A true vision of what the 2021 Maple Leafs will be this season is starting to take shape and these Maple Leafs aren’t the same old Maple Leafs. A 5-2 record to start the season is a great showing for a team still in transition with new systems taking root. Coming into the season the questions were can this team play team defense and how would it overcome adversity in this highly unusual season.
At least in the first seven games these questions have been answered. Until last night’s game, the Maple Leafs had allowed on average fewer than 30 shots per game, it is the first time the team had accomplished this since five years ago.
The additions of Brodie, Bogosian and returning the pair of Justin Holl with Jake Muzzin have really stabilized the back end to start the season and what has been even more apparent is the puck & defensive support from the forwards in the defensive end. All four lines have dedicated themselves to playing team defense, it may not always have been pretty but it has in large part been effective.
It isn’t mission accomplished in this regard just yet but some praise is in order for a team still trying to work a lot of new bodies into its roster. With so few practices, a shortened camp and a condensed schedule to contend with to work on the systems, I have to say these early results are promising.
This new attention to defence has come at a small price, as they aren’t scoring at the pace we have seen in previous seasons. I know for some it was a concern especially after losing 3-1 to the Edmonton Oilers in game one of their back to back last week, but I am of the mindset that the offence will come and that can’t be held back for too long with such a talented roster and a powerful power play which is in the top five in the league.
These tight checking games will be key stepping stones as the games get tighter and will go a long way to gear this team up for what should be another appearance in the playoffs. Playing playoff style hockey isn’t a switch you can easily turn on as this was something this team had tried to do in the past with little success. You have to set this tone in the regular season and carry it into the playoffs, which has been I am sure stressed to the players by management and the coaches before this season even started.
As for overcoming adversity, I will give them an early season checkmark on this as well. Yes we are only seven games into the season, but this team has already lost both Nick Robertson and Joe Thornton for the foreseeable future and the team’s top player Auston Matthews also missed a game due to a sore wrist. In that time we have started to see scoring from the depth players on this roster like Wayne Simmonds last night, Jimmy Vesey now has a couple on the season, and even Jason Spezza who has played limited minutes on the fourth line has three points on the season so far (a far cry from being benched in the season opener last year under coach Babcock).
Even with these key injuries and the early adversity after having two bad games off the jump, the Maple Leafs have started to put things together, currently on a two game winning streak as they go into the second of their back to backs with Calgary tomorrow night. The Maple Leafs are where I predicted them to be at the top of the North Division (10 points, currently tied with Montreal who has played one fewer game). After watching some of the other Canadian teams limp out of the gate no more so than Edmonton and Vancouver, the Maple Leafs have an opportunity to put some space between themselves their rivals and solidify their standing in the division with only Montreal at this point offering any form of competition and resistance to Maple Leafs winning the division.
I will take this start by the Maple Leafs any day, even with some things still needing to be worked out. I haven’t yet touched on the efforts from the goalies, who starting with Frederik Andersen who has come on as late after a poor start to back-up goalie Jack Campbell have come up big when the players in front of them needed them the most.
The overall picture early in the season is pointing in a positive direction, these Maple Leafs are truly changing. What we are seeing is a maturation of its young core and part of it is the immediate impact veterans like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian have had on this team. This team looks happier, they look willing to play for one other but more importantly they look to be embracing the change needed to take the next step in their progress and for this I am excited for what the rest of the season brings.