TORONTO - The extent of the growth of the Maple Leafs in 2011-12 won’t be fully measured until the final games of the regular season have been played in April, but from some indications, the Leafs appear to be ready to shed their losing ways.
Toronto hit the Christmas holiday with 18 victories, six more than they had at the same time a year ago. Through nearly three months — the Leafs will meet the halfway point when they play host to the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 10 — the club has shown that it can be resilient, and is a group that’s not bothered by a heck of a lot.
Injuries could have been an easy excuse, but the Leafs had nothing longer than a three-game losing streak as they opened their presents on Christmas morning with an 18-13-4 record, good for 40 points and sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
“Last year in the second half we were trying to build something and we have been doing that,” captain Dion Phaneuf said.
“We wanted to continue to get better every night as a group and learn from experiences that we have had, whether good or bad.”
General manager Brian Burke talked about changing the culture when he assumed power three years ago, but it was not something that was going to happen with a snap of his big Irish fingers. The process has been gradual, and by no means is it finished, but those who were in the dressing room last year, went away for a bit and now are back, have noticed it.
“The feeling last year, there was a lot of depression in the room and there was not that winning mindset,” said forward Darryl Boyce, who made his Leafs debut last season on Dec. 30. “Going forward now, the guys have a taste of winning early in the season. There’s a spark.”
Like Boyce, Nazem Kadri has seen it too. We’ll keep in mind that both were in the lineup only for wins last week, but the positive vibes were happening before then.
“It’s a winning atmosphere and you can tell these guys want to succeed and make the playoffs,” Kadri said.
“(On the ice), it seems like it is a lot more structured. Attention to detail is a lot higher. Guys are not making the mistakes they used to, including myself.”
The post-Christmas portion of the season will continue to reveal what kind of team the Leafs are, and where it goes in the future. It must be kept in mind that even though coach Ron Wilson has been given a contract extension, whether the Leafs have success in 2012 can’t be accurately predicted.
But anyone who thinks Burke won’t have his hand in the trade waters before the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline is fooling themselves. The Leafs are deeper at forward and on defence than they have been in years, but there’s never a hard cap on room for improvement.
The Leafs are one of the youngest teams in the NHL, but where that could have led to mental fragility, it did not. They are 12-0-0 when leading after two periods, so they can put the hammer down, and are 7-7-3 when the opposition scores first.
“Our team is a little bit naive,” Wilson said. “They think we can win every game. For us, we’ve had guys come up from the Marlies and make huge contributions. It keeps everyone else on the team honest.”
It’s true that the Leafs just now will be entering the meat of their schedule and will have to fight against any potential lulls.
This group seems ready for that, which is not something that could have been said about the team in recent seasons.
“You want to stay in the hunt, stay right in the middle of the pack,” forward Clarke MacArthur said. “You guys know and we know the last 20 games are really hard to make up points. It seems like when you are chasing someone, no one gives up easy points. We want to make our good push at the end again.”