x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Turning over new Leafs

Toronto's once legendary franchise shows signs of picking up steam.

Phil Kessel, left, has played an important role in the Toronto Maple Leafs' successful campaign this season.
Phil Kessel, left, has played an important role in the Toronto Maple Leafs' successful campaign this season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, a team you can only count on for contradiction, are at it again.In the big picture, the Leafs are at a low ebb in their life cycle. 

They have not made the play-offs since 2004 and - thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks' championship last spring - they own the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought, having last hoisted the silver mug in the league's final pre-expansion season of 1966/67. But if we focus on the here and now of the 2010/11 campaign...well, it has been a utopian experience for Leafs Nation thus far.
It is a quick snapshot to be sure, but when you have been a league laughing stock for the better part of 40 years, you will latch on to success in any form. A perfect 4-0-0 record to start the season - matched only by the Dallas Stars, fellow upstarts - and a completely different aura emanating from the Leafs players has led to a litany of "plan the parade" jokes.

The Leafs are a confident bunch, taking their lead from Dion Phaneuf, their new captain, and a solid back end - the defence corps, on paper, is as talented and deep as any in the league - is proof that Brian Burke, the general manager, is on track with his master plan. It is a complete reversal from a year ago, when the Leafs did not win their second game until November 6 after stumbling out of the gates with a 1-7-4 mark that effectively killed the club's play-off dream before the regular season was a month old.

Everything that went wrong last year is going right this time around. The Leafs are getting reliable netminding from Jean-Sebastien Giguere and understudy Jonas Gustavsson, and they are playing with the confidence that comes with knowing they can make a mistake and the puck will not end up in the back of their net. The defence - which looked great on paper last season, too, but did not live up to expectations - has been a strength thanks to the efforts of Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin.

The forwards were supposed to be a question mark, with Phil Kessel, their one lone legitimate scoring threat amid a cast of undersized centres, role players and the "truculent" types that Burke so cherishes. But the offence has flourished in the early going. Kessel is living up to his end of the bargain as a one-man scoring force, and he has been joined by Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin, among others.

The result, through the first two weeks of the season, has been everything the fans of Leafs Nations could have asked for. An exciting, talented team - and a winning one, too. Whether the fast start is simply an aberration in an 82-game schedule, or a small sample of the success to come, is almost meaningless. Because right now, the Leafs are the best team in the NHL. Just look at their record if you don't believe it.

 

sports@thenational.ae