Fist off, I was recently interviewed by Robin Keith Thompson of Chiller Instinct (and also a long time contributor to and friend of HockeyAnalysis.com, currently in the Phoenix blog). In the interview we discuss mostly the Blackhawks and the value of their quality third line of Madden, Brouwer and Ladd. Check it out.
Now on to the Leafs. About a month and a half ago on October 24th the Leafs were 0-7-1 and almost everyone had written off the Leafs. Before the season I made a bold prediction that the Leafs would make the playoffs and a number of people called me out on that prediction calling me biased. When the Leafs started the season 0-7-1 those same people came back and asked if I wanted to eat crow now and that I was an idiot for making that prediction as the Leafs had no chance of making the playoffs. I consistently defended my prediction with ‘come talk to me in January when we have played a meaningful number of games’. The Leafs then went on a stretch of 7 games getting a point in every game by going 3-0-4 and were generally playing better. Everyone stopped feeling the need to criticize me and my prediction at this point. Then the Leafs fell back into some of their problems they experienced in the first 8 games and lost four straight in regulation to Minnesota, Chicago, Calgary and Ottawa and then blew a big lead to lose to Carolina in overtime. At this point everyone came back and criticized me again. It has been pretty quiet recently because the Leafs have been playing well but it is now my turn to stand up and gloat a little as the Leafs are currently sitting 4 points behind 8th place Montreal with a game in hand having just beaten maybe the best team in the eastern conference. But it gets better than that.
Before the season many people suggested that with the acquisition of Komisarek and Beauchemin on defense and the hopefully better play of a healthy Toskala and/or a strong rookie season from Gustavsson that the Leafs will cut down their goals against, but who is going to score? Then they traded for Kessel and many criticized giving up two first round picks and a second round picks and question whether the trade made any sense considering the Leafs had no play making center like Marc Sarvard to feed Kessel the puck. They questioned whether the Kessel could score at near the rate he did in Boston without such a center and without a play making center it made no sense to go out and pick up a pure goal scorer. I constantly defended the trade saying the two first round picks were not too much to give up for someone with the skill of Kessel because most first round picks outside of say the top 5 picks don’t turn out to be half the player that Kessel is. In short, the gamble was worth it.
Before the season I defended the Leafs offense and despite not having a true elite level forward I thought that they would at lease be OK offensively.
To summarize, too many people have a false view of what kind of offense a top 6 forward will produce. Most top 6 forwards aren’t 30 goal, 70 point guys. The majority of them are 20-25 goal, 50-60 point guys and in that regard the Leafs are just fine. Are the Leafs going to be an elite offensive team in the NHL? No. Can they be a good one, as they have been for several years now? You bet.
Fast forward to today and we find the Leafs offense is currently sitting in 9th spot in goals for average and that is pretty good considering they were near the bottom of the league before Kessel returned. We have also learned that Kessel doesn’t need a play making center to score goals, he can do it on his own. It is also worth pointing out that only the Washington Capitals, the leagues top scoring team, has more 10+ goal scorers than the Leafs. The Capitals have 5 10+ goal scorers while the Leafs are tied with the Canucks, Blue Jackets, and Ducks with four. Media hypes all the time about Chicago’s great young offensive stars but they have zero, yes zero, players with 10 goals right now. Nobody should really be surprised by any of this because the Leafs have for the most part consistently been in the top 10-12 teams in terms of offense the past dozen years or so, including the years post lockout. It’s unfortunate that so many fail to realize that.
The Leafs are not out of the woods yet but the edge of the woods is within sight and a playoff spot is just a few short steps beyond that. They are, for the most part, playing good hockey (8-3-1 in last 12 games), and for the most part, are now getting acceptable to good goaltending (no longer last in goals against average or save percentage). The goaltending is still the key for me. If it continues as it has recently by Toskala and how Gustavsson has been for much of the season, making the playoffs should be a very strong possiblity.
To summarize, the message of the story is that we all should stop drawing conclusions from 8 or 12 or even 20 games. The NHL season is a long one and a dozen games is not enough to draw any conclusions from.