Maple Leafs Panel is a weekly feature that is published every Monday here on The Hockey Writers. It is a feature where THW Toronto Maple Leafs correspondents Lukas Hardonk, Mark Ascione and Alex Mamalis answer three questions that concern the Maple Leafs each week. To catch up on previous editions, click here.
Question: Everyone knows that the Leafs have a history of turning it on once the New Year hits. Now with a 3-0-0 record in 2012, are we seeing the real Maple Leafs team, or is this just a hot streak?
Lukas Hardonk: The Leafs have clearly picked up their play in categories that they were struggling with in 2011, such as the penalty kill. While it would be nice to say that we are now seeing the real Maple Leafs, it is hard to be convinced that this isn’t just another hot streak that every team goes through.
There are currently too many questions surrounding the Maple Leafs, just as there was prior to the beginning of the season. These include the goaltending, scoring depth and just how much special teams have improved. Certainly positive contributions from the likes of Nazem Kadri and now Keith Aulie have helped, but can it continue? There’s still plenty of hockey to be played.
Mark Ascione: Unfortunately, these swoons are common under Ron Wilson. In 2010-11: a 8-15-3 record in November and December; in 2009-10: 1-7-4 October, 3-10-2 January. Being a .500 team the rest of the time, the slide kills any chance of making playoffs. Perhaps this year will be different.
They banked some points and the return of injured players will help a lot. Playing .500 the rest of the way gives them only 85 points, they need to be about .615 to have a chance. With nine of 12 games in January at home (and one in Buffalo), they need to build some momentum. If they are a playoff team, we will know by February 1. Victories against Tampa Bay, Winnipeg and Detroit make for a great start.
Alex Mamalis: As we often said early in the season with these Leafs, it’s too soon to judge. On one hand, Toronto has made it a post-lockout habit of beginning a second half surge in January, so that three game winning streak is encouraging. However, on the other hand, Toronto has always mightily struggled the first half on those occasions.
Evidently, this year is different, because they were 18-15-5 before their current streak. That’s a record that is unmatched from previous Toronto teams post-lockout. The signs are encouraging – Kessel and Lupul don’t seem to want to slow down, Jonas Gustavsson’s game has picked up and the Mac-in-Russia line is starting to rekindle their lost magic as well. But going back to my initial point, it’s much too early to determine anything. The positives are there, but there is still some sampling to do.
Question: James Reimer hasn’t exactly been solid since he returned from a head injury that he suffered way back on October 22. With his shaky play, the job has been given to Jonas Gustavsson, or at least for the moment. With three straight wins, do you believe Gustavsson is now the Leafs’ No. 1 goalie, or should the job still be Reimer’s?
Lukas Hardonk: I personally believe that a lot of Leaf fans do not want to see the job given to Jonas Gustavsson not only because of the Swede’s history, but also because of what we have seen from James Reimer in the past. That’s where the problem lays: A lot of people are currently stuck in the past with this controversy, which is unfair to both goalies.
Gustavsson has been the Leafs’ net for all three victories in 2012, giving him a 3-0-0 record this year. He also owns a .933 save percentage over that stretch and made 37 saves on Saturday night against Detroit. Do I think the job is Gustavsson’s? Not entirely, but as long as the Leafs are in the midst of a playoff race, the nod must be given to the hot hand.
Mark Ascione: James Reimer is still the guy long-term; I thought Wilson leaned on him too much since coming off the “concussion-like” injury. Gustavsson has been shaky at times, but solid enough to keep them in games. Reimer actually has decent numbers, overall better than Gustavsson, except in the win column.
For one reason or another, Gustavsson is getting better goal support. I doubt the team has lost confidence in Reimer, but I think they have shown a little more confidence with Gustavsson recently. With no hands down starter, there’s no reason to start one in 11 of 13 games, as that ratio is way out of whack. The team cannot rely on one being the No. 1.
Alex Mamalis: Something that has been absent from Wilson’s tenure as coach is the idea of “playing the hot hand” in net. Toskala, Giguere, Reimer and even Gerber all experienced too much playing time, because they were Wilson’s designated No. 1 goalie. This season, Gustavsson has found his stride as an NHL goalie and Wilson has adapted to his improved play greatly.
At first, Wilson rightfully stuck to Reimer. After all Reimer did last year, he should not have lost any playing minutes because of his injury. However, Gustavsson has not only earned starts over Reimer, he’s legitimately threatened Reimer’s position as No. 1. I say if Gustavsson is winning games, you play him no matter the situation of Reimer. It’s the simple tactic of “win and you’re in.”
Question: A lot of change has been made to the Leafs’ bottom-six recently, most notably the fourth line. From Orr, Frattin and Dupuis’ demotions to Mike Brown’s return, it seems as though the fourth line has been nothing but a revolving door lately. Given the Leafs’ current situation, what would you consider an ideal fourth unit?
Lukas Hardonk: Most people don’t value a team’s fourth line at all, and they should. The bottom-six guys can change the complexion of a game by pumping energy into their bench in various ways that the top two lines probably aren’t willing to do. The Leafs are lucky enough to have some of those types of players.
Mike Brown is someone who is very useful five-on-five and on the penalty kill. Darryl Boyce has also proven to be useful over the last couple seasons with his speed and energy, while David Steckel is a staple at the faceoff dot and his crucial to the PK. Ideally, the Leafs should be happy to carry a fourth line of Brown, Steckel and Boyce.
Mark Ascione: Nothing personal, but I like that Dupuis and Orr have been sent to the Marlies; neither were contributing with the Leafs. The return of Lombardi and Brown are obvious upgrades over what they were working with. I can’t say I have a set fourth line, but without Armstrong, it’s Steckel, Lombardi, Boyce and Brown.
Steckel is not an ideal penalty killer in my opinion and I’ve seen Dupuis actually had better numbers than Boyce on the PK. In Steckel and Lombardi you have good faceoff ability and speed. Brown is tough and he along with Boyce are good energy guys and corner men. I think they can be the type of line who can carry a forecheck between shifts of the offensive lines, something the Leafs could use.
Alex Mamalis: Every successful team needs a bona fide fourth line just as much as a first line. Boston, Detroit, Chicago and Vancouver all have complete fourth lines. A complete fourth line in my opinion is one that agitates and defends its team, but also one that can let their presence be known without throwing fists or checks.
I believe Toronto has two spots locked up in Steckel at centre and Brown on the right wing. The third left wing spot is still up for grabs and that’s one that needs solidifying going forward. Boyce and Crabb are three players vying for that spot right now. Logically, Frattin moves up to the second line by next season, meaning Toronto will need a permanent fourth liner. It could be Crabb or Boyce; however, if either falters, a comparable player to that of Shawn Thornton, Justin Abdelkader, or Maxim Lapierre will be needed.