Saturday, August 28, 2010

Carry That Weight

Seven Players That Can Lift The Leafs Into The Playoffs

Dion Phaneuf: The player who scored the last Leaf goal in dramatic fashion at the end of last season will be the first player to wear the C on a Maple Leafs uniform since Mats Sundin. Are you as excited as I am about our best six defenceman being led on to the ice by Captain Dion Bone-Crusher Phaneuf? The team finally has a leader who will assume personal responsibility for winning and losing while encouraging confidence and success, and that can only lead to a better team performance.

It took Phaneuf a surprising 25 games to score his first goal as a Maple Leaf. He scored his second goal the very next game, the game winner in overtime, as the Leafs closed the curtain that night on their season. It only took him 6 minutes and 51 seconds to get into his first fight as a Maple Leaf, in the first period of his first game.

After the Great January 31st Overhaul, the Leafs record with Dion in the line-up was 13-10-3. That's not setting the world on fire, but it was the Leafs most consistent stretch of the season, 29 points in 26 games. If they'd have done that for 82 games, the Leafs would have had 91 points and been tied for 6th with Boston.
Tomas Kaberle: Will Frantisek Sr. still be welcome to watch Leafs practices alongside Howard Berger? Toronto's longest serving player will be coming back to the team under an incredible media-microscope and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure. With calm dignity and grace, I suspect, if Kabby stays in his usual character.

With no Olympic schedule this year, and with Mike Komisarek returning to the line-up,and Phaneuf taking command, Kabby's workload should be less demanding this season, and more in tune with what Burke and Wilson had originally crafted when they brought in Komi and Beauchemin last summer. As part of this fearsome foursome, Kabby will hopefully be able to do what he does best when the Leafs need it most, giving this dangerous group a deadly playmaking dynamic.

Approaching Maple Leaf milestones for Kaberle this season include surpassing Ron Stewart (9th all-time) and Darryl Sittler (8th) for games played; Iafrate, McCabe, and Hap Day could all be caught for goals-scored by a defenceman; will likely pass George Armstrong for 5th in all-time assists; and could possibly catch Rick Vaive for tenth spot all-time in Leafs scoring.

Phil Kessel: Kessel leads the attack, and Maple Leaf fortunes are directly tied to his contribution. No player will make a bigger difference towards winning and losing on a nightly basis. In the last 26 games of the season last year, the Leafs managed just two wins on nights when Kessel didn't factor into the scoring. The good news is, Kessel gets on the scoresheet a lot, and when he does, the Leafs chances for success improve drastically, and I mean, drastically: From the last 26 games, when Kessel is held off the scoresheet, the Leafs are 2-8-2, but then are 11-2-1 when Kessel records a goal or an assist.

I don't think we need to worry about Kessel's consistency or his ability to score when it counts, the question is can the rest of the team find a way to battle through for the win when Kessel is held in check. A potent weapon, even shut down, should still have the effect of weakening the other side's overall defence.
Mikhail Grabovski: Best hair on the team. At this time last summer, Grabovski was Toronto's fastest rising star, second in popularity to only Luke Schenn. The additions of Kessel and Phaneuf, and the departures of virtually every player who'd come before and many more since, have opened up Grabovski to more critical eyes within Leafs Nation. He still has a number of very loyal supporters, but the novelty has worn off for others who want to see less dipsy and more doodle, and for Grabbo to bring the crazy at appropriate times, when it's constructive and useful.

Wilson seems to have him figured out and hopefully can encourage Grabbo to the next level this season. I pointed this out at the end of last season, but I'll bring it up again; in the 59 games that Grabovski appeared in, the Leafs were a point per game team. 24-24-11. Some people might call that .500. I'm reluctant to. But it's a marked improvement from where we actually think we are. It's competitive. It means that every game we have an equal chance of coming away with a point in the standings. For Leaf fans, this is a huge difference on it's own.

