NHL Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple Leafs: Top 5 Reasons For Early-Season Success

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Toronto Maple Leafs Top 5 Reasons For Success

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on top of the Eastern Conference with an 8-4 record, and it’s been a total team effort to get there.

Pointing to one specific reason for the team’s success wouldn’t be fair given how the entire team has stepped up in the first month of the season. They’ve overcome injuries and suspensions, and rebounded after being embarrassed. The Maple Leafs have come back to win games they shouldn’t have and picked up big victories against legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.

Like any good team, it’s impossible to single out one reason for their success. Toronto has managed to receive significant contributions from players up and down their lineup, including contributions from unlikely sources. When a team is able to rely on multiple players to step up instead of just one or two, it encourages the rest of the roster to want to improve their own game. Players who play on a team with a ‘go-to’ guy are often left to solely rely on that player to score the big goal. However, the Maple Leafs aren’t built that way. This roster has five or six game-breakers capable of digging the team out of a hole or leading them to victory.

Unlike previous Maple Leaf teams that have looked unorganized and completely lost on the ice, coach Randy Carlyle has his squad playing a solid two-way game. His focus will always be defense first, but he hasn’t sacrificed his offensive game, taking advantage of the fact he has multiple players capable of putting the puck in the back of the net.

With Carlyle having a firm grip on the team, here are the top five reasons the Maple Leafs have had early-season success.

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5. Overcoming Injuries

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The Maple Leafs are leading the way at the top of their conference despite multiple injuries to key members of the club. Mark Fraser and Nikolai Kulemin, two key solid defensive members of the team’s penalty kill unit, have barely played this season. Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak have all missed time, while David Clarkson didn’t play the first 10 games of the season due to suspension.

Despite all these key players missing action at one point or another, Toronto has been able to fill the void thanks to players stepping up from the minor leagues. Josh Leivo, Trevor Smith, David Broll, Carter Aston and Troy Brodie haven’t exactly lit up the scoreboard, but all of them have played their tails off when called upon to suit up for the blue and white. If Toronto wasn’t able to fill the hole left by injuries with the hustle and determination from their call-ups, there’s no chance they’d be at the top of the standings in their conference.

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4. Dion Phaneuf

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Entering a contract year, Dion Phaneuf has struggled to properly earn the respect he deserves for what he is able to do night in and night out for the Maple Leafs. The captain consistently plays 25 minutes a night against the top line of the opposition, yet can’t seem to quiet the critics. Phaneuf has stepped up tremendously this season and is playing the best hockey of his career. He shut down Claude Giroux. He dominated Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry at both ends of the ice. Just recently, he made Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin look pedestrian, which is next to impossible to do.

Nobody does more and receives less credit than Phaneuf, and it’s time the organization gives him a contract extension.

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3. Kessel and van Riemsdyk's Chemistry

Kessel JvR
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk have picked up right where they finished in last season’s playoffs. Both players were playing at a high level until their season ended and they’ve carried over their play into the new season. The chemistry between the two is just as good, if not better than any other two teammates in the league. Night after night, the pair find each other wide open for an easy tip-in in front of the net. If it’s not Kessel finding van Riemsdyk, it’s vice versa. But one thing is clear, there is no selfishness between the two. With such powerful chemistry leading the way on Toronto’s top line, opposing teams haven’t found a way to slow down the pair through the first month of the season as they've combined for 25 points in 12 games. If the opposition can’t slow them down, then it’s likely that this duo will carry their momentum into the Olympics.

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2. Special Teams

Special Teams
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The additions of two-way players like Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond was likely to improve the special teams, but nobody could have predicted things would be going this well. The Maple Leafs are ranked fourth in the league in both power-play percentage (26.7 percent) and penalty-kill percentage (85.1). For a team with a recent history of being close to dead last in both categories, being in the top-five of just one category would have been impressive. The fact they are in the top-five of both categories is a direct reason why the team sits at the top of the conference standings.

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1. The Goaltenders

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Where would any team at the top of the standings be without quality goaltending? The Maple Leafs are no different with the way Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer have played through the first month of the season. Both players have stood on their heads and stolen games for their club. Both players have stepped up and helped reduce the impact the absence of key players in the lineup, and both have been the team’s best penalty killer when on the ice. It’s simple -- if Toronto didn’t have Bernier and Reimer, they wouldn’t be at the top of the Eastern Conference. If the Maple Leafs had Vesa Toskala in net, it’s questionable whether they'd have more than two wins at this point given the way the team has been routinely outshot. There’s no greater reason for Toronto’s strong start to the season than the play of Bernier and Reimer.