Hey, Leaf fans! I'm lookin' forward to Saturday's game against Chicago, not just for the Wendelmania that's going to run wild, but partly because Mitchell is expected to be back in the line up, and also because I think this game will be the start of a good run for the Leafs. They've lost 3 out of their last 4, so now would definately be a good time to turn it around. 3 of their next 4 games will be at home, with the only exception being a road game in Ottawa (which is really the Leafs' home away from home) next Thursday. Also, each of the next four games will be against teams that have more losses then they have wins (I count overtime losses as a loss, not a tie): Chicago (8-9), Atlanta (7-10), Ottawa (6-12, wow), and Philadelphia (7-10). The Leaf's record of 7 wins and 12 losses puts them in the same category as the rest of these "playoff doubtfuls", so a modest winning streak starting now would be a good way to distinguish themselves from this mediocre group. Picking up at least 6 points over these next 4 games would also probably do a lot to lift their spirits before heading out west for another 3 games against L.A., San Jose, and Phoenix, next week.
For this post I thought I'd take a quick look at 6 players on each side of the expectation line that I've arbitrarily drawn; 3 that have so far exceeded those expectations, and 3 that, for now, are well below.
Under: Vesa Toskala
Okay, so we had a little fun with Vesa in our last post, and we're sorry 'cause we love him, but we were inspired by his play from games previous to the Boston loss. An .878 save percantage does not reflect one bad night, or even a handful. Vesa has to be better. Not just better then that game in Boston, better then every game so far, with the exception of the 1-0 shoot-out loss to the NYRangers. Game in, game out, Vesa needs to be better. Before the season, my expectations were that he would be one of the Leafs' 3 stars virtually every game. Sadly, that isn't happening, but it needs to happen if the Leafs are going to have any hope of playoff success. I certainly expect him to be better then Raycrap, but frankly, that's not saying much and it ain't anywhere near enough.
Over: Ian White
Not much was expected of White heading into camp. With an overcrowded blue line, White lost his usefulness until he reinvented himself as a forward in the pre-season. Even still, Coach Ron Wilson began the season with White in the press box for the first 11 games. As far as I know, during that time when White was a healthy scratch, his mood never became a distraction, nor did he complain, but instead, gave us this great quote:
"I can't wait to play, forward, defence, whatever. If Vesa (Toskala) or Cujo (Curtis Joseph) get hurt, I'll play between the pipes too. I just want to play."
Since being inserted into the line up, now primarily as a forward that can play be utilized as a defenceman when there's a need, White has responded with some of his best and most consistent play in a Leafs uniform. In 8 games, Ian White has tallied 7 points, and shares the team lead with Antropov in plus/minus at +5. He has averaged 2 shots per game, and has scored 3 goals. I think those are great numbers, and it'll be interesting to see now how long he can keep it up, and how long Wilson will leave him in the line-up if can't. For sure, he's shown the right kind of perseverance and determination, and the results so far are better then I ever would have expected.
Under: Alex Steen
I want to start seeing more out of Steen. I know the guy can score big goals and be a leader on this team, but this season he hasn't shown it. Up until now it seems Wilson hasn't been too bothered by Steen's play, satisfied perhaps that he is fulfilling his defensive responsibilities, but increasingly, others are starting to notice the lack of production. 2 goals and 2 assists, and also a minus 3, is well below the expectations I had for Steen. Over 3 seasons in the NHL, Steen has averaged 16 goals, and 25 assists per campaign. This year, he is on pace for 8 goals and 8 assists. In a year where I was hoping he would improve on his offensive numbers, this would seem to be a major setback. In my opinion, it's not an issue of Wilson putting Steen in more offensive situations either. The very best defensive forwards; Datsyuk, Draper, Peca, Federov, Gilmour, Carbonneau, Gainey, were all able to put the puck in the other net while keeping it out of their own, and often came up with the big goal which they'd call the "momentum killer". This is the challenge for Alex Steen. He needs to find a way to be a significant contributer, not with an abundance of scoring, but with the right goal at the right time. If he can, the pressure comes off the top two lines to win every game, and the Leafs attack becomes more dynamic
and difficult to defend against. For Alex Steen, the next level awaits.
Over: Nikals Hagman
Hagman has been a rock for the Leafs. His consistency is perhaps his strongest suit. Every shift, he seem to play hard and brings the same level of intensity over the boards every time he hits the ice. He plays a mature physical game: only 2 PIMs, and a +3 is the evidence of his excellent forechecking skills. Hagman is currently tied for 4th on the Leafs in scoring, with 13 points, 6 goals and 7 assists, after 19 games, and shares the team lead with Matt Stajan for powerplay goals with 3. Most surprising, he leads the Leafs in shots on goal with 72. I never imagined anyone would have more shots on goal then Jason Blake, but thankfully Hagman's shooting percentage is much higher at .083. Overall, I'm really enjoying Hagman's play so far and think that he and Antropov are the 2 key components behind the Leafs' ability to have 2 strong offensive lines.
Under: Jamal Mayers
Can't say I'm too impressed with Jamal Mayers so far. I hadn't seen a lot of Jamal, but I was expecting a player that banged and crashed - along the boards, in front of the net, in the corners, at centre ice - who'd make me want to yell, "YaaaaahH! Jamal smoked that guy!" So far, not so much. But mostly where I'm disappointed with Jamal is on the score sheet. Not that I was expecting a lot, but when I look at his stats from the last 3 seasons; 15G 11A 26P in 2006, 8G 14A 22P in 2007, and 12G 15A 27P last season, his 1 goal and 2 assists after 19 games this season just isn't up to par. Right now he's on pace for 12 points, or roughly half the offensive output that he'd been averaging the last 3 years in St. Louis. Part of that has to be because of the ice-time he's being given, as well as the role he plays, but also it seems as if he's struggling to find chemistry with any of his linemates so far. Hopefully soon he can find somebody to click with and he'll start to chip in more often on the scoresheet. Tough is good, but aside from making Chris Neil shake in his spaceboots, he's not really contributing much. Jamal needs to crank it up a notch and start poppin' a few goals and skulls at the same time.
Over: Matt Stajan
Stajan's numbers are amazing right now. Despite not getting a point Monday against Boston, the not-so-invisible-Matt is still leading the Leafs in scoring with 17 points. How much of this is just luck and how much of this is Stajan's skill and hustle we'll just have to see. He's on quite a run right now, playing some really excellent hockey, and if he can keep it up he is heading for a career year. Thus far, he has totally and completely exceeded all the expectations that I had for him at the beginning of the year, and looks more and more comfortable as a leader on this team. It's a long season and we're not quite at the quarter-mark yet, but this terrific start from Stajan should kill any confidence issues he might have had early on. While the next level waits for Alex Steen, Matt Stajan is already there.
Finally, an honourable mention should go out to Cliff Fletcher and Ron Wilson for producing a hockey team whose work ethic and competitiveness has easily exceeded any expectations I might have had back in September.