by Chris Gudgeon
(AND FOUR MORE FOR WHY YOU SHOULDN’T GET YOUR HOPES UP TOO MUCH JUST YET…)
With a season-high winning streak under their belts (um: two games) and points in their last seven games, the Leafs are on a modest roll. Their secret to semi-success just might surprise you:
1. Defence: The collective wisdom is that the Leafs mini turnaround is due primarily to the play of rookie goalie Jonas Gustavsson. Yes, he has played well and is a stabilizing force for the Leafs. But the biggest improvement over the last seven games has been the D. They’ve stopped scrambling around, stopped taking stupid penalties, and started to play simple, solid defence (while demonstrating an ability to make the first pass and follow up on the play). Komisarek has narrowed his range considerably and is showing why he’s making the big bucks, while his partner on the blue line, Luke Schenn has returned to rookie-season form. Beauchemin is playing like the Olympian he is while Kaberle has raised his offensive game to an unprecedented level. Add the much maligned and improving Jeff Finger and his partner Ian White to the mix – the tandem are at this moment as strong a 5-6 pairing as any in the NHL – and you have a very solid backend. Is it the best in the league as Burke boasted in the preseason? Of course not, as a league worst 3.60 GAA attests. But it’s getting pretty damn good and key to the Leafs’ improvement.
2. Special Teams. Who could have predicted it? The Leafs are actually good at something. Very, very good. Having the league’s best power play (and a much-improved PK) has done more to soften the opposition than truckload of Colton Orr’s truculence ever could. Teams are very wary: take a penalty, and chances are the Leafs will score. That means opposition players are thinking twice when they check the Leafs and a thinking player is a less effective player. The power play is helping by buying a little extra room in even-strength situations, and a little bit of room goes a long way in the NHL.
3. Goal. Don’t get me wrong; Jonas Gustavsson is a big part of the Leafs’ turnaround. He’s played well in every game, and, more importantly, gets better each outing, suggesting that he is adjusting quickly (Michael Tellqvist, anyone?) to the North American game. Is he the second coming of the first coming of Curtis Joseph? Who knows, but beware. There are glaring weaknesses to his game: he’s constantly down on his knees before the shot is taken and makes woeful decisions when handling the puck. He’ll have to fix these problems pretty quick if he wants to remain a legitimate No. 1 goalie.
4. Offense. A more stable, confident and (consequently) more mobile defence is helping the Leafs offense immeasurably. They play a pass-and-penetrate style — not a shoot and chase game – that only works if the defenders make the first pass and support the rush. The addition of Kessel seems to be working; he’s getting the attention of the opposition’s top defenders, which again gives some of the lesser lights a bit more room to move. And while the top six forwards are still lacking, the team has an abundance of low-second line and third line players, allowing coach Wilson to roll out four lines with little regard to matchups. Expect solid but unspectacular production from seven or eight Leafs players this year, with most of those scoring in the double digits. And let’s take a moment to recognize the contribution of Lee Stempniak: easily the Leafs most improved player this year, he has hasn’t had a bad outing yet and may start to produce steadily now that Kessel has the eye of the opposition.
But before you start planning the parade . . . .
1. Goal. Gustavsson needs to address his weaknesses before NHL snipers start to take advantage of them. And you can bet that now he’s played back-to-back games, and everyone has had a chance to review the tapes, you will see a lot more faked first shots and lateral puck movement from the attacking teams. Can The Monster plug these holes? Given his size, tremendous reflexes and speed on the up-and-down, I am going to say yes. I hope. (In the meantime, watch for a resurgent Vesa Toskela emerge next time he has a chance to get between the pipes; with The Monster a lock on the starting position, Toskela can go back to doing what doing what he does best: being a superb backup goalie).
2. Special Teams. With so much of the recent success depending on the Leafs great play with the man advantage, could the whole house of cards collapse if the power play fades? Of course it could. If the Leafs are no longer a threat to score when they are one up, teams will stop thinking twice when they go after the puck carrier. And remember: the power play giveth, and the penalty kill taketh away. The Leafs have done a lot better staying out of the box for the last five games; this trend better continue.
3. Defence: Not as much organizational depth as in previous years; expect your top six to log loads of extra minutes if the injury bug hits the Leafs backline. A couple of key injuries, though, could really put the defence back on its heels.
4. Offense. There are few stars here and a lot of players who are not the greatest back-checkers in the world. Meanwhile, the puck-movement style of play means everybody needs to be on their game or things break down quite quickly. Expect the offense to fizz some nights. In the longer term, the Leafs need way, way more firepower, particularly up the middle.
No team in history (and I’m talking right back to the pre-NHL days) has ever won the Stanley Cup without a dominant offense-first centre (that was the missing ingredient on Burke’s pretty-damn-good-but-not-great Canucks teams).
Don’t hold your breath for Nazem Kadri, folks; he’s a long way off. But do expect this issue to be dealt with via free agency next summer. Until then, and given the huge hole the Leafs have already dug, the question isn’t “Will the Leafs win the Cup?” or even “Will they make the playoffs?” but remains: “Will they avoid coughing up a lottery draft pick?”