It's too soon for bold pronouncements, but so far, the Leafs have been facing more or less the inverse of the problems they faced last season. "If only they would stop playing the goons so much! If only the team would shelter Dion Phaneuf a bit more! If only the Leafs had a 3rd line that wouldn't get run over by the Fenwick train!" It's like a dream come true, within a larger nightmare that is mediocrity.
The goons are gone, and they've been replaced with semi-competent players. The Leafs' 4th line generally still gets run over, but it's less painful to watch for sure. I, for one, still think Peter Holland could be a pretty decent player. Richard Panik has shown some flashes of offence and then a propensity to get hemmed in his own end, but hey - flashes of offence, right? At least we can point to a 30-something OZ Start % for these two and chalk some of it up to that. Brandon Kozun hasn't looked as good as he was in the preseason, but hey, that's to be expected, and what's more is that it's not like he's eating up a lot of cap space, and so isn't an overly costly experiment.
Phaneuf has been the Leafs' best possession defender with fewer minutes played per game, and even if that doesn't continue for long, it's a glimpse at what we as fans had hoped for last season. Personally, I am of the opinion that Phaneuf is in a decline that he is unlikely to pull out of (it is, after all, the larger trend in his play), but at least for now, things look the way we'd hoped.
Oddly, the man drawing much of the heat away from Phaneuf has been a guy who wasn't even deemed worthy of a roster spot last season. In short, Stuart Percy has been a revelation, despite being saddled with a 29.0 OZ Start %. Is he the man we hoped Gunnarsson would actually be? Percy has done incredibly well so far in the face of a huge step up in responsibility.
Next, we come to David Clarkson and the 3rd line, which has, quite frankly, been a pleasant surprise. They've been pesky and hard-hitting, yes, but more importantly, they're among the Leafs' better possession players, and they're chipping in with some offence. Mike Santorelli looks like a great pickup for the price, and Leo Komarov has matched over 50% of his total production from two years ago in just 7 games. For his part, Clarkson's contract is still one of the Seven Wonders of the NHL Contractual World, but hey, he's picked up a few points and has generally been, dare I say it, good.
Perhaps the craziest and least crazy change is that the team's Fenwick tied rate is up to a mediocre 18th in the league. I mean, we were screaming all year for these simple changes to be made, and so seeing the team's possession numbers go up as a result should take no one by surprise. On the other hand, if all it took to make this team hang on to the puck more often were a few bloggers' opinions, is it not crazy -- totally insane, even -- that it took this long for them to be heard? The Leafs may still be mediocre, but at least they don't look terrible.
In short, most things that went well for the team last season have not gone well so far.
Phil Kessel and his line mates are getting absolutely destroyed on shot attempt charts. The trio has been putting the puck in the net as of late, but Kessel in particular doesn't look the same, and the numbers reflect as much. He used to explode as soon as he got the puck. He could create space for himself and his line mates out of thin air. This year, that doesn't happen as often. Is that injury from back in the pre-season still lingering? Is Bozak nursing something as well? We can't know for sure, but it definitely looks like it.
Goaltending. Both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier got off to slow starts this season, with Reimer even having a bit of a concussion scare. My own expectation is that one or both of the Leafs' tenders will settle in and get better after a short while, but lately, things have been shaky, with soft goals leaking in here and there. Without the exceptional goaltending the Leafs had behind them last season, this one could be a long drive.
At first blush, the Leafs' special teams look better -- dramatically so on the penalty kill. The main issue with that early number is that is that the PK has actually been about as bad as last season's if we look at the actual shot attempts they've been allowing. Moreover, the power play is about where it was last season (18th this season, 19th last) in terms of ranking, and looks even a hair lower when we look at shot attempts. OK, so special teams are about the same, not worse, but that's still bad.
So what now?
With the Leafs' possession numbers up to where we figured they could be and a third line contributing like we had hoped, this team stands to finish about how they did last season. It stinks, but the truth is that this hockey club was probably about as good as their record last year, and this time around, they're appear ready to repeat those results, using mostly the same cast of characters. It will be a bummer when people don't realize that hot goaltending and a great first line made last year's team as good as this one, and denounce the Leafs' new use of advanced stats as gimmickry.
At least, for the first time in a long while, we can hope that the team's management will be well-informed enough to play the long game and start putting important pieces in place. If this season amounts to digging the team out of the hole it made for itself in the previous two, I suppose we have to resign ourselves to calling that something of a success.