One month into the new NHL season, and this much is obvious: the Toronto Maple Leafs are a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, dressed in the league’s silly new jerseys. The Leafs are scoring more often than your younger sister, but they’re also leaking goals at a potentially historic rate. They’ve lost two games by 7–1 final scores, but they’ve also got an 8–1 win and consecutive 4–1 road victories against consensus preseason favourites (Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers). The result is that the Maple Leafs are one of the most entertaining teams in the league, even if they’re seemingly hell-bent on driving their doggedly loyal fans to drink.
It’s hard to fathom how a team with such a dearth of genuine offensive weapons could be second in league scoring—but that’s what the Maple Leafs are after thirteen games. Mats Sundin looks rejuvenated (so much for his torn labrum, eh Steve Simmons?), while Nik Antropov, after years of frustrating mediocrity, seems like he’s on the brink of finally realizing his vast potential. (We’re pretty sure we just jinxed him, but it’d be impossible to overlook his contribution thus far.) Sundin is second in league scoring, and both he and Antropov are in the top three for plus/minus. The arrival of Mark Bell, who was suspended for the first fifteen games of the season for a summertime D&D, should alleviate some of the burden from the Big Two; a healthy Darcy Tucker would be nice, as well, provided someone tells him the season has actually started when he gets back on the ice.
Toronto’s unexpected scoring prowess has compensated somewhat for the team’s defensive play—which has been, to put it mildly, utterly wretched so far this year. In theory (or at least if you consider a player’s salary to be commensurate with his ability), defense should be the least of Toronto’s worries. But the Leafs have allowed fifty-two goals already; that’s five more than the league’s second-most generous team, the Atlanta Thashers. Bryan McCabe, who should be anchoring Toronto’s blue line, has been inconsistent, and his hilarious own goal in an overtime game against the Buffalo Sabres was the low point of the season thus far. Pavel Kubina looks lost in his own zone, and is apparently contractually obligated to take at least one dumb penalty every game. Given the Leafs’ defensive ineptitude, it’s been difficult to judge Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft’s performances. Raycroft had an awful 2006/07 season, but he’s been serviceable so far this year; Toskala, meanwhile, has turned in a few stellar performances, but was also the goalie of record for both of Toronto’s 7–1 losses. Again, it’s tough to assign the blame; for now, we’re willing to give the two netminders the benefit of the doubt, although we’ll see if we’re as charitable this time next month.
The Leafs’ next four games, all road contests, pit them against New Jersey, Montreal, Buffalo and Ottawa. It’s a vital stretch, and it could go a long way towards determining whether Toronto has a chance to be good this year. Predictably, the local media had the Leafs dead and buried around mid-October—yet despite what you’ve heard, they’re currently the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they’ve played a few more games than some of their nearest competitors, but given how poor they’ve been defensively, it’s hardly the worst fans could’ve reasonably expected. If Paul Maurice can figure out how to shore up his back line, the Leafs could be all right. It’s the least the team’s legions of fans deserve.
Photo by the mkt from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.