When I was a kid, in the pre-1967 expansion days, the NHL regular season was 70 games. Six teams played each other 14 times a season. Can you imagine? It wasn’t hard to build rivalries when you played each other that often, often on back-to-back nights. And then, you often played six or seven more games against them in the playoffs.
Rosters did not change anywhere near as often back then, so things got just a bit testy when guys lined up against each other (three lines per team, generally four defensemen only) so often.
The schedule increased to like 74 games after 1967 when the league jumped to 12 teams, and eventually has climbed to today’s standard of 82, which brings us to the end of the regular season by early to mid-April- which is when the playoffs would end in the 1950s.
But in the day, as it were, 35 games was when Leaf fans knew whether it looked like a good season was in the making, or not. That was the official mid-way point of the season.
So as we hit the modern-day mid-way point in the schedule for the Maple Leafs (41 games), here is a look at things we know, and some things we still don’t know for sure.
We do know that:
- This is an entertaining team. Overall they are fast, often hard on the puck and can make plays at top speed. Speed is so important (always has been) and the Leafs have a lot of it when they use it effectively. Their overall style of play is certainly more fun to watch than say, the Lightning or the Devils.
- Phaneuf is having his best season since he was a First Team end-of-season All-Star with Calgary a few years ago, when he was still a relative kid.
- Kessel is playing like a true All-Star, as well. There may not be a more dangerous player in the NHL right now. He is playing with confidence, flair, making plays for his linemates and finishing more consistently than ever before. When he breaks out of his own zone at full throttle he is a sight to behold—unless you are an opposing defenseman.
- I’m going to say Lupul has been the team’s most valuable player (though I’m happy to hear arguments to the contrary). I say this because I think he has helped bring Kessel’s game to a different level, and seems to be a guy who hates to lose, who can inspire his teammates to stay strong when things took difficult. He helps the team believe they can come from behind, something they have done pretty well this season with a number of very strong third-period performances.
- The penalty-kill has been, well, let's just say ineffective in the first half. But in the past three games, it has been better. The apparent improvement comes on the heels of a good old-fashioned on-ice debate (argument?) a week ago at Leaf practise, involving players and coaches. We'll see if this lasts.
- Kadri and Frattin, two young forwards, have shown they can play at this level. Both have spent time with the Marlies, but both have also shown some flair.
- For me, Gardiner was the surprise of the first half. (Lupul a close second...but I didn't even think Gardiner should be on the big squad, much less playing significant minutes most nights.)
- Bozak has taken some real strides in his overall game. Confidence sure matters. Experience, too.
- Gunnarsson, to me, should remain a "must-keep" Leaf, but he may be one of the only trading pieces that would help bring a difference-maker in return.
- Gabovski has had an excruciatingly middlish start to the season after a breakout 2010-'11. He has looked more like himself in recent games. Kulemin is working but still has no confidence in his shot, with only 4 goals at the half-way point.
We don’t know:
- When or if Burke will make a move to bring in another offensive threat- or a shut-down defenseman. We do know he has depth on the blueline as trade bait—if he feels the team needs an infusion of offense (or that key defenseman) down the stretch.
- If Reimer will still be the undisputed number-one guy in goal again at some point this season. Until Gustavsson's most recent string of impressive games, I was steadfast in my belief that the brass, including Wilson, was/were determined to see that Reimer would be number-one. My rationale was simple. Reimer is the guy they signed as the top guy over the summer, and the goalie who "saved" the team from an even worse fate a year ago. I felt certain Reimer would take the team the rest of the way. I still believe that's what Burke and Wilson want to see, but they also want to make the playoffs. When the season is over, The Monster may still have to find a new home, but at this point in time, he hopefully will be given a real chance to play well- for himself, and for the team.
- If what a year ago, as I mentioned above, was the top-performing Leaf line, Grabovski, MacArthur and Kelemin, will rebound with a more productive second half. It's not that these guys have been terrible, or aren’t generally working hard. They’ve all scored some big goals, but just haven’t been finishing like they did in their breakout season in 2010-’11 (at least Grabbo and Kulemin haven't). Imagine how good the Leafs would look, and where they might be in the standings, if Kessel and Lupul had been supported by last year’s Grabbo line? A resurgence of last year's Grabbo-Kulemin-MacArthur line would surely help.
- Which defenseman will be the odd man out if Liles returns before too long, now that Komisarek is back. As it is, the Leafs have 8 guys who have contributed on the blueline capably this season. And that’s so important heading into the second half of the season- and the playoffs. Teams generally have to be 10-deep on the blueline to go well into the playoff and with what they have on the farm, the Leafs have defensive depth. But two guys will have to sit. Aulie would seem to be one candidate to sit, or return to the Marlies for a time.
- If there is enough overall team toughness to be successful come playoff time.
- Whether the penalty-killing units will pick it up in the second half. Looking at the glass half-full, can you imagine what the Leafs might be able to do if that part of their special teams work kicks it into gear?
We said here early in the season, after the Leafs got off to a nice start (as they had a season ago) that this time it felt different. And with three straight wins in the past week, including a "character"-testing win against a good Detroit team, I still think things are different—and better.
The team has flaws, to be sure, and I do not believe they are a Cup-contending team as things stand now. But they are a playoff team. We’ll find out how much of one in a few months time.