I know, Leaf world has been a “Cup-free” zone for a few years. Well, 45, actually. (As an aside, I’ve never quite been sure what a full “generation” entails, so I’m not really certain how many generations that covers but suffice to say there are fully grown people, some with grandkids, who don’t know what it’s like to cheer for a Maple Leaf championship team…)
But with that sobering opening behind us, we can talk about the present rather than the past. So where are we now, as we mark the 10-game point (11, yes, but detail is not always my area of expertise)?
Well, to be honest, better than I thought they’d be. Probably better than many (most?) Leaf fans figured they would be. The team’s record of 7 wins, 3 losses and 1 OT loss stands them in good stead, for what it’s worth, this early in the NHL season. But more importantly, there are specific reasons that I believe Leaf supporters can feel rightly optimistic about not just just some uncertain timeline in the future, but this very season.
Let’s see if you tend to agree with any of the following, as causes for not undue optimism:
- The Leafs have achieved their (albeit modest) early-success success without operating at anywhere near full capacity. Let’s start with special teams. It’s a familiar refrain, to be sure, but if a team rarely scores when they have a man advantage but allows the other team to score at a pretty good clip when they have a power play, generally you are a team doomed to failure. So if the Leafs improve in even one of these important areas over at least some of the rest of the season, how significant could that be?
- My sense is that despite some nice wins so far, Leaf fans—ever hopeful and yet feeling like they are always about to step on a grenade simultaneously—are nervous about the team’s defense. Everyone loves what Phaneuf has done so far in terms of his play at both ends of the ice and about his apparent leadership impact. Young Gardiner has also turned heads, but Twitter updates reveal a nervousness about our “D” not uncommon with a franchise and team that hasn’t won a lot in the past seven or eight seasons. But if the overall Leaf defense pairings have been less than perfect so far, where might the team end up if the “top-six” blueliners all start to perform to their capabilities?
- To this end, I must mention Luke Schenn. Last year he was often playing upwards 25 minutes a game. His sometimes uncertain play so far this year has landed him with fewer minutes, but we know he is capable of playing a simple, tough, eliminate-your-man kind of game. If he can regain whatever lost confidence or mojo or whatever it is, he will be an invaluable presence on the penalty kill and as a shutdown defensemen—as he was at times last season.
- The "second line", as we like to call them, has shown us glimpses of the kind of productivity that they have demonstrated in the past. But we all believe they can do much more, and we may be starting to see it already. My man Kulemin (who I have written about glowingly for a couple of years now) can be even better and I think he will be. Grabbo is working and once the puck starts to go in for him a bit more regularly, we will have our number-two/almost number-one line back in order. Again, the Leafs have managed what they have with comparably little from this unit until the last couple of games, and that surely will change.
- While James Reimer can rightly take credit for a fair bit of the opening-season four game winning streak, his injury has necessitated a return to prominence of The Monster. Most Leaf fans are hoping Reimer will return healthy and strong and ready to resume his position as the “number-one”. But it is refreshing to be able to feel (if somewhat nervously at times) that Gustavsson can indeed win some games and take the reins if and when necessary to not only keep the team afloat, but winning more often than not.
- While no one can argue with the offensive productivity of Lupul and Kessel through this first segment of games, this has been accomplished without the availability of a bona fide, proven “first-line” NHL center. Bozak, Steckel and now Connolly (off the injured list) have provided variety, but not continuity. What might happen if Connolly (or anyone else, for that matter) emerges as that trigger man that will make the wingers even more productive?
- The youngsters, and I’m thinking specifically of Kadri and Frattin, have barely contributed offensively yet this season, but both have played largely hard and well when given the opportunity. Kadri will likely put up big points with the Marlies while waiting for a recall (unless he has grown discouraged and weary of his ongoing yo-to life with the Leafs); Frattin is playing some key minutes and could have half a dozen goals by now. Once they start to go in, Frattin should be even more relaxed and productive, assuming he doesn't join Kadri with the Marlies.
- Depth. While I don’t think we are there yet with the roster mix, especially in the “top-six”, this team has depth in all positions: goal, defense and on the forward lines. Before the season goes too far, we will likely need the 8 NHL-ready defensemen in the system, including Aulie—and maybe more (Lashoff, Finger and Holzer make us 11-deep, which is ideal).
- Also waiting for his chance is young Colborne. We know he is putting up points with the AHL team and no doubt would love the chance to strut his stuff on the big-league stage. That may come sooner than later but for now, it’s good to know the Leafs have not had to accelerate his development unnecessarily to accommodate a need like they had last season when they rushed Kadri up prematurely.
- The Leafs have cap space and roster flexibility to make trades at a time that suits them, and that should come in handy between now and February.
Will all of the above happen? I mean, will Schenn be better, will special teams improve significantly, will our “second-line” recapture last year’s prominence, etc.?
We can’t know for sure, but the team has demonstrated they can pick up wins and points in the standings even when they are not operating at full throttle. If they ever do, well, that’s why I’m suggesting there is legitimate cause for some at least cautious optimism.