It has been seven years since the Toronto Maple Leafs qualified for the NHL playoffs, but it’s a new season and as the leaves begin falling off trees, these Leafs are trying to not to fall. Toronto is currently first in the Northeast Division – one point ahead of the Buffalo Sabres – but for how long is really the big question. So why exactly has Toronto started out white hot?
We can answer that question with one player – Phil Kessel.
The Leafs had certainly not been impressed with Kessel since brining him in 2009 and coach Ron Wilson made it clear after last season that he was unhappy with the 24-year-old right winger’s performance. Well he is certainly showing him early this season. In eight games Kessel has netted nine goals, tacked on six assists and is well on pace to crush the 64 points he finished with last season.
Kessel’s hot start could be attributed to defensive play. There is no denying Kessel’s natural ability to score but he has never been all that good in his own zone, which is evident by how he finished last season minus 20. But he has been working hard to improve on defense and make himself a more complete player.
"I've tried to be good defensively this year," Kessel told NHL.com. "I was a minus last year, so I have to be a little better this year. We really want to make the playoffs, and we're willing to do whatever we have to do to get there."
Some of his teammates have even taken notice of the change and right now seem to be feeding off of the game that Kessel brings to the ice. Toronto has spent the last few seasons slowly bolstering their blue line, acquiring guys like Dion Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek, while drafting the top defensive prospect Luke Schenn. It certainly has seemed to help.
The Leafs finished last season with a 16-8-6 record in their final 30 games and that definitely seems to have carried over to this year. While we don’t expect them to continue their strong play all season, this might be the year the hockey-hungry fans of Toronto finally get back to the postseason.
Photo courtesy of The Associated Press.