The Toronto Maple Leafs are living the reality of the difference one week can make, when it comes the NHL standings. Blazing out of the gate to record the first 4-0 start since 1993-1994, the fire has been extinguished through the last week of action with losses to the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers.
With a now modest record of 4-2-1, Head Coach Ron Wilson has began the experimental line changes, looking for a much needed surge from a number of players.
Arriving in Toronto after a whirlwind season, garnering himself a Stanley Cup Ring and developing his personality as a vibrant character in and outside the locker room, Kris Versteeg has struggled to find his touch, a touch needed to secure him a top line player throughout the season. One player’s struggles means another player’s gains, as Nikolai Kulemin finds himself back on the top line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
“I’m just trying to shake things up a little bit to see what works,” said Wilson after practice. “Definitely (Kulemin) is really good at working the corners. I think right now he might be able to help out (Bozak) and Phil with that. Getting Kris Versteeg with Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, there should be a lot of speed there and we’ll see if we can find some chemistry with those guys.”
With only one goal in the first seven outings, Kulemin will welcome the extra ice time in a bid to get his game back to the level he displayed through last season. Although he may be gripping the stick a little tighter, the winger is not letting frustration complicate his play.
“I’ve had a lot of chances. I just need better finish and score more,” Kulemin said, noting he’ll try to recreate the success he had on that top unit with Bozak and Kessel towards the end of last season.
Mikhail Grabovski is another example of a player anxiously waiting, and looking to withdraw the “monkey” from his back. With zero goals, and 4 helpers on the year so far, Grabovski, although not finding the score sheet continues to work hard. Hard work he believes will pay off.
“I’m just like, work harder guy and believe in myself,” Grabovski said. “I think if I start thinking about that too much, it’s too much pressure in my head right now. I know my goals are coming soon.”
Although positive strides in performance were difficult to find and pull from the previous 2 games, one can’t ignore the progress of third year defenceman Luke Schenn. Becoming a reliable go-to guy for Ron Wilson in critical junctures of a game is a far cry from the “sophomore slump” he endured last season. With captain Dion Phaneuf plagued amidst his worst performance of the season thus far, Schenn was leaned on for 24:49 of ice time, more than any Leaf player on the night. Choosing to remain in Toronto over the off-season to work with the team’s strength and conditioning staff, Schenn made the most of his efforts and his play is dictating the results. Standing out in the team’s worst effort of the year, Schenn speaks of the confidence he possesses in his ability to become a stronger player.
“I just have confidence right now, altogether, in all parts of my game right now. Obviously, playing with Kaberle helps. Give the puck to him and he makes a great play. But I’ve just felt good since the start of the season.”
Schenn’s play and strong performance was visible well before the start of this season, as his progression goes back to the last half of a forgettable year for many Leaf players in 2009-2010.
“I felt more comfortable at the end of last year with the puck,” said Schenn. “You’re not second-guessing yourself, and hoping mistakes don’t happen. You’re going out there trying to make plays.”
While it may not be his strong point, and certainly not a facet of his game Head Coach Ron Wilson will rely on him for, the ability to jump in on plays and use his skating has displayed an offensive side to a player billed as a stay-at-home defenceman.
“Obviously the defensive game is going to be first and foremost for me,” said Schenn. “And trying to be physical. Sometimes you get the odd shot through, or jump up into the play, you’ll get rewarded for it.”
Like Schenn, the rest of the Maple Leafs will be looking for a reward as they battle the Florida Panthers at home Tuesday night. Above and beyond the two points, a strong effort filled with the desire and will that was evident through the first five games is critical to boost the slumping club’s morale and their position within the Eastern Conference standings.
About the Author
Written by RJ Emptage
Operations Manager of a retail chain in Southern Ontario (Sports Obsession). Specialize in licensed sports apparel and novelties (Visit sportsobsession.ca). Being from the Hamilton area I grew up and into a die-hard Toronto Maple Leaf Fan, and look forward to a bright blue and white future...(I know that sounds crazy doesn't it?) Love all things sports and the next best thing to playing them, is talking them!