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Shoalts: For a work in progress, Leafs are riding high Add to ...

There were lots of wobbles in their last outing but the Toronto Maple Leafs are resting on top of the NHL’s Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference on Thanksgiving Day because of depth up front, goaltending and leadership.

“We’re trying to get to, as every team is, where our contribution is not focused on one or two people,” Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. “We want to try and become a three- and four-line hockey club.

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“We understand those guys are not expected to provide the level of offence like Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk but everybody makes a contribution. What it does is spread out the pressure and everybody feels they made a contribution to your group.”

While there is an argument to be made the Leafs spread around the mistakes more than anything in their last outing, a lead-changing series of defensive miscues by both sides that ended in a 6-5 overtime win over the Edmonton Oilers, the Leafs’ strong start to the season remains. As they prepare to meet the Minnesota Wild at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night, the Leafs are 5-1 in the first half-dozen games of the season.

The usual suspects carried the Leafs through most of regulation time Saturday, as van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul scored two goals each. Then, in overtime, the depth showed when newcomer Mason Raymond, defenceman Cody Franson and third-line centre Dave Bolland struck on a three-on-one rush.

Bolland got the goal, which may not have been as big as his Stanley-Cup winning goal for the Chicago Blackhawks last June but it was plenty big for the Leafs, who still have a long road ahead of them to reach the same status as Bolland’s former team. Carlyle said Bolland, 27, was acquired from Chicago for more than just his ability to score big goals.

However, Bolland has the game-winner in two games so far.

“To get the true read on David Bolland is when you come to practice,” Carlyle said. “He does every drill at the highest possible speed, he practises like a pro. He’s trying to make himself better every day.

“We made that statement before, that some of our younger players could take notice of that. We’ve talked to them about just watch what happens, how he approaches practice and how intense he is and the level of commitment he puts in at practice. We have a motto: If your skill level is at one level and if your will or ability to work doesn’t match that skill-level or exceed it, you’re not going to get any better.

“It’s guys like David Bolland who sell your program and help coaches in leading by example and showing the way. Those are very, very important intangibles that happen within the team.”

Bolland says he is starting to see some similarities between his new team and his old one, although the Leafs have a ways to go to hit the Blackhawks’ level.

“We have confidence, we just don’t give up,” he said. “In Chicago, when I was there, we’d be down 5-4 or 5-1 against teams and we knew we could come back. We have that feeling in the room. If we’re down, we can come back.”

Van Riemsdyk said the youthful Leafs are starting to realize they can depend on each other. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier, for example, struggled early but the Leaf scorers helped him out. Then he made a game-saving glove save late in the third period.

“Yeah, I think we have a ton of depth in general,” he said. “You look up and down the lineup, we have a lot of different guys who can score goals and chip in offensively. I think what makes a great team is when you have different guys picking you up at different times.”

While the Leafs could point to the loss of four regulars because of injuries or suspension as the cause of any wobbles, van Riemsdyk says no, “it just has to do with us being a little smarter with pucks, at being creative in the right spots on the ice.”

It is a work in progress, he says.

“Sometimes we try a little too much out there,” van Riemsdyk said. “But part of it, too, is the ice [at the Air Canada Centre]. Hopefully, we’ll get that cleaned up. It’s a bit chippy out there.

“We’ve got to be smarter about that too, knowing if the ice isn’t right, if the puck isn’t sitting flat then you can’t be trying anything crazy. That’s something you learn as the year goes on and games get tighter and the margin for error gets smaller.”

Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts

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