A Physical and (so far) Winning Team

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One of the more interesting, borderline meaningless stats associated with the Maple Leafs at the moment is their league-leading hit count despite the subtraction of Luke Schenn’s ~270 “hits” (not that Schenn wasn’t physical, but pity the ACC stat recorder who decided his patented three-step push counted as one). Through 16 games in 2013, the Leafs lead the league, ahead of the Flyers and Rangers, with 454 hits.

Now, Leo Komarov alone is responsible for 63 of these, taking up Schenn’s mantle as the undisputed team leader, and it’s not like the Leafs finished in the basement in total hits last season. In fact, they were ranked fourth from best, albeit with David Steckel accounting for a 170 phantom hits. But forget the hitting numbers for a second – they don’t totally capture a team’s physical play and often widely vary depending on what rink you’re playing in – and you can tell by just watching them… paired with – and these aren’t mutually exclusive – better-than-we-hoped-for goaltending, a big part of the Leafs‘ early success is thanks to their improved physical play.

While giveaways remain a problem, the Leafs’ defence is making it harder on attackers to enter the good ice. By better blocking out forwards and clearing rebounds and sightlines for their goaltenders, the front of the Leaf net hasn’t been the welcoming place it was in the days of the fronting system. Mark Fraser (40 recorded hits), Korbinian Holzer (22 hits in 9 games), a more inclined Cody Franson (27 hits in 12 games) and the expectedly physical Phaneuf are all contributing in these respects. Mike Kostka will rarely stray from his position to make a hit, but what Carlyle seems to like about him is his ability to win a one on one battle, the medicore footspeed or slow decision making be damned.

Up front, other teams are taking notice of Komarov as he’s quickly lived up to the “Most Hated Player” label he held for three seasons in the Finnish SM-Liiga. Beyond his ability to draw penalties without stepping over the line himself (last night being an exception to what we’ve otherwise seen from Leo), he’s been a disruptive force on the forecheck and helps to slow down the opposition D by eliminating time and space. The same description, less the shit-disturbing qualities, applies to Jay McClement, a player Randy Carlyle hated facing as Anaheim’s coach when his team played St. Louis or Colorado. These two have helped considerably, so too has the feistiness of Kadri, and Carlyle seems to be getting a little bit more out of Kulemin. More generally, this type of play can be infectious across a lineup.

Whether it pays off with a playoff berth or not, we are seeing in the early going that Carlyle wasn’t just paying training camp lip service to his demand for more physical competitiveness. Leo Komarov and Jay McClement are fan and coach favourites, and Carlyle’s placing a lot more value on defence personnel who can punish opponents when they come over the blueline or try to enter the Leafs goalmouth. It’s early days to be making conclusions about their long term impact, but it’s hard for me to imagine the likes of Holzer, Fraser and Kostka enjoying the early success they’ve had with the prior coach, under whom there was such a burden on the Leafs’ D (not just the limited support from a defensive standpoint, but in having to regularly execute difficult breakout passes to jumpstart the rush). On the other hand, Liles, a player who thrived under Wilson pre-concussion, may find last night’s scratch won’t be his last.

In any event, this team is looking much closer to what Burke envisioned and pitched to us fans when he arrived in Toronto in terms of its playing style. And at least so far, it’s a winner. The 2013 Leafs, through a third of the season, have been more physical and more defensively responsible without sacrificing anything in the goal column. Is it sustainable enough, if the goaltending dips or when the Leafs play a string of tougher opponents? Who knows, that’s why they play the games. But if Carlyle’s Leafs manage to do what Wilson’s Leafs couldn’t, Burke’s biggest mistake will most assuredly go down as standing by, for so long, a coach that never shared his vision.

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