Responsible for nearly half of his team's offense this season, Phil Kessel is certainly shouldering the early load.
With six goals and nine points through the first four games, the 24-year-old sniper has burst out of the gate firing darts. But beyond Kessel and linemates Joffrey Lupul (two goals, five points) and Tyler Bozak (three assists) – involved in eight of the team's ten even-strength goals and nine of thirteen overall – it's been a one-trick show for the Leafs offense in the early going this season. And while it's far too soon to draw serious conclusions, secondary scoring remains an area to closely monitor with the Leafs set to play four games in the next six nights, beginning on Wednesday with the Winnipeg Jets in town.
Outside of Kessel and the core line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur, offense was hard to come by for the Leafs last season. The four horses tallied a combined 112 goals, representing more than half of an offense (53%) which ranked 21st in the league.
After a perfect 4-0 start last season - led by a red-hot Kessel - the Leafs went on to win just once in the next twelve games (1-8-3), scoring only 19 goals in that stretch.
Kessel's line is off to a blazing start, but so far, the Grabovski trio has struggled to replicate the chemistry they shared last season. Kulemin potted the game-tying goal late in the third period against Colorado – his first this season – but it was just the second goal for the unit as they work MacArthur back into the mix from suspension.
"I'm going to be patient there," said Ron Wilson, following a Tuesday afternoon practice at the Mastercard Centre.
What Wilson has now as opposed to last season is a variety of options at his disposal.
Still searching for his first NHL goal, Matt Frattin has generated a slew of good scoring chances and showed in the opening two games – with MacArthur out – the ability to slide up the lineup if needed. "I think right now we want to be patient and make sure that we get some chemistry on those lines," noted Wilson, "but if a line isn't generating scoring chances I won't hesitate to move him up in the lineup."
Options open further with Matthew Lombardi – whose role continues to expand – and the eventual return of Tim Connolly. Connolly practiced with teammates on Tuesday and though Wilson wasn't sure if he'd be ready to play on the team's upcoming four-game road trip, he was intrigued by the possibility. "That would be a nice addition to get him in there," said Wilson. "It would change the dynamic of our whole lineup once he's healthy and ready to go."
A healthy Connolly – he's been sidelined with a suspected shoulder injury since September 26th – allows Wilson to slide Bozak back down in the lineup – possibly alongside Lombardi and Colby Armstrong on the third line – thus deepening the offensive weaponry from line to line. With Frattin pushing for more opportunity, Lupul finally healthy and kicking into gear, Nazem Kadri inching closer to a return (knee injury) – likely with the Marlies to start – and Joe Colborne off to a red-hot start with the Marlies (four goals, seven points), the Leafs are no longer devoid of offensive options.
But they'll need both the Kessel and Grabovski trios to produce consistently, if only to balance the pressure on two units, rather than just the one.
"I know what we're going to do," said MacArthur. "I think this year we'll be the same kind of line. Whether you come out of the gate flying or not I think no matter what we'll still get to that level."
Expectations were minimal when the three were paired together last fall, but they've jumped dramatically this fall. A tight-knit unit on and off the ice, the line has dabbled more in the east-west game early this season as opposed to the grinding (and yet skill-induced), north-south game they flourished with last season.
"If you try and think about it for right now," continued MacArthur, "if I think 'Oh my God, I've got to get that many points, Kulie's got to score 30 goals', if you think about it that way you can screw up your [mind-set]. It's a long year and I think we want to just create chances every game. If they go in, they go in, if not we're still being a threat offensively and just see how it goes that way."
Kulemin scored his first goal of the season Monday on just his third shot in four games. Kulemin is certainly more quality over quantity. Among the 29 players who scored 30 goals or more last season, only one had a better shooting percentage than the 25-year-old Kulemin: Sidney Crosby (19.9%). The fourth-year winger had 30 goals on just 173 shots (17.3%). "Sometimes I don't shoot, I just start looking for [my] partners," he said. "Sometimes there's a good chance [to] shoot and score and [I'm] just looking for a pass. I just want to get a shoot mentality and shoot more on the net."
J.S. Giguere won the battle over his young protégé James Reimer on Monday night, stopping 27 shots in a 3-2 Avalanche win. Reimer was effusive in his praise for Giguere before the game. "There's so many things I learned from him," said Reimer of Giguere. "Hard work to attitude, to quality of work, how to warm up, what do you do before a game, just watching him, how he eats and how he prepares himself. He's a heck of a professional.
"I feel I like picked up little tidbits of information from every part of his game."
John-Michael Liles was excited to face his former team on Monday, but he might've been more keyed up to see his St. Louis Cardinals advance to the Worlds Series. "I'm a big Cardinals fan," said Liles. "Actually I was at dinner with [Paul] Stastny [Sunday] night and he's a huge Cardinals fan as well. He and I were actually watching the last time they won the World Series [in 2006] – we were watching together somewhere in Denver.
"We were pretty pumped. We're excited for the World Series."