Patience, Development, Key For Toronto Maple Leafs

January 14th, 2011 No Comments

Heading into last night’s tilt with the Phoenix Coyotes, the Toronto Maple Leafs were riding a four-game win streak, something that has been about as prominent as Oprah Winfrey saying no to seconds at the buffet!

The Leafs’ second unit of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur is a key contributor to the Leafs’ recent success, as is rookie goaltender James Reimer, who had been playing for the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies until his recent callup.

After a quick start to the season in which the Maple Leafs won their first four games, the Leafs fell off the rails, losing 11 out of their next 12 games before finally beating the Nashville Predators on November 16. It was the first win in a month for the Leafs, a freefall that killed any chance of the Maple Leafs making the playoffs this season.

When you talk to most hockey players, they often love to reflect on their championships and personal accomplishments, but somewhere along the way every player has experienced what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence, which is where they draw a lot of emotion and experience from in order to accomplish the incredible.

The Maple Leafs’ early season slide may have cost this team a chance at a playoff spot, but it may very well be paying off, both now and for the foreseeable future.

The comparison can be made to a poker player. Everyone loves to win, but it’s the “bad beats” that sit with them the longest and, in the end, makes them better individuals and players.

Such is the case for the Maple Leafs. As they slowly show signs of turning the corner, perhaps the recent four-game winning streak can be attributed to the early season loses in which they learned what not to do and how to overcome the challenges of winning the close games and, in some cases, how to bury their opponent.

Winning is a process that usually encompasses learning from your mistakes and losses along the way. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to lose; it’s how you deal with the losses and how you respond that separates the boys from the men.

If you watched the Maple Leafs over the past month, you have probably taken note of a few attributes that have led to the team’s recent success.

One of the key areas of success has been the Maple Leafs’ power play. Hovering around 20th overall for most of the season, the Leafs PP is now ranked 12th overall. Much of that success has come over the past 10 games.

On the other side of the coin, the Maple Leafs penalty kill is showing signs of improvement as well.

Hovering between 28th and 30th for most of the season, the Leafs PK is now ranked 26th overall. A strong January may allow the Maple Leafs to catapult themselves into the top 20, which, given the Leafs’ past struggles on the PK (finishing in 30th overall each of the past two seasons), would be a real improvement.

Goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere struggled between the pipes for most of the season, leaving a very unsteady feeling amongst the fans and, we’ll assume, the players. James Reimer has come up from the Marlies and put together an impressive 4-2 record to go along with his .933 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average.

Reimer’s play has been so strong that there has already been some talk about sending Gustavsson down to the AHL for some conditioning and/or trading veteran J.S. Giguere for draft choices or some help up front.

Let’s face it, forwards and defensemen alike always play better when they have confidence in their goaltender. Reimer looks to have given this team their moxy back, which, in turn, has them winning again.

On the back end, while not perfect, the Leafs seem to be making fewer errors, especially in their own end, which makes things a lot easier for the forwards and goaltenders.

Criticized for his penchant for giving away the puck at inopportune times, veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin has been much better. He also continues to lead the Maple Leafs in total ice time (23:51) per game and number of shifts (30.9).

Recent callups Joey Crabb and Darryl Boyce have had a huge impact on the team, adding a physical element and helping to spark the team’s top line.

For Leafs fans, watching players like Crabb and Boyce (two players that were off the radar in the preseason) evolve into solid NHL players is both satisfying and encouraging that general manager Brian Burke’s plan of action is paying off (slowly, but surely).

The tone on the ice has been very different. There seems to be an element of identity developing, something that had been missing for much of the early season.

Players are a lot more upbeat, the fans have cooled their jets on calling for Head Coach Ron Wilson to be fired and the media looks to be softening their tone as well.

Independently, none of these changes are going to make to the Maple Leafs into Stanley Cup contenders this season, but they will help provide a solid foundation for years to come. After all, as the saying goes, sometimes you have to lose before you can learn how to win. Perhaps that’s just what the Leafs have been doing, and perhaps that means they will be winning a little more often from this point on.

Until next time,

Peace!

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