Ten games into the NHL season and the Maple Leafs have five wins. For this hockey club, that is outstanding.
Even head coach Ron Wilson admits this start was not something many could have predicted. Atta boy, Ron. Way to have confidence in your guys.
Here are four principal reasons why Toronto finishes October sitting in ninth spot in the Eastern Conference.
1. CONSISTENT DEFENSIVE PLAY
The big four of Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Luke Schenn and François Beauchemin have been nothing less than excellent. The Leafs have almost instantly become one of the top defensive clubs in the league. Only three clubs have allowed fewer goals (Bruins, Blues, Panthers), and the Leafs have not recorded a shutout.
Each of the big four is playing over twenty-two minutes per game. Each brings something a little different to the table. Yes, Phaneuf had a horrific night in Philadelphia and, yes, he sometimes tries to do more than he should…but those are small points in the big picture. The Brett Lebda/Carl Gunnarsson experiment continues to confound. Frankly, Gunnarsson is not an NHL-calibre defenceman, but his minimized minutes lessen that effect. Mike Komisarek’s spotty play has been a surprise too, especially when you consider that, during his final year in Montreal, he was their best defenceman.
2. SPECIAL TEAMS
You already know that last year, the Leafs’ PP and PK stunk. This year, their PP ranks 24th in the NHL – 5-for-42. But, since the Leafs can’t score anyway, five PP goals aren’t actually too bad. Their PK ranks 13th – 5-for-33. They haven’t allowed more than one power-play goal in any game. Last year, their PP was 30th in the NHL. Their PK was also dead last. This year’s marks are huge steps up in both areas.
J-S Giguère has been around forever…yet he’s only 33 years old. He has lots of good years left, and Brian Burke knew than when he acquired him exactly nine months ago. Jiggy was at his best during the Leafs’ first four wins, but a crack or two has been showing lately. Against the Rangers on Saturday, and in Philadelphia, going down quickly cost him goals. And his mobility seemed limited on Ryan Callahan’s penalty-shot goal against New York. Jonas Gustavsson has started three games and looked good every time. Goaltending has been a chronic worry for this team…but not so far in 2010-11.
4. ENHANCED WORK ETHIC
This team is absolutely nothing like the ones that competed in recent seasons. There is far more youth, and far more youthful enthusiasm. It’s been contagious – especially in those first four wins. The Leafs rolled off their bench in waves. Even though they’ve been shut out twice in a row, they deserved a win on Saturday against the Rangers. That’s going to happen once in a while. But this team doesn’t seem to let it phase them.
That attitude will only pay dividends over the next 72. All anyone seems to be talking about these days is the Leafs’ lack of offence. It does not matter. Brian Burke will solve that issue soon enough. If they continue to play great defensive hockey, they will be in almost every game.
And that’s a recipe for success.