Maple Leafs Panel is a weekly feature that is published every Monday throughout the season here at The Hockey Writers. It’s a feature where THW Editor Lukas Hardonk as well as THW Toronto Maple Leafs correspondents Mark Ascione and Stephen Stoneman answer three questions that concern the Maple Leafs each week. To catch up on previous editions, click here.
Question: The Maple Leafs have been floating around the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference all season long. What will it take for the team to stay in the top eight in order to make the playoffs?
Lukas Hardonk: The big thing about the Eastern Conference so far has been that the teams from second all the way down to tenth are very close. So unlike years past, more than just goaltending and a nice amount of scoring will play a key role in the Leafs’ playoff chances. This time it will take consistent play in all facets of the game and it all begins with the leadership core.
Up front, Phil Kessel appears to have finally found his scoring touch again. Dion Phaneuf still struggles on the back-end but there is reason to believe he will come around relatively soon. In net, James Reimer is off to a hot start and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. These three will need to lead the Leafs at their respective positions to keep the team in the playoff hunt and perhaps compete in the post-season. Once Kessel, Phaneuf and Reimer are all rolling at once, the Maple Leafs will become a tough team to beat on most nights.
Mark Ascione: Simple answer is this team needs to win at home. I believe it will take 55 points to make the playoffs. They cannot sustain a .850-plus road winning percentage and even playing at that rate, they are still not on pace for 55 points with the current home record.
As far as on-ice, they have to do what every good team does: have solid goaltending, make limited mistakes and get offence from all lines. Especially with Joffrey Lupul out of the lineup, it becomes even more important that guys such as James van Riemsdyk, Clarke MacArthur, Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin are contributing. That will allow some pressure to come away from Phil Kessel and make them a more difficult team to defend against.
Stephen Stoneman: The Maple Leafs are not a great team yet. The key word is yet. By continuing to let the young players play they will eventually be much more of a contending team. However, I think in order for this year’s team to make the playoffs, they will need to continue to overachieve. The result thus far has been balanced scoring. Be it Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, Matt Frattin or James van Riemsdyk, the scoring is coming from all three of the top lines and will need to continue for the Leafs to build on their 7-5 start if they hope to emerge as a playoff club.
Question: It took Phil Kessel 11 games to finally score his first goal of the season. We know he is a streaky player, but should a 10-game goalless streak still create concern?
Lukas Hardonk: Similar to the Jason Blake situation, Kessel was coming off a career year when he joined the Leafs. In fact, his 36 goals in 2008-2009 were 17 more than his previous career high that he set the season before. With that, the Leafs knew what they were getting when the traded multiple high draft picks to get Kessel from the Boston Bruins in 2009 but they didn’t know if he could maintain his success from 2008-2009. Still, the Toronto media and fans heralded him as being the Leafs’ next great star.
No one should be too disappointed in Kessel for his 10-game goalless streak. We had all seen this before and everyone is aware that he isn’t exactly the most consistent player in the NHL. Some have tied his lack of success during the early part of the season to the absence of Joffrey Lupul but with a goal in each of his last two games despite playing without Lupul on his line, we’re starting to see the old Phil Kessel again. Goal droughts are nothing new for Kessel, so there is no reason to be concerned.
Mark Ascione: It’s always a concern because you’d like to think that if Kessel can slump for eight or 10 games at a time and still score 35, imagine if he didn’t have those slumps. But I’m not very concerned about Kessel and his slumps. He suffers them regularly and he also suddenly scores in bunches.
Obviously, you want him scoring all the time but even while not scoring he’s been creating lots of chances and he was racking up assists. He’s some what of an underrated play maker and the focus on his scoring or slumping is a little overblown when he is working hard, creating offence and playing a fairly defensively-sound game.
Kessel went through a 14 game stretch last season without a goal and he still wound up with 37. He’s on pace for only eight this season but if he’s having a typical “Phil year” then he’ll have eight in the next ten games. I think it’ll all even out for him.
Stephen Stoneman: If we were talking about the Kessel of three or four years ago, I may be slightly concerned, but not with this year’s Phil. What I am most impressed about this season is the Phil Kessel fight. He is fighting down low for loose pucks and he is not giving up on pucks in the defensive end. It’s not talked about a lot but Kessel does wonders for those around him.
In fact, with a guy like van Riemsdyk on his line who also likes to bulge the twine, you notice Kessel’s instinct to pass up the puck. Either way, there may be ten players in the league that can match Phil Kessel’s speed and shooting ability combined. This was overblown by the main stream media.
Question: With James Reimer playing well and no deal for a veteran number one goalie imminent, should the Maple Leafs deal for a veteran backup and allow Ben Scrivens to play starter in the AHL?
Lukas Hardonk: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is absolutely no reason for the Maple Leafs to swing a deal for Roberto Luongo. The team is making the right decision so far by not acquiring Luongo and it is paying off. Now we’re seeing what Reimer is really capable of and with that, he is proving that he can be the Leafs’ starter in net on a full-time basis. That’s the great news for the Leafs.
The good news is that Scrivens hasn’t played terrible either. He hasn’t played great but he has played well enough to stay in the NHL as a backup. As long as Reimer is able to maintain his current success, Scrivens will only need to be used sparingly, making it unnecessary to move assets the Leafs currently have for a goalie that wouldn’t see much playing time. This also allows Jussi Rynnas, who has played well for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, more time to develop in a starting role.
Mark Ascione: In an earlier edition of Maple Leaf Panel, I advocated Randy Carlyle playing the hot hand in net. After 12 games, I think we’ve observed that James Reimer has been the better of the two goalies overall; it does not appear he’ll be vacating the starter’s job. I think my ideal scenario for the Leafs is to see Reimer establish himself as the number one starter over this shortened season.
Dave Nonis would make a low-risk trade for a veteran back up goalie, something like a third round pick. I’m not giving up on Ben Scrivens. Rather, I think the kind of shaky goaltending we saw in his last game is the result of not playing in 12 days. Scrivens should be playing as number one starter with the Marlies because he needs the work to remain sharp.
Stephen Stoneman: Not at all. The Leafs need to stay the course and let Ben Scrivens experience life as a back up goaltender in the NHL. He will be trained by the Leafs, he will face NHL shots and he will grow as a player. He may not get to start every game but he’ll be there to cheer-lead for his friend and sub in for a tired or shell shocked James Reimer.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the Leafs will go through problems this season even if Reimer continues to play at this torrid pace. The other benefit that this has on the club is that Rynnas and Owuya will get a chance to show the Leafs what they have to offer down on the farm.
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