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Veiled success and thoughts on the first 6

Brodi Craddock- Leaf writer for Hockeytracker.net

If the first six games of the 2011-2012 season have reminded us of anything, it's that this town will always find reasons to doubt it's team even when it's off to one of it's best starts in 15 years. All I'm saying is if Steven Stamkos were lighting up the league and Tampa Bay were off to a hot start, no one for would for one second stop to question why Stamkos was carrying so much of the offensive load. Rather, the media would praise Tampa Bay for fact that they have star players who are able to steal games for them. Anyone else notice the contradiction here in Toronto? The story here doesn't seem to be "Phil Kessel becoming an impact player in the NHL", but "Streaky scorer carries average team to unlikely start". In rare cases are impressive stats presented in a negative way, but more than once in the past couple of days I've read that Kessel for the past 4 years has led the league in points per game in October(.76) but the stats always allude to his production dropping off sharply in November. With so many teams preaching good starts to the season as a key to their success, I am genuinely amused that the media in Toronto are so quick to prescribe low expectations of Kessel remaining productive, when the real positive out of this is not that Phil Kessel is statistically the best player in the NHL as of right now, but that the Leafs only need to play solid .500 hockey from here on in to give themselves a chance at the playoffs.

Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur have all taken a lot of heat in the last week for their dip in production, which has now painted Toronto's strength from last season, secondary scoring, as it's weakness this season. Again, so quick to bite the hand that fed fans for the better half of last season. Which brings me to secondary scoring. I would say that, particularly on a team like Toronto, secondary scoring comes from the bottom two lines. Since the Leafs two top lines are a very effective one-two punch with both drawing attention from top checking lines, neither are the undisputed first line, or second line. Coming into the season, Grabovski's line was number one. As of now, Phil Kessel's line is number one, but a future reversal still is more than likely. So we can stop talking about secondary scoring. The lack is of scoring outside of Phil Kessel. There's no doubt that Clarke MacArthur's suspension hurt his line's chemistry out of the gate, but it's clear the trio are missing that creative element that defined their success last season. They aren't penetrating quite as well as last season and more than once Kulemin and Grabovski have been guilty of bad turnovers at the opposition blue line, something which can't be done against teams like Boston who will bury most of the chances you give them. Ron Wilson, however, has indicated he isn't worried at all about this line though he would like to get them going sooner rather than later. The great thing about playing on the same team but different line than the NHL's leading scorer is that you won't have to go into a corner against a Zdeno Chara or a Chris Pronger as often. I fully expect this line to take advantage of not having to play against top defensive units and return to being one of the more dangerous lines in the east.

On the defence..

The first name that must be mentioned is Dion Phaneuf. Apart from Phil Kessel, he has been the best Leaf in the early going. He is earning every bit of the "C" on his jersey and finally playing the more offensive game we saw in his first few seasons, but with the maturity of a ten year veteran. At 26, Phaneuf has more than enough time and talent to prove he is a Norris quality defenceman once again. Speaking of Norris quality defenceman, what do the Leafs have in Jake Gardiner? I would say that we now have a P.K Subban-like player but one that's not as much of a league-wide joke. Gardiner is on a Duncan Keith, Kris Letang level in terms of skating and is my personal favourite to win the Calder this year(Though that Landeskog kid is making me think he should have been first overall) . Carl Gunnarsson has been steady as expected and Mike Komisarek has been very convincing as a 7th defenceman. Luke Schenn looked a bit out of it for the first 5 games but in Boston was remarkably enough a +2 in a 6-2 defeat and got an assist. The biggest concern on the blue line at this point has been the very so-so play of Cody Franson. Although Franson is still getting used to Toronto and playing a different style of game, some of the hype surrounding his inclusion to the lineup was slightly misguided. Franson had great numbers for a 23 year old defenseman, but he also was playing on a high scoring and all around formidable defensive unit. No disrespect at all to the Leafs D, but Nashville is very much a defense first team whose point shots are the key to their offense, a system which the Leafs have struggled to find success with. Franson, the Leafs management are hoping, will add a second bomb from the point on the PP and maybe that will solve the impotent Toronto man-advantage. But before any point shots can be taken, someone has to show this team how to enter the offensive zone.

Oh wait, aren't we 4-1-1? That's right. We might as well save the criticism for the 12 game skid we have coming up in November.

@brodicraddock @hockey_tracker

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