Heading into the 2013 NHL season, expectations were low in the minds of many fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Blue and White looked decent on paper, there were still a number of concerns facing the Maple Leafs, including the lack of a true number one centre, a paltry defense and a pair of otherwise unknown goaltenders manning the pipes.
The Maple Leafs finished the 2011-12 season in 26th place, twelve points out of a playoff spot. Defensively, the team was a disaster, finishing 29th in goals against (3.16) and 28th on the
penalty kill at a success rate of 77.3 percent.
On the bright side, the Leafs established themselves as one of the leagues best teams offensively, finishing the 2011-12 season ranked tenth in goals scored (2.77 per game) and on the power play where they earned a success rate of 18.4 percent.
Clearly, if the Maple Leafs were to have success in 2013 they would have to tighten things up defensively, shore up their ugly penalty kill and get a Herculean from both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens between the pipes.
While change often falls on the shoulders of individuals, it would be a team effort and buying into head coach Randy Carlyle’s system that is turning around the Maple Leafs fortunes in 2013.
Like many coaches, Carlyle demands a concerted effort from every player. His attention to detail, ability to make shrewd line changes and his penchant for dressing a tough lineup have been paying dividends in the area that counts most— results.
Carlyle’s willingness to give top minutes to players such as, Nazem Kadri (who leads the team in points with 21), Cody Franson (who started out as an afterthought and is averaging over 18 minutes per game), Michael Kostka and Mark Fraser (two virtual unknowns getting important minutes on defense) and showing great confidence in Tyler Bozak as his number one centre is a testament to Carlyle’s ability to think outside the box where others would have gone with the status quo and failed.
Other unsung hero’s playing a role with the club include Jay McClement, who has been excellent on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, Colton Orr and Frazer Mclaren have brought a measure of toughness to the lineup which was so sadly missed during the Ron Wilson years.
With 22 games in the books the Blue and White currently sit sixth in the Eastern Conference standings (8th overall), sitting ahead of power house teams such as the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers.
Statistically, the Maple Leafs are getting it done at both ends of the ice. Offensively, the Buds are averaging 2.91 goals per game, a slight improvement on last years average of 2.77. On the power play, the Blue and White are humming along at a 16.5 percent success rate, which is a drop from their 18.4 percent success rate in 2011-12.
While the Maple Leafs offense remains potent, their defense has improved dramatically. Despite an early season injury to starter James Reimer which forced backup Ben Scrivens into duty, the Buds have averaged just 2.50 goals against per game— down more than a half a goal per game from last seasons 3.16 goals against per game.
On the penalty kill, the Maple Leafs have shown incredible improvement, averaging 81.7 percent this season compared to 77.3 percent in 2011-12. On paper a little over four percent increase doesn’t look like very much, but it is enough of an improvement to see the Leafs go from 28th overall in 2011-12 to a very respectable 15th overall in 2013.
The improvements the club has made on the defensive side of the puck have shown up in the players’ plus/minus results. Nazem Kadri currently sits at a plus-11, Cody Franson also sits at a plus-11, Phil Kessel sits at a minus-1 (he finished the 2011-12 season at minus-10 and was a minus-20 the year before, while Mark Frazer leads the team with a plus-15 rating.
Another player that has made huge strides in the plus/minus department is veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles, who has seen his numbers go from a minus-14 in 2011-12 to a plus-2 in 2013.
As great as the Maple leafs have been through 22 games, there is still room for improvement. The trio of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur (combined 13 goals) continue to struggle to find the back of the net, while Captain Dion Phaneuf is sitting with a minus-7 rating.
While his overall play seems to be better, sniper Phil Kessel has just four goals thus far. The Maple Leafs will need Kessel to find his scoring prowess if they are going to enjoy second half success.
In terms of early season MVP’s the Maple leafs have several candidates. Thought to be hard-pressed to make the team out of camp, Nazem Kadri leads the Maple Leafs with 21 points. His energy, creativity and (dare I say) two-way play, have been amongst the teams’ best night-in, night-out.
In the absence of Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk has stepped up his game, leading the team in goals scored with 12, which ranks him fourth overall in the NHL.
Meanwhile, Both James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have been putting up excellent numbers between the pipes with Reimer registering a 2.47 goals against average and a 0.922 save percentage, while Scrivens sits at a 2.41 GAA and a 0.923 SV%. Combined, Reimer and Scrivens have helped the Maple Leafs to a record of 13-9-0, registering three shutouts along the way.
Kari, JVR, Scrivens and Reimer are all worthy of MVP status in their own way, but for my money, it has been the play of JVR that stands out the most.
The biggest disappointment thus far has to be the uninspired play of defenseman Mike Komisarek, who, after getting every opportunity to be successful from Carlyle and Wilson before him, has fallen flat on his face, all but eliminating him from the lineup on a nightly basis. Expectations were low for Komisarek heading into the 2013 season, unfortunately, he has sunk to an all-time low and now must face the possibility that his days as an NHL player are all but finished.
Going forward, Carlyle will continue to play the hot hand between the pipes, make changes to his lineup on a nightly basis and ask his players to pay attention to detail at both ends of the ice. Make no mistake about it, despite the teams’ attention to defense, the Maple Leafs are an exciting team to watch and, as a result, for the first time in years, are in the conversation as a playoff team in March!