Don't look now, but the rebuilt Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the hottest teams in the NHL since the Olympic break. The team has won six of their last seven, and seems to showing significant signs of hope after an otherwise awful season.
Why? What's changed? How can a team that's already bad trade away almost all of their veterans and suddenly emerge as a world beater?
I spent the weekend breaking down the video tape of the team's recent games, I've come to the conclusion that what we're seeing is actually the result of a combination of factors. Below are the twelves recent changes that I think have been the most important to the Leafs stunning turnaround.
- Ron Wilson wisely ensured that Phil Kessel would be well-rested for the stretch run by ordering him to do absolutely nothing during the Olympics.
- The team has responded well to newcomer Dion Phaneuf's legendarily inspiring pre-game motivational rock-bangings.
- Since trading Vesa Toskala, the team's save percentage has improved to 1.000 on shots taken from behind the opponent's goal line.
- After extensive research, the coaching staff discovered a loophole in NHL rulebook that allows a shorthanded team to shoot the puck all the way down ice without being called for icing. Did you know about that? Dude, it changes everything!
- Tyler Bozak woke up one morning and decided to start being ridiculously good.
- The absence of Lee Stempniak has created an opportunity for younger players to step into the role of a fourth-liner who contributes absolutely nothing.
- Nikolai Kulemin has embraced the opportunity to spend time on the first line, kill penalties, and play during key defensive situations, experience that will prove invaluable when he's in the KHL next year.
- Tomas Kaberle's steadfast refusal to waive his NTC and continued insistence that he wants to win a championship in Toronto has become an inspiration to the team's young players to win now, since they now realize that even a few seasons of NHL hockey can be enough to cause early onset of dementia.
- Not completely sure, but there's an outside chance that facing second and third-string goalies every night has something to do with it.
- Goaltending coach Francois Allaire has worked hard with Jonas Gustavsson to correct the flaws in his game, such as overcommitting on cross-ice passes, losing track of rebounds, and letting his heart explode in the middle of key games.
- After almost five years, finally got around to practicing this shootout thing.
- The team's veterans are motivated by the knowledge that if they play poorly enough, Brian Burke won't hesitate to demote them to the team's AHL affiliate in Calgary.