A quick look at the current NHL standings in the Eastern Conferences shows the Maple Leafs, not surprisingly, hovering near the bottom of the list. While they have certainly been in games almost every night, we all understand that they lack some of the ingredients that would see them playing at a higher level.
But given that our expectations were so meager heading into this season anyway, I’d rather look at hopeful signs instead of trying to parse all the things that need to be better. As we have discussed here before, by the time this team is (presumably) ready to “contend”, it will be a very different roster than the one we are viewing this season.
So what’s gone well?
I guess most of us have liked what we have seen from Rielly and certainly Komarov. I’m not sure I should mention Reimer as a surprise, but he has indeed played well enough to deserve credit for fighting through a fair bit of hockey adversity the last few years. He’s done enough to make an impression on Babcock, who seemed to be looking more Bernier’s way when the season began. (One side thought on Reimer: hopefully his day-to-day lower-body issue doesn’t become something much more significant. We often see teams announce that someone should be back fairly soon, only to discover over time that the player is not responding to rest or treatment, and suddenly it’s a more concerning injury—and a lot of unexpected missed time.)
I don’t think the individual stats mean much this season, again, in the sense that this is a stop gap/hybrid transition year that is simply bridging us to a younger and more talented roster down the road. That said, especially for a guy who supposedly wanted out of Dodge very badly ten months ago, Phaneuf has done his job. The Captain leads the team in points (again, this all relative, as the numbers for most Leaf forwards are quite modest), but he is also ‘plus’ player and still logs significant minutes, though not the kind of time he did years gone by.
Bozak and JVR lead the forwards in terms of point production, and Rielly, as I write this, is right there with Dion, though his plus/minus is on the wrong side of the ledger by a fair bit. But both he and Gardiner are playing over twenty minutes a night and my guess is Babcock is quite pleased with their progress. It’s very much time for Gardiner to make his move, and Rielly is still trending as everyone has hoped.
But the guy for me who has probably rekindled a bit of Leaf-related enthusiasm is Komarov. He is the kind of throwback player I’ve always liked. (I was always a Bert Olmstead, Brian Spencer, Bob Gainey, John Tonnelli, Terry O’Reilly kind of guy. Olmstead, a key cog on the 1962 Leaf Cup winner after years with the Montreal Canadiens, passed away recently...) Komarov was as advertised his first year in the NHL with the blue and white, coming out of relative hockey anonymity to create havoc everywhere he went. He finished his checks and was a steady, irritating presence, the kind of wonderful agitator really good teams need. (I'm not suggesting Komarov is in the same league as the players I mentioned, but he gives everything he has, which is what I have always expected from anyone wearing the Leaf crest.)
We were all disappointed that he went back to the KHL that next season, and he was missed, for sure. The seemingly innocuous hit from Ovechkin a while back sent him backwards for quite some time, but he is back to his irritating self while giving the team a bit of an edge again. He is getting ice time and putting up points to boot, so he stands for now as my most impressive, encouraging-to-watch Leaf—though I recognize that Reimer may belong in that discussion as well.
Other Leafs that have had their moments? Kadri, for sure, despite not having much luck around the net so far. Holland as well, after his early season Babcock-induced absence from the lineup. Hunwick is playing over 22 minutes a night; he has been a nice acquisition. And Polak has been steady after seeming to be a press box candidate earlier in the year.
Others have made a contribution to making the Leafs a generally grittier, harder to play against bunch, which is not something we have always seen in recent times (though, in fairness, they were also harder to play against in the lockout-shortened year when they made the playoffs…). But I guess my focus today is on some of the players who may well be here when that (inevitable?) turnaround occurs.
Who have been pleasant Leaf surprises for you so far this season?