Starting any NHL season with four wins in five games is superb. Exciting for the players and the fans. And the Toronto Maple Leafs’ start is just that. Most experts agreed that the Leafs would be a different, more energetic team this year, but I don’t think anyone imagined the Leafs having nine points through five games.
There are several key reasons why the Leafs haven’t lost in regulation yet. The goaltending has been solid. At times, it’s been great. Which is a LOT more than you could say about Vesa Toskala or Andrew Raycroft in recent seasons. And Clarke MacArthur has stunned everyone with his goal-scoring start. But what’s really impressed me is the rock-solid play of Toronto’s blueliners – especially the big four.
Captain Dion Phaneuf, François Beauchemin, Luke Schenn and Tomas Kaberle are all playing just under 25 minutes per game. Each taking some 27 or 28 shifts per night. What’s most noticeable is that all of them are playing within themselves. Playing the game they’re best suited to play. No one is trying to be Superman.
Kaberle has always been able to move the puck. He is a skilled passer and skater. If scoring is required from the Leafs’ blueline, Kaberle is your man. But, when things are going well, there can be a tendency to try and push for more. Try to become an even more offensive player. Kaberle has simply been taking what’s been given to him by the opposition. Nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps it’s because the pressure of wearing an “A” on his jersey has been removed. Either way, he is doing exactly what Ron Wilson needs him to do.
Kaberle is paired with third-year man Luke Schenn. In junior with Kelowna, and in his first two seasons with the Leafs, Schenn has not been a point-producer. Even though he was taken fifth overall, Luke is a stay-at-home type. His three points and +3 rating are a bonus. A big one.
Beauchemin’s play has been what was hoped when he arrived from Anaheim. When his partner, Dion Phaneuf, takes off, Beauchemin stays back. He adds a crucial component to the blueline and the Leafs’ dressing room. He has won a Stanley Cup. Did that with Jiggy in 2007 in Anaheim.
But it’s Captain Dion who has performed above and beyond. Almost 25 minutes of ice time per game – the highest on the club. Twenty shots on goal – second only to Phil Kessel’s 21. He was a key presence in front of Rangers’ netminder Henrik Lundqvist on Kessel’s overtime goal last Friday. And, when the Leafs were frantically trying to pull it out in the final moments against the Islanders, Phaneuf was everywhere. Trying to be the guy to win it. He and Kaberle are the best bets for offense from the blueline.
Mike Komisarek is only seeing about 13 minutes a game. Struggling a bit to find his way. And, against the Islanders, Brett Lebda finally made his first appearance of the season, replacing Carl Gunnarsson.
Keep an eye on the Leafs’ blueliners. If the club begins to slip offensively – remember, they only scored once on Dwayne Roloson on Monday – the blueline will be key. And, so far, they have been very impressive.