Nikolai Kulemin: The player that I would now rank as Toronto's fastest rising star is Kulemin. Not sure where he ranks in popularity, but he's on the list. Big things will be expected of Kool-Aid this season but it may be that we've found a real diamond in the rough. As the season progressed last year, Kulemin's play and confidence seemed to improve at an accelerating rate, as if gaining its own momentum. The word "blossom" barely does justice to Super-Kule's increasing maturation. In Ron Wilson's words:

"It's simple. He was crawling, then walking, now he's running... He's probably our most complete player now. He's everything you want in a hockey player."
Jonas Gustavsson: What are we going to get from the Monster? It's unfathomable that the Leafs might suffer yet a third goaltending catastrophe. The painful journey that was the Raycroskala boat of death should thankfully be at an end. It's time for other teams to fear our goaltending and our goalie has the best nickname in the league for that. Let this be the beginning of some sort of Felix-Cujo reincarnation, with Giguere in the role of Fuhr-Puppa-Healey-Eddie, and playoff possibilities will look at lot clearer.

After a difficult enough start to his career to earn a Masterton nomination, Gustavsson's numbers were very good down the stretch. 7-2-1 in his last 10 games of the season beginning from the Olympic break. A 2.62 GAA in that run, and a .915 SV%. Finding that form early on and not having any setbacks will be key to the Leafs post-season aspirations.

Mike Komisarek: The Wild Card. I have a feeling if Komisarek can give us 75 games or more this season, no one will be questioning his signing. Let us pray that we don't have another Colaiacovo-Van Ryn situation here because one of the biggest setbacks to the Leafs success last season, and Burke's architecture, was the prolonged absence of Komisarek on the blueline. Mike suited up for just 34 games, picking up 4 assists and 40 penalty minutes. The absence of his physical, punishing style had an impact that can't be measured until we see an entire season of Komisarek getting comfortable and making things comfortable for the rest of our defenders too.

With Phaneuf named Captain while Komisarek rehabbed, the pressure should be off just enough for Komi to be an intense weapon without being a liability. He slots in very nicely into the top four with the now settled and steady Beauchemin, the all-star Kaberle, and the Captain Phaneuf. And with the dynamic young duo of Schenn and Gunnarrson following their lead in spots 5 and 6, this is the most promising defensive line-up for the Leafs that I can ever recall. To break this group up before they'd even played a game together as a unit would have been a tragedy. Komisarek's poise, his experience, his toughness, and his health are going to be needed and will be key to seeing them reach their exciting potential.
This year, the Playoffs!!!1.

Believe it.


sleza said...

If they all stay healthy it should Leafs should be really fun to watch :) (coughearlyweekendgamescough)

I could watch that Grabbo pic forever...

general borschevsky said...

Thanks for the comment, sleza. I agree, all seven of these guys need to stay healthy for the Leafs to make a serious run at the post-season.

Alex P said...

Asking for your top 7 players to stay healthy for a full season sounds like a miracle. If this does happens by some stroke of luck, we're in.

Considering the organizational depth at D though, I wouldn't say Komi is a season breaker, maybe not Phaneuf either. There's a few guys who can eat those minutes.

Pretty much any of the forwards NEED to stay healthy, at least for the first half. Even then, if one of Kadri, D'amigo, or Mueller can step up - then we might smell 90 pts.

But honestly, expectations are so low for this team, that besides Kessel, and arguably Phaneuf, there's not the "typical pressure" for high performance from any particular player on this team.

Aside: That's funny. I see as Phaneuf being replacible if injured, but also having the biggest stake for the team's success.

We're not built on the back of an Ovie, or Luongo, or Crosby/Malkin though. Our core is comparibably weaker and diffused. I would argue our greatest strength may (have to) be our depth.

In short, having practically no superstar players makes dealing with injuries easier?

general borschevsky said...

Hey Alex!

"having practically no superstar players makes dealing with injuries easier?"


"there's not the "typical pressure" for high performance from any particular player on this team."

Thanks for the great comment. Don't really have anything to add, other then I think the pressure will be evenly distrubetd amongst the top players and if they don't succeed they should all feel the heat collectively.