goaltenders who got it done for a season and then promptly faded into obscurity.  Before the start of the season, we had a look at what we should expect from Reimer based on his performance last season and his comparables.  So far, he's been solid which has been a huge relief.

2) When Reimer Hasn't Played, The Goaltending Has Been Spotty

When BCP put together its list of offseason needs for the Leafs, veteran goalie featured prominently on the list.  The brief time we've spent without Reimer seems to have supported this position.  Scrivens has stolen a pair of games for the Leafs, don't get me wrong, but the inconsistency has been trying.  Ron Wilson doesn't seem to have a lot of confidence in these guys and a reliable presence in goal would have been a nice luxury to have.

3) Phil Kessel Might Be A Superstar

We've seen stretches like this from Kessel in the past, but no stretch that I can remember has lasted so long.  Kessel leads the league in points with 23, and goals with 12 and looks well on his way to producing the first 80-point season of his career.  That's a nice jump in production from a guy whose previous career high was 64.

4) Joffrey Lupul Is Definitely A Top-Six Forward

This might be a little bit reactive as I write this after what I consider to be Lupul's best game of the season last night in St. Louis, but you've got to be impressed with his play thus far.  He's a surprisingly good forechecker and hasn't been at all bad in his own zone.  Add to that his re-discovered offensive flair (18 points in 16 games) and it's clear that he's deserving of the praise Burke heaped on him on the day he was acquired from the Ducks last season.  He's getting a great opportunity with the Leafs and taking advantage of it.

5) The PK Really Sucks

I don't know if it's personnel, systems, or what, but the penalty-kill for the Maple Leafs makes me want to weep.  They currently sit 29th in the NHL at 72.6% and it's only a matter of time before it starts costing us points in the standings.  Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon were brought in  during the offseason with the specific mandate to improve the Leafs' special teams.  Jonathan Willis at Leafs Nation put together a great piece on Tim Connolly as a special teams player and all we can do is hope that his return will quell some of the troubles we've had in this area.

6) The PP Is Getting There

The Leafs are currently 17th in the league on the powerplay and are firing at a 17.2% clip.  That's a pretty decent improvement on last season's 16.0% but there's still a little progress to be made here.  The powerplay has certainly looked better since they stopped the ridiculous drop-pass-in-the-neutralzone strategy.  Two powerplay goals last night was a good sign and again, once Connolly returns to the lineup we should be even more clinical here.

7) Nikolai Kulemin Has Been Really Unlucky

Kulemin's shooting percentage is currently 8% (his career average is 13.3%) and if you watched the game against the Panthers, you know that his shots have generally been high-quality opportunities.  He's been buzzing around the net and hasn't looked anything like a 2 goal, 6 point player.  You've got to feel like it's just a matter of time for Kule as long as he doesn't let the frustration of his situation get to him.

8) What Is Going On With Luke Schenn?

Great rookie year, tough sophomore season, strong third year, and a rough start to his fourth NHL season.  Schenn has even spent a game as a healthy scratch, which I certainly didn't expect heading into the year.  Is the weight of his new contract causing a problem for Luke or is his own weight slowing down his skating too much?  It's tough to say what the cause is, but there's little doubt that our best young defenseman hasn't played up to snuff to start the year.

9) The Kids Are Alright

Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne were acquired at the trade deadline last season and both have taken big leaps forward in their development.  Colborne is currently leading the AHL in scoring while Gardiner forced his way into the team's lineup out of training camp.  The future looks very bright for both of these guys and it's going to force some tough decisions over the next year.

10) Nazem Kadri

Am I the only one that thought Kadri was pretty good?  I understand that this roster has a lot of depth at the moment and that Kadri is prone to turnovers or shaky defensive play but he has an offensive shine that few on the team possess.  He's also exceptional in the shootout and while that hasn't been a problem for us so far this season, it has been historically.  I really hope that Burke is able to make some space for Kadri and Colborne to get fulltime NHL minutes at some point this season.

Here are some links that you should check out if you haven't done so already:

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