The Leafs are exactly halfway through their 48-game schedule and things have gone much better than expected.
Though it’s always too early to start uttering the word “playoffs” around Leaf Land, this is the midway point and the Leafs look miles ahead of last year’s squad. Toronto sits just two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and have rattled off seven wins in the last 10 games. At the centre of the success: Randy Carlyle.
Carlyle has been touted as a detail freak and someone who believes there is always an area in need of improvement. With nearly every facet of Toronto’s game train-wrecking last season’s playoff hopes, it seemed Carlyle’s hands would be unbearably full.
Leaf fans will be the first to point out the systematic flaws in past teams under different coaches. Blowing big leads seemed to be Toronto’s stamp on the league during the playoff drought.
Although special teams sputtered early on, the Leafs have moved into the top half of the NHL in both departments with 24 games remaining. Execution on special teams is always the mark of a coaching staff.
Since 2007, the Leafs’ penalty kill has finished in the bottom three every single year, finishing dead last twice during the stint. The PK’s highest rank since the 2004-05 labour dispute was the the 2005-06 season when it ranked 24th. It’s no wonder the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since the previous lockout.
Aside from the improved defensive play, consistent scoring and steady goaltending, team toughness has made the Leafs a team to be reckoned with in the NHL. Long gone are the days when teams come in to the Air Canada Centre and push the men in blue around.
Toronto leads the league in major penalties and in fights. Despite Mike Brown’s departure, Frazer McLaren and Colton Orr made a statement in the early going of the Senators game Wednesday night and made it clear the team hadn’t lost an ounce of its renowned toughness. McLaren may have a few less dancing partners around the league after his vicious knockout of David Dziurzynski less than a minute into the game.
Things are going well in Leafs Nation and it should only get better from here with Joffrey Lupul and Matt Frattin on the verge of returning to the lineup. Jake Gardiner’s status, however, remains unknown with rumours that he’ll stay with the Marlies for the remainder of the season.
It’s hard to pin-point an area that needs significant improvement in the Leafs’ game. Phil Kessel seems to be finding his groove silently amid Nazem Kadri’s trail of fire in the last few games. And to say James van Riemsdyk’s value has been worth the trade of Luke Schenn would be a serious understatement. Cody Franson has also been quietly living up to his contract with notable improvements to his game all around.
All in all, the Leafs are a solid unit, from the forwards right on through the back end. I know I should bite my tongue because the season isn’t over. It does, however, seem more promising than any other year since the last lockout.
TSN reported during the game Wednesday that Carlyle hasn’t brushed last season’s result under the rug. Especially since the Leafs are, for the most part, the same team as last year. He reminds them of the meltdown to get his message across and to never take a night off.