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Bleeding Blue and White

April 6, 2011

It’s over. The nifty drive to grab a playoff spot is over for the 2010-11 edition of my Maple Leafs.  Many have said, during the playoff drought of the last few years, that the Leafs only play well when the pressure is off.  That every year they play hard after the all-star break, teasing their fans with the mere possibility of reaching the playoffs. But as a true fan of the game and the Leafs, I truly believe that this year is different.

This year a team of young, hungry players were tweaked, pushed and pushed themselves to become a worthy opponent. Where in other years, it could truthfully be said that the team was playing out the string without pressure, this year’s team improved towards the end.  I think it’s fair to say that the first few games were over-achievements, the next two months were dreary and filled with players trying to find their ways as a team and the last half of the season was where the team finally began to gel.

The Leafs that were iced in the fall were significantly different than the previous season.  This Leafs team was supposed to be snarly and pugnacious, like their GM, with a little more skill than the year before with the additions of Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and  Brett Lebda. There were high hopes for Nazem Kadri, 1st rounder from 2009, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and especially the goaltending tandem of Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere.  They came out of the gates going great guns. Then it was shown that a short pre-season could not mesh all the new parts together consistently.

Coming into the season the Leafs knew they needed a #1 center, but were expecting at least 1A performances out of the combination of Kadri and Bozak, with Grabovski being the solid third-liner.  Phil Kessel would take on the bulk of the scoring with some help from Versteeg and MacArthur.  Giguere would mentor the up-and-coming Gustavsson for a solid pair in goal; with a solid back-end mix of youth and veterans starting with newly minted captain Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn, Karl Gunnarson, Tomas Kaberle and a hopefully rejuvenated Mike Komisarek.

That all changed when Kadri didn’t make the big club coming out of a weak camp, little showing the dash he had the previous year. Kessel, Bozak and Phaneuf were invisible and Versteeg was still trying to find his way.  The goaltending was looking suspect and only the line of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur were looking like they fit together. In fact that last line was to be the single consistent bright spot throughout the year, with Kulemin and Grabovski looking at career-highs of 30 goals and all three of them having career years in terms of points. Where were the gritty, tough-to-play-against, Leafs we were promised?

Management told the team to grit things out. Neither the coach nor the players were going anywhere, although Kadri was brought up for a short stint before being sent back to the AHL Marlies to work on his mental and defensive games respectively.  This would prove to be an astute move later in the year.  October and November were tough months, with wins coming few and far between. Phaneuf and Armstrong would be lost due to injury and suddenly it was 2011 and the Leafs were double digits behind the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

January brought on a renaissance of sorts. No trades, no new coach, but great changes all around starting with bringing up James Reimer from the Marlies and starting him on 1 January against Ottawa. Talk about throwing a kid to the wolves!  Buddy, we just want you to play against our provincial rivals in your first game.  Think you can handle it? Sure, coach – the kid pitches a 5-1 win, the start of a 20-8-5 record to date.

Keith Aulie was brought up for the second time and showed exactly why he was the ‘must-have’ in the Phaneuf trade from Brian Burke’s point of view.  Steady and reliable, with a few of the usual rookie mistakes, Aulie comes as advertised. He even threw in a couple of fights and a couple of goals for good measure. And while he was paired with Phaneuf as a mentor, he was said to have settled down the other big man as well.

Phaneuf himself started to show the qualities that were evident earlier in his career when he was considered Norris Trophy worthy.  Big open ice hits, points (8G,22A,30P) and leadership – all brought on by growing confidence in his game.  He limited erratic play and costly giveaways while dragging the team on his back some nights.

Luke Schenn continued to be the steady hand on the back end, eating up minutes in all situations and contributing more offensively.  Komisarek improved by making things simple. His ice time was cut back, far from what he was used to, but he showed he could be reliable in that reduced role. Carl Gunnarson experienced more growing pains than expected before rounding into shape and contributing in a manner similar to his rookie year.

This must have been what Brian Burke meant when he said it was crucial to build a team from the goal out, right?  From January to now, the Leafs have been the 4th best team in the league and primarily because the defence and goaltending have greatly improved.  Reimer provides solid, confident goaltending, and the team is obviously buoyed when he starts and feel like he can make the save when they make mistakes.  The defence has played solid defence, and have also started to contribute some points, key to being a winning team. This even after they traded away Tomas Kaberle.

Also key to their revival was the continuing performance of the Grabovski line and the emergence of Kessel’s scoring touch.  Despite the lack of production from Bozak (who managed to improve in other ways, such as his face-off touch) and less than stellar contributions in the points column from Kris Versteeg, the forward corps started coming to life.

Further changes came via the trade market. Versteeg was moved to Philadelphia for their1st  and 3rd round picks in the upcoming draft.  Not having fit in as imagined, the two picks were fair value for a young, scoring forward and gave the Leafs a 1st round pick again, having traded theirs to Boston for Kessel. Francois Beauchemin was sent back to Anaheim for little used and oft-injured Joffrey Lupul and former 1st round pick Jake Gardiner, in the hope that Lupul could regain the form that made him a 1st round pick (7th overall) in 2007. Finally, Tomas Kaberle was traded to Boston for Joe Colborne (1st/16/2008), 1st round pick and a conditional pick if Kaberle signs in Boston.

Only Lupul made an impact with the big team – and it appears that, if healthy, he could be a good pick-up as a decent-sized forward with touch. But the receipt of two 1st round picks and a third round pick, plus highly touted former first rounders Colborne and Gardiner are a good additions to the prospect larder.  In addition, there is Matt Frattin (4th/99/2007) who is in the running for this year’s Hobey Baker Award.

A larder stocked with a number of bona-fide prospects, a few draft picks coming this year and a young team fresh off a solid and cohesive second half, all in all, these Maple Leafs look like the real thing. Go Leafs Go!

 

ps. Can’t wait for the draft – let’s see what magic BB can pull with those picks in hand?

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