Is this the year the Toronto Maple Leafs finally make the playoffs? The members of the blue and white are certainly poised to make the post-season. Doing so would make it the first
appearance since before the NHL lock-out of the 04/05 season. The question most Leaf fans are asking is, “What makes this year any different than previous ones?”
In between the last lock-out and the lock-out that occurred this year, Leaf fans have been hungry for post-season hockey. Year after year of disappointment and promising teams that had amounted to nothing have left most fans irritated. In the past few years, the Leafs have gotten off to good starts during the course of a long 82 game season, only to start collapsing mid-way through and therefore having to catch up to teams in playoff spots. Whether or not they finished a few points out of a playoff spot is meaningless now. At the end of every year the Leafs would look ahead to the next one and decipher how they were going to improve.
It has been a year since the Leafs replaced Ron Wilson with current head coach Randy Carlyle. If one thing is evident, Carlyle seems to have a much better handle on the Leafs than Wilson ever did. In terms of improving from last year, hiring Carlyle was huge step in the right direction. Wilson seemed to become easily annoyed with the Toronto media and countless other distractions that altered the teams focus. Carlyle is more comfortable confronting the media and is skilled at keeping media oriented distractions out of the locker room. That is not the only reason why Carlyle was a good hire, aside from being a Stanley Cup winning head coach and a former Maple Leaf player, as well, he seems to understand the players he’s been given by utilizing their roles to their full potential.
Under coach Ron Wilson there was no room for players with size, strength and grit. Guys like Colton Orr struggled to find permanent roster spots on the team. Since Carlyle took over, Orr now has a much more important role. He is not just the team’s enforcer, but is a role model for demonstrating physical play. In fact, the entire Leafs squad is much more physical than a year ago. As a team they are amongst the league leaders in hits and fights, a statistic that no one would have expected from the Leafs this year.
With the combination of strong physical play and skill, the Leafs have been surprising. Unlike last year, the Leafs also have the talents of Nazem Kadri. Kadri was another player that struggled to fit into Wilson’s scheme. After having off-season workouts with Gary Roberts (former Toronto Maple Leaf) and an extended experience in the minors, Kadri has made himself out to be the Leafs’ leading scorer. He currently has 8 goals with 13 assists and there is no doubt that this is a statistic that will improve as the season progresses. The acquisition of James Van Riemsdyk playing along side Phil Kessel and an improved defensive situation, shows signs of good things to come in Toronto.
If the Leafs continue to play as well as they have this season, this could be the year playoff hockey returns to the hockey capital of the world!