- Where they are currently in the standings
- Higher in the Eastern Conference
- Lower than they are now
When it comes to their actual performance, the same question. Are they, overall, playing:
- As you expected
- Better than you expected
- Worse than you thought they would
Heading into the weekend, the Leafs will be 6th in the Eastern Conference, I believe, with a record (after the shootout loss in Buffalo) of 16 wins, 12 losses and 2 OT losses. That gives them 34 points and from my perspective, they are certainly higher in the standings than I thought they would be, and they are absolutely playing better in most areas than I anticipated.
(With regard to the Buffalo game, far too much happened to cover it all. Brilliant moments—and also numerous eye-popping breakdowns at both ends. There were so many breathtaking plays—some were just about playing hard (e.g. Gunner), some were about hustle (e.g. Kessel saving a late icing call), some were all about skill (Kadri) or guts (van Riemsdyk hobbling around yet creating havoc on the 4-4 goal). Both teams showed some of their best - and worst - traits.
It was alarming and breathtaking all at once—take your pick of the big moments.
Along the way, Reimer was Reimer, giving up goals early but shutting the door late. He made some big-time stops late in the third to ensure an important point.)
I could cite any number of flaws in their play (they still give the puck away too much, lose focus and concentration, etc.), but I also think they have shown vast improvement in key areas. I believe the goaltending has largely been better. (Not always staggeringly good, but good enough to keep us in an awful lot of games.) We have all seen how strong the penalty kill has been (though they did give up some power player goals Thursday night, which was out of character for this team). They are edgier and finish way more checks that the other side “feels”, if you know what I mean. Komarov has certainly helped in that regard. (I don’t know what Komarov’s status is after he was hurt in the second period. After Orr was tossed early and Komarov was injured, the Leafs largely played with three lines as the game went on...) They are harder to play against most nights. No one looks forward to playing the Leafs now, because they hit more and yes, they have guys who can fight.
The McClement factor has been huge, too. Mark Fraser has given us a strong, smart and physical presence on the third defense pair with Franson. That sure doesn’t hurt. (Fraser is still a plus 17.) Kadri has emerged as the most dangerous guy on the ice for the Leafs just about every night. (Heck, just about every shift, it seems.) And that’s saying something on a team that has Phil Kessel flying around as much as he does. The opposition can’t have their shutdown defense pair on the ice against both their lines.
On that note, I’ll say this about Kadri: you want to get a guy going? Play him with Kadri—Frattin. MacArthur. Kulemin. Lupul. They have all benefitted from being on a line with the Leaf center with the sneaky moves and high-end vision. You put Orr out there with Kadri, the line makes plays. He’s making a believer out of a lot of guys. (I’m not comparing him to Dave Keon, but like the former Leaf captain, Kadri draws a lot of penalties against the opposition, another sign of a guy who rattles the other team.) He‘s a player who is fully benefiting from the emphasis on skill over size and also the fact there is less traffic in the neutral zone than there was some years ago. He is free to roam and make those instinctive plays, without being constantly impeded.
As I said to someone here in the comment section this week: beyond saying here often that Kadri was in trade talks off and on the past two seasons while he was being shuffled back and forth between the Marlies and the big club (and I still believe that was the case, whatever may be denied publicly…) I’ve consistently stated two other things here about the young center: I didn’t like the yo-yo he was on, and I didn’t like the public criticism every time he made a “mistake”. If you see my earlier posts, I said many times: just let him play. You cannot play with a piano on your back, and he’s finally being allowed to play his game. And yes, the Eakins influence, plus maturity, strength, it’s all part of his becoming the player the Leafs were hoping for. (And as I used to ask: why was he playing the wing before? I always thought of him as a centre.)
But Kadri aside, this team has survived key injuries to Lupul, Gardiner, Reimer, Frattin and if they haven't always thrived, they have certainly survived.
But what about you? Are they where—and what—you expected? Be honest about what you thought back in early January. Now, more than 30 games into a sprint-to-the-finish NHL season (this year is like a short-track NASCAR race), what do you think about the questions I posed above?