It’s early, but the Toronto Maple Leafs appear well on their way to another hot start to a season.
Despite a tough schedule that included playing three home openers in five days – including Montreal’s, Philadelphia’s and their own – the Leafs are undefeated through the first week of the season as part of their third successive strong opening to a campaign.
The games weren’t always pretty – with coach Randy Carlyle calling Saturday’s 5-4 shootout win particularly “sloppy” – but the wins will all count come April.
“Are we going to forget about this? No. We’re not going to forget about it,” Carlyle said of his team’s defensive lapses in their latest win. “But you can’t be a task master every day of the week when you’ve played three hockey games and have six points. What more do you want?”
Overall, there are plenty of compelling storylines already with the Leafs:
GOALIE BATTLE HEATS UP
No one can deny the Leafs gave James Reimer a golden opportunity to grab the crease early in the year, starting him in both the season and the home opener.
Instead, Toronto’s No. 1 netminder of a year ago handed the reins right back to challenger Jonathan Bernier, who has been outstanding in two appearances so far with a .979 save percentage.
Carlyle was quick to praise Bernier’s unflappable performance in relief of Reimer on Saturday, noting that his decision on who to start in upcoming games had been simplified.
“It makes it easier,” Carlyle said.
Expect Bernier to get the nod against Colorado on Tuesday, in other words. And, if he continues to impress, he could easily grab a toehold on the starting job earlier than anyone expected.
Bernier hasn’t been the only off-season addition to excel, as both David Bolland and Mason Raymond have stepped up and likely been the Leafs’ top two skaters.
The pair – who spent previous years battling against one another as part of the heated Chicago-Vancouver rivalry – are now sitting alongside each other in the dressing room and appear to have excellent on-ice chemistry already. Bolland, in particular, has been impressive, as he has already started to bump Nazem Kadri out of the second line centre spot and shown far more offensive aptitude than his 104 points in 211 games in the past four seasons would suggest.
He also appears to be very motivated by playing for his hometown team for the first time.
“It’s a real treat to play with him,” said Raymond, who led the team in scoring in the preseason and now has four points after three games. “We’ve become quick teammates and quick friends.”
“He leads by example,” Carlyle said of Bolland. “He doesn’t go to the back of the line; he goes to the front of the line.”
The surprise emergence of Bolland and Raymond as two-thirds of an effective second line comes at a fortuitous time as David Clarkson’s 10-game suspension and Nikolai Kulemin’s ankle injury have cleared out a lot of Toronto’s depth up front. The Leafs recalled two Marlies in Spencer Abbott and Jamie Devane for Saturday’s game, but Carlyle was reluctant to play the two youngsters as well as Troy Bodie and Colton Orr in the late going, shortening his bench down to just eight forwards. Combined, those four played only about 3.5 minutes in the final 25 minutes of the game.
“You play games shorthanded; you play games undermanned,” Carlyle said of the holes in his lineup. “Injuries now open the door for somebody else, for a younger player to step up. We’re going to ask that of our players.”
PESKY POSSESSION PROBLEMS
It was the Leafs’ central weakness a year ago and has been specifically targeted for improvement by the coach. But through three games, Toronto hasn’t had the puck as much as its opponents at even strength, with extraskater.com putting their possession rate at around 43 per cent, or 27th in the NHL.
The Leafs finished last season at roughly 44 per cent but were able to make up for that primarily with strong special teams, goaltending and shooting percentages.
“We want to be more of a puck possession team this year,” Carlyle told TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier in the week. “We’ve talked about having it more.”
Bolland has been a standout in a positive way in this department, leading the team at nearly 60 per cent, but he could use some help.
Isolating the culprits out of the first few games isn’t easy as different Leafs have taken turns having troubles in their own zone. But Kadri’s play has been one weak point, and blueliners Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner and Paul Ranger have made glaring errors with the puck at times.
On paper, this is a group that should be better with the puck than the seven defenceman who logged the bulk of the minutes a year ago. In practice, that’s yet to play out in the early going.
“When you play as sloppy as we did, there’s a long list [of improvements required],” Carlyle said of his team’s defensive game. “Obviously we’ve got to play a tighter brand of hockey. We know that.”