For my last column before the holiday season, I thought it would be nice to spread a little cheer for fans of the Blue and White. True, there will likely be a lot of new faces in town once GM Brian Burke heats up the phones after the holiday trade moratorium, but for now, let’s look at the positives from the first 30 games of the Maple Leafs’ season.
Lack of Jeff Finger jokes – Since the players actually began playing, all the wags that used the new defenseman as a Jay Leno-esque punchline due to the size of his contract have largely been silent. Finger has unleashed some big hits on opponents, dropped the gloves when called upon and logged more than 21 minutes of ice time per game. Yeah, maybe he could have been snagged for less than $3.5 million per year, but he certainly hasn’t embarrassed himself.
A line with speed – Injuries and line shuffling have got in the way recently, but as I’ve written here before, the line of Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin has been one of the most exciting aspects of this Toronto team. The trio caused havoc every time they got the puck and especially early on, they were the most dangerous combo the team had. On top of that, with 19 points in 30 games, Grabbo has a legitimate shot at the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. In fact, with his steady play and a little more experience than the average freshman (27 games with Montreal over two seasons), the second half may be the center’s chance to put some distance between himself and the other candidates.
The resurrection of Ian White – Whether at forward or his natural position on defense, the man with the moustache has been excellent for the Buds. Ever since his early healthy scratches, White has played the way a pro is supposed to when challenged: he has stepped up his game. He’s a plus-4 right now, which is best among Leaf regulars (Jeremy Williams is also plus-4 through three games).
They’re better than Ottawa – How’s that for the finest vintage of sour grapes? The Leafs may not be a playoff team, but that was never the expectation this year. The Senators, on the other hand, went into the season under the assumption that the jettisoning of Wade Redden and Ray Emery would once again springboard the team to greatness. But here we are after 30 games and the Leafs find themselves looking down in the Northeast Division standings at their archrivals from Bytown. If ever there was a Christmas gift to Leaf Nation, a struggling Ottawa team is a pretty good one.
They play hard – Thanks to coach Ron Wilson, these Buds don’t fold. They may struggle in the shootout (unless it’s against New Jersey), but at least they get there. So far this year, the Leafs have won seven games in which they trailed after one period and sent two more into overtime or the shootout. Maintaining that pace after the break would double the amount of times they did the trick last season. When trailing after two periods, the Leafs have won three times and sent two more to the extra frame. All last season, they only won six games and pushed two others to OT when trailing after two.
Luke Schenn – He’ll be back soon and the love affair with the city will continue.
This article also appears in the Toronto Metro newspaper.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect-watch feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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