The Leafs’ impending return to the post season has made talking about last year seem silly.
Here then are the 10 reasons this year’s Leafs team need never again be mentioned in the same breath as last year’s team.
1. James Reimer. Reimer has emerged as one of the league’s most dependable goalies. His return to health stands as the major reason why the Leafs lowered their goals against to 2.63 GAA from last season’s dismal 3.16.
2. The penalty kill. While the Leafs power play numbers haven’t changed from last season, the penalty killing efficiency has swollen from 77.3, 28th in the NHL to 86.6, good for third in the league.
3. Cody Franson and Mark Fraser. Franson has become an important player as the triggerman on the Leafs’ second-power play. His five-on-five play has been solid. Franson is two points behind Dion Phaneuf among Leaf defencemen and his plus eight is second only to Fraser. Meanwhile, the addition of Fraser to the back end has supplied badly-needed determination and toughness.
4. Randy Carlyle. His demand for team-wide accountability and tenacious defence has benefitted Reimer and, surprisingly, made the Leafs a more potent club offensively. The Leafs were 10th in goals scored in 2011-12 with 2.77 a game. This season they are fourth in league scoring with 3.12 goals per contest.
5. James van Riemsdyk. The trade for van Riemsdyk meant a badly-needed new address for Luke Schenn and brought a coveted big body for the Leafs’ cycle game. The 16 goals van Riemsdyk has provided are second highest on the team. His arrival has allowed the club to paper over the loss of Joffrey Lupul to injuries. Over an 82-game season, van Riemsdyk’s offence equates to a 32-goal campaign.
6. Nazem Kadri. Pro-rated to an 82-game season, Kadri is a 34-goal, 82-point producer. He has addressed the Leafs long-standing need for a number one centre and shown himself a gifted offensive player with a solid two-way game and a nice bit of edge. He is 22 years old.
7. Tyler Bozak. Bozak has never possessed absolutely top-drawer offensive skills but he has done an admirable job in refining his game. His offence is good enough to keep him playing with Phil Kessel and van Riemsdyk but Bozak has emerged as one of the club’s most valuable forwards thanks to superior work in the face-off circle. Double Bozak’s 41-game total and you have a 24-goal, 52-point player. Nothing wrong with that.
8. Jay McClement. McClement has proven himself the team’s most versatile forward. He is a good face-off man and a conscientious defensive player who can move up to the second line in a pinch. He was a great signing by Leafs management.
9. Nikolai Kulemin. Kulemin has stayed healthy and re-invigorated his offence. Given the benefit of a full, pro-rated season, he would have turned in a 14-goal, 44-point year with strong defence. His seven goals match last season’s total. It looks like Kulemin will never be a 30-goal scorer again but his combination of passable offence with excellent defence still makes him a useful player.
10. Dion Phaneuf. Sixteen goals, 34 points, minus-2 against the opposition’s best every night. That’s Phaneuf’s pro-rated story. Whispers about his leadership have evaporated.