Over the past five games, the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to test the will of the general fanbase by losing games in every fashion possible. Losing to the Penguins in an uneven game after a shootout, losing to Winnipeg both by blowout and then by comeback-fallen-short rally, losing to Pittsburgh again in an end of game defensive zone implosion, losing to Boston more to keep tradition. Nobody should be overly shocked after last season’s swoon, but nevertheless most people have convinced themselves that this team is different. They no longer have two young unproven goaltenders, at least not ones by the same name. They no longer frequently suffer defensive zone amnesia, except all the statistics available, both advanced and traditional say otherwise. See the pattern.
While the Leafs have still suffered similar defensive zone blunders as teams of recent past, and for some reason they have been sleepwalking into games, this team does have some major improvements. The penalty killing in markedly improved, and has actually become a valuable asset. The defense also seems bigger and less prone to give up inside shots. The biggest difference, by a country mile, is the fact that this team is full of kids.
The last few years a louder than life and unapologetic general manager was adamant that he would give Toronto playoff hockey. He loaded the team with the best players he could get in free agency (with the caveat that they accept much shorter contracts than other teams were offering, typically with less money as well). This resulted in a roster full of reclamation projects such as Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, and on and on and on. The one major change that came with the promotion of David Nonis prior to the season was that a certain core group of players would be identified, and the roster would be filled in with some of the younger players acquired through the draft and in trades seasons before. So a combination of core players (Kessel, Phaneuf, Lupul, Van riemsdyk), plugs and meatheads (McLaren, Orr, McClement), and younger players (Kadri, Frattin, Kostka, Holzer, Fraser, Gardiner). What you have is a strange combination that some nights resemble a good hockey team, others resemble a social experiment. Such are the trials of watching kids play, but better kids than expensive retreads.
Observations from the game
-The more Nazem Kadri plays, the more impressive he gets. The three points tonight not withstanding, his most confident play may have been dangling through two Tampa defensemen while being hooked to the ice and still completing the deke, and nearly beating Garon. This kid is special, and after listening to two solid years of A.M. radio declare him a draft day bust and declare that Toronto would be lucky to get a third round pick back for him, it is kind of refreshing.
-It is getting to the point where it is fun to watch the Toronto penalty kill. They have really been solid in all three zones in this aspect of their game. Clear the puck, guard the line. After several years with bad penalty killing of historic proportions, it too is a breath of fresh air.
-This is not meant as a shot at Dion Phaneuf, but how is Joffrey Lupul not by default the captain of this team? His impact the last two games was more than minimal, and the way he is responding to his new assignment with Nazem Kadri makes it hard to remember how good he was with Phil Kessel the last season and a half.
-The meatheads were hardly noticeable tonight, and that was a refreshing change of pace. Mark Fraser did his fair share to reinforce the point that the Maple Leafs love to fight, and more time was given to better hockey players. Colton Orr has worked hard and deserves a chance to play for doing as he was asked, but the Leafs need more of what he can’t offer, which is a defensively responsible forward.
-Chances Lupul gets a call regarding his elbow on Victor Hedman, 100%. Chances there will be a suspension < 10%. The hit was kind of ugly, and late, but Lupul has really no history of this kind of thing and I’m sure he will make a case to avoid loss of time.