– November 08, 2011; Christopher Granicolo, Howl Staff
Entering Saturday night’s game against the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs were sitting comfortably at the top of the NHL standings. Yes, you heard me correctly: our perennial laughing-stock of a franchise has finally seemed to turn the page and begun to make considerable progress under the Burke regime.
While a short 13 game sample is not a sizable amount to make any definitive statements, it is safe to say that if this team remains healthy then the playoffs will be within grasp for the first time in 7 seasons. The Leafs, who are well known as being slow starters in recent years, have burst out of the gate this season receiving elite-level production from the likes of Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul.
The Leafs are off to their best start since the 1993/94 edition of the team began the season with a 10 game win streak, which culminated in a trip to conference finals. The Leafs are beneficiaries of having their best players playing to their full potential. With Phil Kessel playing like a man possessed atop the NHL in goals and total points, the Leafs have their first chance at having a 50-goal scorer since Dave Andreychuk hit the mark in the 1993/94 season. Kessel recently won the NHL Player of the Month award for the month of October, the first time a Leaf won the award since Felix Potvin in October of ‘93.
Although known to be a streaky scorer and a notoriously quick starter to the season, this is a different Kessel than of years past. At the age of 24, it seems Kessel has finally begun to mature as a hockey player, not being the one-dimensional sniper of seasons past. A testament to this new-found sense of maturity is Kessel’s devotion to team defense, a considerable flaw in his game and a deficiency that saw him benched by coach Wilson last season. Notice Wilson using Kessel in the dying moments of a game to preserve a lead, or even on the penalty kill. Kessel on the PK?! This is simply not the player we have grown to know. A matured Kessel playing to the best of his ability is a recipe for success for this season.
Captain Phaneuf has taken his game to new heights this year. Going into Saturday’s game, Phaneuf was in the top 5 for defenceman scoring with 11 points. It appears that the old Phaneuf is back; the one Burke envisioned when he acquired the disgruntled player from Calgary. Phaneuf’s trademark combination of physicality and offense that made him a fan favourite in Calgary has finally returned, much to the joy of the Leafs Nation.
Joffrey Lupul, who was used as a salary dump in the February trade that saw the Leafs acquire stud prospect Jake Gardiner from Anaheim, has emerged as the unsung hero on this year’s team. Already with a hat-trick on the season, Lupul is tied for most points among left wingers so far. Lupul has developed exceptional chemistry with Phil Kessel, opening up room on the ice for Kessel to rush up the right side and fire off his deadly snap shot.
The requirement of organizational depth has been a mantra Burke has envisioned since taking the GM job. With top-prospect Joe Colborne winning the AHL Player of the Month award for October, the Leafs’ prospect cupboard appears to be bursting at the seams with potential talent. Colborne, who worked on his skating and shot over the summer, has emerged as the Marlies’ best player, and has without question overtaken Nazem Kadri for the organization’s premier offensive prospect. With Jake Gardiner cementing himself as a full-time player on the big club and goaltender Ben Scrivens contributing the best Leafs goaltending performance of the season in his first NHL game, the Leafs can finally boast about depth in all positions.
There are a few blemishes on this glamour, however. Penalty killing and powerplay are still struggling. These two facets of the game are crucial for success over a grueling 82 game schedule and the Leafs will definitely have to improve at least their penalty killing, which was last in the league entering Saturday’s game.
With a solid core group of elite level talent entering their prime and potential stars in the making looking for their shot with the big club, the Leafs are finally poised for long-term success. About time, really; the Leafs haven’t been in the playoffs since most of us were in elementary school.