According to Sportsclubstats.com the Maple Leafs have a 98.9% chance of making the playoffs in 2013, a number that even the most pessimistic fan can be happy with. There is no denying the fantastic seasons being had by Nazim Kadri, Joffrey Lupul or James Reimer who have exceeded expectations and had true breakout years. That being said there is much more to the actual team than its marque players, this is why they have been so successful. Lets take a look at three of the unsung heroes of this Maple Leaf team.
Mark Fraser- Did anyone see this one coming? Realistically a long shot to even make the team Fraser has become a solid steadying force on the Leafs blue line. At 6’4, 195 and solid Fraser has given the leafs something they have been missing on the back end for years, a tough dependable defenseman that will ensure nobody is messing with his goaltender. In this shortened season Fraser has had 9 fights and has been a calming influence on his partner Cody Franson who with the right pairing has developed into a steady NHL defender. Fraser is not a goon, he is a steady, dependable defenseman that positions himself well, throws big checks, and wont hesitate to stand up for his teammates, what else could you ask for in your lower pairing D.
Jay McClement- One of the Leafs biggest flaws over the past playoff drought seasons has been their atrocious penalty killing. Ranking in the lowest 5 teams in the league for several years this is something that needed to be addressed, enter Jay McClement. The 30 year old veteran has become one of the leagues premier penalty killers and has helped drag a 28th ranked penalty kill last year to 3rd this season. Obviously McClement is not the only reason but he is a huge factor in the improvement, much more so than anyone could of predicted. A versitile player, McClement can play up and down the lineup, take important faceoffs and within his first year with the team often wears an A. This is the sort of quality veteran play and leadership a young team like Toronto needs, not exactly a heralded aquisition by Brian Burke in the offseason, this has turned out to be one of the best pickups the Leafs have made in years.
Randy Carlyle- What can be said about Randy Carlyle. A respected player, a Stanley Cup winning coach and his unapologetic style have made him the ideal coach for this market. A true believer in rough, hard working old school hockey, Carlyle has brought a style to this team that Burke had imagined at the beginning of his tenure. The Maple Leafs lead the NHL in fighting majors and have become a physical force following the mold of teams like the Boston Bruins and L.A Kings (the last two Stanley Cup Champions). This city loves a hard working tough player, think of some of the past favorites in this city; Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, J.Y.D of the Raptors and how much more did the city embrace Felix Potvin after his fight with Ron Hextall. The point is Carlyle has changed the culture of this team, his skilled players go on the ice each game knowing that their teammates have their back and as a result they play better. Its not all just culture, Carlyle has instituted impressive breakout and cycle systems that confounds other teams. Perhaps most impressive is the leafs play during a delayed penalty against the other team. They don’t panic, they take their time, await the extra attacker and get a solid chance or better out of it. Systems and culture change are as much a part of the success of this team as any of the contributions of their star players.
Please don’t plan the parade yet, but for the first time in a long time, you can wear your blue and white with pride.