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(Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)
(Abelimages/2011 Getty Images)

Leafs' Beat

Leafs' youth leads way in second half Add to ...

The Toronto Maple Leafs were desperate when they first recalled Nazem Kadri this season.

After winning their first four games to open the year, the Leafs went on a 1-7-3 slide in which they scored just 16 goals in 12 games and fell into the NHL's basement.

Up came Kadri, the team's first-round pick in 2009, who joined a struggling team that was low on confidence going into a game against the powerhouse Vancouver Canucks.

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Despite plenty of ice time, he failed to score in the next 17 games and was sent back to continue to learn in the minors.

By the time Kadri was brought back, in mid-March, the Leafs were a very different team, one that had been on a roll for six weeks and that was filled with many of his former Toronto Marlies teammates.

Kadri's arrival, meanwhile, made them the second youngest team in the league, trailing only the St. Louis Blues.

"Obviously, it was tougher to come into that environment," Kadri said of his first stint with the team. "Now, pushing for the playoffs, it's been great. Been so much fun. We're competing for something, trying to work towards something, not just trying to be a spoiler. It makes it a lot better."

The Leafs head into their 77th game on Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres with their playoff hopes all but wiped out for the sixth consecutive season, sitting seven points back of the final playoff spot with only six games to play.

The biggest difference between this group and those that have fallen short in year's past, however, is that this is a team built almost entirely on youth, with only two players (Mikhail Grabovski and Joffrey Lupul) older than 25 among the top 10 in ice time.

Minus 33-year-old backup netminder Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who is unlikely to play again this season, the Leafs' average age is 25.5 years old.

The team's key contributors are even younger, as the 12 players currently playing the biggest role - including rookie netminder James Reimer - average 24.2 years of age.

As the Leafs have attempted to stay in some semblance of a playoff race, coach Ron Wilson has often remarked that his youngest players will benefit the most from playing meaningful games in March.

"It's a good learning experience for so many of our young guys who've played excellent in these pressure-packed games," Wilson said.

"A lot of these guys probably at the beginning of the year didn't think that they, let alone be in the race, would be in the NHL. We've got five or six guys who are like that."

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said Monday that he has been impressed from afar with what Toronto has been able to accomplish with such a young group.

"They've gone a little bit different direction," Ruff said. "Their young guys on defence are playing a lot better when you're talking about [Luke]Schenn and [Keith]Aulie.

"Up front, they put Kadri in the lineup and they're giving him an opportunity along with [Tyler]Bozak and several other young players. I think when young players get an important role, they start to feel comfortable. They start to play better, for the most part."

The few Leafs veterans left in key roles also approve of the change, especially given that it's brought success in the standing. Since Aulie, a 21-year-old defenceman, was recalled to replace departed 30-year-old François Beauchemin on Feb. 10, Toronto is 11-6-5.

"I feel good about what we've built this year," winger Clarke MacArthur said. "We're making strides towards [the postseason]

"I think we've played as a playoff team the whole second half, to be honest. November killed us … I just think we have a young team and we were trying to figure out how to get things done. It just took time."

Youth movement Many of Toronto's top players the past two months have also been their youngest ones, with the Leafs' top four defencemen averaging only 23.4 years old and their top six forwards 25.6 years old. The players, with their vital stats and time on ice per game:



Player

Pos

Age

TOI/G

1

James Reimer

G

23.04

N/A

2

Dion Phaneuf

D

25.97

24:57

3

Luke Schenn

D

21.40

22:32

4

Phil Kessel

RW

23.49

19:41

5

Mikhail Grabovski

C

27.16

19:21

6

Tyler Bozak

C

25.03

19:15

7

Keith Aulie

D

21.80

18:39

8

Joffrey Lupul

LW

27.51

17:54

9

Carl Gunnarsson

D

24.38

17:36

10

Nikolai Kulemin

RW

24.71

17:21

11

Clarke MacArthur

LW

25.98

17:11

12

Nazem Kadri

C

20.48

16:09

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