What’s that? The Leafs are in a playoff position? This must be our year! Plan the parade! Alright, alright, perhaps it isn’t time for histrionics (yet) but for now, the Leafs are in top 8 (6th, to be precise) and life is good. However, if we’ve learned anything from last season’s catastrophic late-season spin-out, it’s that we shouldn’t be holding our breaths just yet. Still, the Leafs have done a good job staying in the top 8 throughout most of the season and so, barring disaster (knock on wood) they should be in a position to make the playoffs this year. Let’s take a look at how they got there:
1. Nazem Kadri
The biggest story of the pre-season must have been Nazem Kadri heading into training camp with “unacceptable fat levels”, as Marlies coach Dallas Eakins was criticizing his conditioning. Fast forward a couple of months, and nobody’s calling the talented young forward chubby. His 25 points in 28 games are good for second on the team, and his +12 rating is first among forwards. The hat trick he scored against the New York Islanders on Feb. 28th epitomizes the breakout season he has been having, as he is consistently creating chances and being rewarded.
2. James van Riemsdyk
As the 2nd overall draft pick of the 2007 Draft, right behind Patrick Kane, James van Riemsdyk has been burdened with high expectations. Aside from a few bursts of brilliance, he never really found his game in Philadelphia. However, after a trade sent him to Toronto in exchange for Luke Schenn, he was given a new lease on life, and has responded by scoring a team-leading 14 goals in his first 28 games as a Leaf.
3. Matt Frattin
Although injuries have kept him out of the lineup for over half of the Leafs’ games, Matt Frattin has collected 7 goals and 11 points in 13 games played. His shooting percentage is at an astronomically high 35.0%, however, so it remains to be seen if he can keep up this kind of production.
4. The Penalty Kill
Since the lockout, the Leafs’ penalty kill has been, to say the least, atrocious. Over the last 6 seasons, the Leafs’ penalty kill has been perennially sub-80%, putting them among the bottom-3 in the league each year (with the Leafs’ PK taking dead last in 2008-09 and 2009-10). However, so far in this abbreviated season, their penalty kill has been successful 84.4% of the time, good for 6th in the league. Recent additions Jay McClement and Mark Fraser can definitely be credited for this improvement.
1. Mikhail Grabovski & Nikolai Kulemin
Two short seasons ago, a troubled, talented centre, a promising young power winger and an enigmatic free agent were placed together on a line. Thus the “KGM” line was born, the “M”, of course, standing for Clarke MacArthur. The line, which combined for 177 points that season, was one of the bright spots of the Ron Wilson era, at one point being considered by the coach as the team’s top line. MacArthur has since found his place on a line with Kadri and Leo Komarov, but his former linemates have just 11 and 13 points, respectively, across 28 games each. In addition, they each have just 1 point and no goals in March, and their +/- ratings of -7 and -6 place them both below the oft-criticized Phil Kessel. Although Kulemin may just be proving that his 57-point season was an anomaly, the Leafs cannot afford this level of production from Grabovski, who is signed for 4 more years at a cap hit of $5.5 million.
Meanwhile, as the Leafs’ defense have been playing as a cohesive unit, there has been one man who has been sitting quietly from the outside looking in: Jake Gardiner. Coach Randy Carlyle simply could not find a place to put him as he recovered from a concussion, and so he was sent down to the Marlies. However, with the Leafs’ recent slump, Gardiner’s agent has taken to Twitter to plead for his client. Thursday’s 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh, in which defensive lapses caused the Leafs to relinquish three unanswered goals late in the 3rd period, had fans questioning the revolving door that is Dion Phaneuf’s defensive partner. With inexperienced blueliners such as Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer sharing time with the captain on the top pairing, one has to wonder if it’s time to free Jake Gardiner.