This season has been marked by poor performance with sporadic teases of a team that might just be something in the long run.
Think about it: Leafs Nation is buzzing after a slew of off-season changes, only for the team to start the season 0-7-1 in their first eight games. The team collects points in seven straight games and beats the reigning champion Red Wings, only to drop their next five. They win 8 of 11, and follow that up by winning just three of 14. They celebrate the acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastien Giguere by shutting out the Devils and Sens, but then lost their next four games.
And now they’ve won four of five, and it’s hard to know whether to take it as a positive sign of the team moving forward or simply wait for the other shoe to drop. But there are enough signs within this current run to indicate that there is some hope for the future around these parts.
For one thing, defence has become a calling card for the club. Tyler Bozak has made the jump from Marlie to indispensable Leafs forward, having found strong chemistry on the top line with Phil Kessel and playing a strong two-way game for the suddenly defensive-minded Leafs. Like Bozak, Nik Kulemin has come into his own as a forward with offensive flare who is also responsible in his own end. On the blue line, Carl Gunnarsson has been a revelation for his hard-nosed play and smart decision-making, and is now among the team leaders in minutes logged.
It also helps to have a goaltending tandem that have made the squad’s defensive efforts look good. In the 13 games since the Giguere deal, Leafs goaltending has earned a 2.84 goals against average, .77 lower than their average when it was Vesa Toskala and Jonas Gustavsson between the pipes. That improvement can’t simply be attributed to Giggy’s arrival, as Gustavsson has a 4-0 record and a 2.25 GAA since the Olympic break.
Up front, Kessel has regained his scoring touch and has four goals and three assists in his past five games. Bozak can be at least partially credited for that revival, as he assisted on three of those four goals. Meanwhile, Viktor Stalberg and newcomer Luca Caputi offered a taste of their potential chemistry together against Tampa Bay, as Stalberg had two goals, both of which resulted in assists for the former Penguin.
With the play-offs out of the question and no prime first-round draft selection to hold out hope for, this final regular season stretch is purely about determining what this team will look like come next season. And with some positive early signs from the back end on out, Brian Burke and the Leafs may just be starting something here.
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Written by Ben Fisher