Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11: Week 1
I have been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs for about 35 years. I know that won’t win me many friends, and some will question my sanity. After all, the team has seen more failure and mediocrity than success since 1967.
It is well known that Brian Burke is in his 2nd full season as GM and President, following an embarrassing 29th place finish last season, and well-publicized lack of a first-round draft pick that saw Tyler Seguin wearing a Bruins sweater.
This (hopefully) weekly entry will track a once-again rebuilding Maple Leafs team, trying to reach the playoffs and ultimately trying to end a now 43-year Stanley Cup drought. (For the purposes of this blog, the week will end at the conclusion of the late CBC Hockey Night in Canada game on Saturday.)
The week began with the organization trimming down the roster, surprising many by sending down Kadri, Caputi and Hanson, 3 young players expected to make the team. Much is made that Kadri is perhaps a bust as a first rounder, that Hanson is a longshot, and that acquiring Caputi was a mistake. Time will tell, as none of these players made a strong case in camp to open the season in the NHL. The Leafs are already a young team, with Kessel, Kulemin, Versteeg, Bozak, Macarthur, Schenn, Gunnarsson and Brown all 25 and under, and only 3 players over 30 on opening night. The organization can afford to be patient with these youngsters, letting them develop with the Marlies until they can contribute significantly in their roles.
The season began Thursday with a renewal of the Forever Rivals, Leafs versus the Montreal Canadiens. Both saw player turnover in the off-season, with only 6 players from opening night 2009 remaining for the Leafs, and Montreal having traded Halak and making Price the number 1 goalie. With Markov injured, Price battling the flu, and Cammalleri suspended, the Leafs caught something of a break. Neither team had a lot of jump in this game, and both suffered from an inability to generate much on the powerplay. From the Toronto perspective, a 12-shot first period, and 2 goals before the 9 minute mark seemed a good start. Unlikely ‘rookie’ Tim Brent scored to give the Leafs some offence from the third line, followed by Phil Kessel who is paid to be the offensive star for the Buds. Montreal managed to get one back in the 12th minute. The teams traded goals in the third, with Clarke Macarthur hinting that the Leafs may have found a second line in Kulemin-Grabovski-Macarthur, while veteran Jeff Halpern scored his first as a Hab. The Canadiens fired 11 shots at J-S Giguere in the final frame, who made some timely saves to preserve a win. Last season, Toronto would have easily given up a game tying goal, and had a good chance to lose in overtime. All in all, a solid effort in notching a win, getting a goal from each of the first, second and third lines, 2 assists from defencemen, and a solid, even game-saving effort from a veteran goalie. On the negative side, Komisarek and Gunnarsson did not have strong games, guilty of some giveaways, and they saw reduced ice time.
Saturday saw a renewal of the Battle of Ontario as Ottawa made a visit. Again, the Leafs caught something of a break as the Senators traveled from Ottawa after a loss to Buffalo on Friday. On this night the Maple Leafs looked quite good, with all lines playing fairly disciplined hockey, and creating chances with speed, something not seen in Toronto in some time. Nik Kulemin got his first of the season about 90 seconds into the game, and Kessel scored his second before the 8 minute mark. Toronto had 2 powerplays on which they did not score, but did manage 17 shots on Pascal Leclaire in the period. Macarthur scored in the second. Kris Versteeg added a powerplay marker in the 3rd, and Tim Brent surprised with his second on the season before Jason Spezza took advantage of a turnover and gaping cage to break Giguere’s shutout. The third also saw hostilities renewed with 3 fights breaking out: Mike Brown had his first as a Leaf against Chris Neil; Colton Orr and Matt Carkner danced; and in the middleweight match up, Versteeg completed his Gordie Howe Hat Trick by going Mike Fisher. Final shots were 38-18 for the Leafs.
While still very early in the season, the first week has given Leaf fans hope that perhaps the team really is on the way back up. The first, second and third forward lines have contributed goals in both wins. Where previously, the Leafs would most likely give up a game tying goal in a close game, game one saw a veteran goalie who some thought might be done was able to shut the door. And while the Senators should not be ‘worn out’ playing back-to-back to open the season, the Leafs were able to take the opportunity to maybe beat up a bit on a division rival that may have been a bit weary.
These are not results the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to achieve in previous seasons. And while 80 games remain, Leafs fans will tuck these 4 points away and hope it means this team is on its way to learning what it takes to win in the NHL.
Short week upcoming as the Leafs will hit the road for 2; Wednesday against Penguins, Friday against Rangers. Note, a rare Saturday off for the Buds this week.