There have been a number of gleaming highlights for the Toronto Maple Leafs thusfar as the shorterned NHL season approaches its midway point.
The forecheck of grinders Frazer McLaren, Mike Brown and Jay McClement has been admirable. The evolution of Colton Orr from AHL outcast to valued third-line checker has been near-inspirational. Not to mention the league-leading plus/minus of Mark Fraser and the coming of age of Nazem Kadri.
But if anyone in professional hockey has a licence to be pessimistic, it’s a follower of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
What will be of nail-biting concern to the Leafs’ coaching staff is the production, or desperate lack of it, from the Leafs’ top line. “Flat, flat, flat, flat” was how head coach Randy Carlyle described the collective performance of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak and James Van Riemsdyk Wednesday night, who appeared dangerously lightweight against the faster and hungrier Montreal Canadiens.
Phil Kessel’s numbers in particular make grim reading. Kessel lies outside of the top 30 players in points, with a paltry four goals to his name. At this rate, he will be on pace for just 12 goals in this 48 game season. Whilst much has been made of the Leafs improved defensive system under Carlyle and justifiably so, Kessel is paid the big bucks for one reason.
To put the puck in the net.
“Like an 18-wheeler sliding of the side of a cliff” was how Brian Burke described the Leafs calamitous downfall last season. Without a sharp increase in scoring from the players who are paid to do just that, Leaf fans would be forgiven for hearing the screech of tyres and the smell of burning rubber.
The Leafs currently sit 5 points clear of the 9th-placed Tampa Bay Lightning. This will officially be the point where Leaf fans keep half an eye on the threatening line between 8th spot and nowhere.
For Leafs fans, players and coaching staff alike, it will be impossible to look towards the playoffs with anything approaching confidence until Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski and, upon his return, Joffrey Lupul discover consistent form.
The Leafs are tough again. They fight the most and they hit the most, and Nazem Kadri appears to finally be evolving into the magic-handed NHL playmaker he promised to be when he was drafted.
But bruising physicality and a serviceable blue line corps will take them only so far.
Time for the big boys to step up.