Complain all you want, Leaf fans.
Complain about how your club lacks secondary scoring, doesn’t have the grit or that you’d expect from a Brian Burke team and are more penalty pacifists than penalty killers.
The bottom line, as we arrive at the Christmas break, is that the 2011-12 Leafs are significantly improved from the 2010-11 squad.
The record is the easiest point of comparison. The Buds entered last year’s break riding a three-game losing skid and sporting a 12-17-4 record. This season, they will awaken on Christmas morning with gifts under the tree and a 18-13-4 record in the stockings – er, standings. Yes, that record represents two more games played than on this date last year, but it’s not as if the ‘10-11 Leafs would have been able to make up the 12-point deficit anyway (they didn’t reach 40 points last season until game No. 42 on January 11th).
Of course, it’s what’s behind this season’s more front-loaded record that matters.
The Leafs suddenly find themselves more talent-rich than at any other point in the post-lockout era. Up front, they boast a bona fide superstar (Phil Kessel), as well as an elite pivot (Tim Connolly) and a potential late-blossoming star (Joffrey Lupul). On the blue line, another established force (Dion Phaneuf) is joined by a near-star (Luke Schenn) and a rising talent who is making his mark quickly (Jake Gardiner). In net, the Leafs have perhaps their surest thing between the pipes since Ed Belfour (James Reimer). Important note: the oldest of any of the aforementioned Leafs is Lupul – at 28 years of age.
While contributions outside of this core group have been the source of some consternation within Leaf land, there have been strides taken there, too. Tyler Bozak has been a different player for T.O. this year (he’s already matched his assist total from a season ago), Mike Komisarek was playing his best hockey since joining the club prior to being sidelined with a broken wrist and the club has gotten contributions from those acquired from outside the organization (Connolly, John-Michael Liles and David Steckel, to name three), as well as those promoted from within (Joey Crabb, Matt Frattin, Keith Aulie and, most recently, Nazem Kadri).
On offence, an exaggerated perception of a secondary scoring dearth exists largely due to how good Kessel and Lupul have been together. Seeing time with both Connolly and Bozak centring them, the two wingers have gelled and their combined 79 points tie them with the Sedins for highest-scoring duos. The 17 assists by each of Bozak, Liles and Phaneuf are nothing to sneeze at (although there is some legit concern with Clarke MacArthur being the only other double-digit goal scorer on the team). The trio of Connolly, Kadri and MacArthur, who displayed some chemistry and production after being lumped together part-way through Thursday’s win over the Sabres, will be offered a chance to ease some of the pressure on Kessel and Lupul after the break.
Defensively, questions have been raised about the club’s toughness, a claim almost unthinkable against a Brian Burke-constructed squad. While it certainly isn’t ideal that the Buds rank fifth in most goals allowed (to be fair, they rank eighth in goals for), shouldn’t the unit’s youthfulness hold up as an excuse to absolve them of at least some finger-pointing? Yes, seven of the club’s eight defencemen stand at 6’1” or taller, but seven of eight also happen to be 29 or younger (six are 26 or younger). Certain elements of the physical NHL game have to be innate, but other elements are learned. These guys are getting there.
Looking ahead, the club remains in tough to even secure a playoff spot. This has less to do with their play and more (as I predicted before the season) to do with what is a significantly improved Eastern Conference. They currently hold a precarious grip on sixth in the Conference, one point ahead of the New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators and just three points clear of ninth-place Winnipeg. Even if they can continue to fend off the three clubs, all of whom seem to be building momentum, there still exists the ever-present possibility of one of the slumbering giants –Washington, Montreal, Buffalo and Tampa Bay – making the kind of second half strides that their talent level dictates they should. In other words, nothing is guaranteed in what is a surprisingly loaded East.
Fortunately, Toronto is equipped for the second half. In addition to a glut of NHL-ready forwards to be plucked from down the road at Ricoh Coliseum for depth purposes (Joe Colborne and Darryl Boyce chief among them – and yes, I know Boyce is with the team right now), there will also be no shortage of valuable injury returnees, including Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, Matthew Lombardi and Philippe Dupuis. The infusion of depth could also help create a surplus of assets to pull from in the event of moves prior to the trade deadline.
Call me a sucker for the holiday spirit if you will, given the rosy picture I’m presenting. However, this is a club that’s doing the right things in many ways and no amount of Bruins-incurred beatdowns or short-handed messes will change that. Playoffs or no playoffs, this season has made one thing abundantly clear: the Leafs are a team headed in the right direction.
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Written by Ben Fisher