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Re-visiting key Leaf themes that are making a difference now; Brunnstrom arrives

Over the course of the first half of the season, I've often touched on certain themes here that are obviously important to the success of the Maple Leafs.  In no particular order these include:

  • How thin the difference can be between winning and losing.  That sounds obvious, but what I have posted regularly is that, sometimes, it just comes down to a fraction of an inch.  As in, a guy may play the way he always plays, but sometimes, his shots (Kessel, for example) just aren’t going in.  When they don’t, we say he’s playing poorly.  When they go in, we say he’s found his game.  Sometimes that’s true.  Other times, it’s just a turn of fortune and the shots are, again, simply finding the net.  Right now, Kessel and others are finding the mark.
  • Starting maybe a dozen or so games ago, maybe more, I suggested that the Leafs would need to get out-of-this-world goaltending from somebody to get the team going on the right track. I hoped it would be Gustavsson, who at various times in his two seasons here has seemed poised to take that proverbial “next step”.  Instead, it is young Reimer who is running with the ball.  Regardless, the Leafs are, for the moment, getting the “no-freebies plus some great saves” goaltending most clubs need to have success.
  • With that as a backdrop, I had also suggested that that kind of goaltending could propel a team on a run where they win, say, ten out of twelve games.  It could all end very suddenly, of course, but for now, the Leafs are in the midst of a nice run that could lead to something along those lines.  Confidence is a funny thing.  It spreads.
  • The Eastern Conference, and the frailty of most of the teams in the East, has been the subject of many columns here.  The fact is there are very few truly elite teams in the East, and there is no reason—if the Leafs play reasonably well in the second half of the season—that they can’t compete for a playoff spot.  And I mentioned this long before this nice little streak.  The East is wide open, in terms of the playoff picture.  Most teams are limited in terms of high-end skill and go through highs and lows.
  • Grabovski’s emergence has been central to the recent Leaf fortunes.  I say this not only because he is playing well now, but because he was there and essentially leading the way when the team was really struggling.  He helped them win some games that could have gone the other way, and if the Leafs do earn success in the second half (still a big if, we all realize), he will have been one of the guys responsible for keeping their heads above water when times were tough.
  • Kessel’s consistency always feels like less of an issue when he’s scoring—as he is now.  The issue I raised a little while ago is that the team needs him to score now, when the Leafs are still fighting for something, and not just in March when the playoffs are no longer a reality.  For the moment, he is delivering. The key will be if he can do this more consistently going forward.  His final stats always look fine.  It’s when he scores that’s important.
  • Schenn’s emergence as a big-minute, (and now) shut-down type of defenseman has also been monitored here.  At 21, he is playing with confidence and if he continues on this path—a guy who plays key minutes, takes on the other team’s good players and can dish out physical punishment along the boards and in front of the net and move the puck safely—then Leaf fans won’t be able to complain about that draft choice at all.
  • Special teams are an old story, but it has often been the case, in Wilson’s years here, that the team just didn’t kill penalties as well as we assumed a Wilson-coached team would.  But watching the PK against San Jose in the second period on Tuesday night, they just looked different, somehow.  Busy sticks, quick all over the ice, determined, not just standing around waiting to chase.  I’m sure the coaches aren’t teaching anything “new”.  It has to be guys having the confidence to do the job (we’re back to confidence).  But strong special teams would obviously be a huge help in the second half.

So with a few wins under their belt, is all good in Leafland?

Well, even weak teams can go on a run.  The key is being able to sustain a level of consistency in their play—and getting results.

Reimer has provided, as I mentioned above, the kind of goaltending that can carry a team at times.  Now, it would be expecting a lot to hope that he can pull a Ken Dryden (see 1970-’71, though it was much later in the season) and lead the Leafs out of the wilderness.  Goalies tend to run hot and cold, and things can shift pretty quickly.  But Reimer presents as someone who is handling this in stride.  Whether he does indeed go back to the Marlies or stays here, he knows—and the Leafs know—he can play.

That said, I believe the Leafs need Gustavsson to play like he can, too.  And Giguere, for that matter, when he comes back healthy.  As much as we can enjoy what Reimer is doing, there are many examples of young goalies who have come up and looked like Jacques Plante early in their NHL career. (Mike Moffat with the Bruins in the 1980s, Jim Carey with the Capitals in the '90s are two that come to mind. And they were indeed fine young goalies.  But they weren’t, for whatever reason, able to sustain a level of success at the NHL level.)  So the Leafs need all hands on deck.  And I’d like to see Gustavsson feeling good about himself.

Crabb and Boyce are the “call-ups” who have indeed injected a little heart and resolve into the club’s backbone.  That’s great to see.  But at the same time, the challenge will be maintaining that early enthusiasm over the course of a rugged NHL stretch drive.  If they can do it, that would be a huge, unexpected bonus.

Leaf world always looks better when Kessel is scoring.  Will he continue to score, or will he go through another extended drought, as occurred earlier this season, and for long stretches last year?  They need him to be good a lot, scoring goals and playing well all over the ice.  As assistant coach Tim Hunter told the Globe this week, there are guys on the team that can score, but they need to be better at all the things that make a player an all-around contributor—defensive play, play away from the puck, going to the net, etc.

It’s always easy, as a fan, to pick out the flaws and faults when a team is struggling, and hand out the kudos when a team is winning.  That’s part of the fun of being a fan.

With a run of big wins heading into the Phoenix game, including on the road against some good Western teams, it’s OK to feel good.  But Leaf fans know there is always something just around the corner.  So enjoy for now.  We may have a different discussion in a few weeks.


A few days ago, I was among those who wondered if the Leafs had tried to acquire Wolski, a talented but already twice-traded young forward.  Now, we find out they have brought in young Fabian Brunnstrom.  Wasn't he the undrafted free-agent the Leafs tried to sign in the summer of '08?  He seemed to be a hot property at the time.

In any event, Burke must figure that a guy who scored 17 goals in only 55 games as a rookie two years ago is worth a shot.  Sometimes a player finds his stride with a new team.  It's likely a case of two teams hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.  Brunnstrom turns 26 in February, so he's not exactly a kid.  But unless the younger Stefanovich has an impact over time in Dallas, Leaf fans will likely endorse Burke taking a shot.  I'm guessing Assistant GM Dave Nonis has followed Brunnstrom's progress and said this was worth a shot, given that Nonis was close to signing Brunnstrom before he was fired as GM in the spring of '08.

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