On paper the Toronto Maple Leafs don't look like real contenders in the Eastern Conference. They don't have veteran goaltending, their blue line is filled with a bunch of "no names", Nazem Kadri didn't seem capable of making the jump and Tyler Bozak is the first line center. But the great thing about sports is a team on paper means nothing once that team hits the ice and starts playing. 20 games into the 2013 season and the Leafs sit 7th in the Eastern Conference only 3 points out of first and the way they've been playing they can easily make up that ground.
Without Brian Burke at the helm there is less traction surrounding the Leafs and for the first time in years a sense of optimism around the team. Is this the year they make it back into the playoffs? Although it's still early I say yes! So why have the Leafs done so well to start off the year?
1. Randy Carlyle has changed the atmosphere of the team
Although the Leafs aren't in first in the East and no-one outside of Toronto is singing Carlyle's praises just yet, I believe that Carlyle deserves some consideration for the Jack Adams award for coach of the year. How he's managed to turn the Leafs around in less than a year and doing so with a non existent training camp is pretty impressive. Carlyle has managed to turn the Leafs from the joke of the NHL to a team that has a chance to win every night.
He's gotten rid of the "sense of entitlement" that many if not all the Leafs of the past had. The perfect example of this is when he chose to send Tim Connolly to the Toronto Marlies. Right there in that one simple move Carlyle said to the team that "No one is safe, if you don't perform you will be replaced." Now the Leafs know they have to play, if they don't they'll be moved and you're seeing a motivated Leafs team on the ice who doesn't want to get cut.
Along with getting rid of entitlement he's also protecting players in the media by shouldering some of the blame for when they lose. He's also started an "open door policy" where players who are scratched or un-happy with their ice time can come and talk to him and learn what he wants them to do. By being willing to talk to the players he's earned their respect whether they agree with his decisions or not they respect him.
The biggest concern for the Leafs heading into the season was how James Reimer and Ben Scrivens would fair between the pipes considering both are pretty inexperienced at the NHL level. Reimer was coming off a concussion and this would be Scrivens first shot at playing full-time in the NHL. There was lots of speculation the Leafs would go after Roberto Luongo but decided not to in the end and the decision is paying off as Reimer and Scrivens are getting the job done. Even when Reimer went down with a knee injury Scrivens stepped up and has provided the Leafs with solid goaltending, giving them a chance to win every night and being fantastic when needed- that's all you can ask for from a young rookie goalie.
Through 12 games Ben Scrivens has won 6 games, has 2 shutouts and is posting a .928 Save Percentage and a 2.18 Goals Against Average. James Reimer has played 10 games winning 6 and posting a .929 Save Percentage and a 2.31 Goals Against Average. While they may not be winning any Vezina trophies in the near future, Reimer and Scrivens have done their job this season and as a result the Leafs are winning.
3. Marlies Stepping up
A major reason the Leafs have enjoyed such success early on is the play of Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin who together combine for 27 points. They've broken into the Leafs line up nicely and proven they belong in the NHL. Part of the reason they've enjoyed success together is due to their time with the Marlies during the lockout. They had the added benefit of playing together and playing competitive hockey while their teammates were separated. As the season goes on and once Frattin comes back from injury the two will continue to grow as hockey players and play a bigger role for the Leafs and the success of the team.
Kadri is leading the team in points with 17 (5 goals and 12 assists) and Frattin has a solid 10 points (7 goals and 3 assists) and they both stepped their game up early on when Phil Kessel went goal-less. Also worth noting Frattin has 3 game winning goals, without those 6 points (3 wins) the Leafs would be sitting outside the playoff picture. Mix in Michael Kostka who has played with Dion Phaneuf on the blue line and put up 6 points, the Leafs have a lot to thank Dallas Eakins for.
4. Team Toughness
Leaf fans are tired of hearing about having a tough and truculent team but the Leafs team toughness is a major reason why they've been successful. There's only 1 reason to have players such as Colton Orr and Mike Brown playing regular minutes and that's for toughness- the two frequent fighters both have 55 penalty minutes this season and have been able to spark their team with fights and stand up for their teammates. The Leafs have 345 penalty minutes, which is 2nd most in the NHL, they also lead the league in hits. This is a team that is not easily intimidated- hence Colton Orr fighting John Scott.
For whatever reason Randy Carlyle has gotten the Leafs to play good hockey, they're buying into his system and as a result they're enjoying a 12-8-0 start to the season. For the first time in a decade I have confidence the Leafs have a solid chance of reaching the postseason. Only time will tell if the Leafs can stay the course or will once again fall off the cliff, but right now it's bright skies ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs.