Leafs roster set – it’s opening night!
It was refreshing to see cooler heads prevail regarding the buzz over the Leafs 2009 first round draft choice Nazem Kadri. The decision to return the 18-year-old forward to the London Knights for one more year of junior hockey should be viewed a benefit, not a hindrance, to his development and the good of the Leafs hockey club.
Comparisons to last year’s teenage sensation Luke Schenn are irrelevant. At the Leafs 2008 training camp, Schenn flourished at his craft not only as one of the best rookies on the team, but one of the best defencemen on a squad with a thin blueline. In contrast, the players that comprise Toronto’s top two forward lines – while not setting the NHL on fire – still play at a level too high to be displaced by Kadri, who would have nothing to gain in a role as a “bottom six” forward.
Full credit goes to Kadri’s strong camp showing and compilation of three goals and two assists over 6 pre-season games. Nonetheless, his relatively small size at this stage in his career would not be sufficient to withstand the punishment doled out by NHL opponents over an 82-game schedule, especially when playing against opponents much tougher than the diluted pre-season versions of the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins.
My colleague Joe “Scrawler” Warmington of the Toronto Sun disagrees with me. But then, Scrawler also picked the Leafs to make the playoffs last year, so I’m not losing sleep (sorry Joe, had to get one in there!)
If there’s an area where Phil Kessel can make an immediate impact when he finally suits up for a Leafs game, it’s the shootout. Toronto fans need no reminder of the team’s horrific record in the skills-competition-style tiebreaker, which stands at 16-25 all-time, and has cost them valuable points in the standings – undoubtedly even a potential 2007 playoff berth.
In Toronto’s 41 shootout games, they have scored just 42 goals on 135 attempts, a success rate of 31.1%.
Kessel himself has 10 goals on 28 career attempts, for a 35.7% success rate.
More importantly, nine of Kessel’s goals have been game-deciders. Since the shootout was implemented, only Ales Kotalik and Vyacheslav Kozlov – both with 11 game-deciders – have more than Kessel.
“I just go down there, you go on the goalie and you react to whatever the goalie is doing,” Kessel told me last week when I asked him what makes him a shootout specialist.
“If he makes a move first, you just do something else. It just depends. It’s more of a ‘read and react’ thing. You’ve got to make your move and stick with it.”
A pair of rookie skaters have made the opening roster; one was a favourite, the other a somewhat of an underog.
Viktor Stalberg was rewarded for a stellar camp with a spot to play alongside Matt Stajan and Jason Blake on opening night. The Leafs sixth-round overall pick in 2006, Stalberg put his blinding speed on display on route to registering 6 goals and 9 points in eight exhibition games to lead all Leafs players.
My introduction to Stalberg came in the opening round of last spring’s AHL playoff series between the Marlies and the Manitoba Moose when Stalberg was called upon to suit up for Game Five at Ricoh Coliseum.
Everyone who covered that game was simply in awe of how fast he was, outracing a defender to work for the puck and earn an assist on a key goal by teammate Darryl Boyce. We knew then that he was going to be a keeper.
The promotion of Jay Rosehill, admittedly comes as a bit of a surprise – particularly in light of the expectations around freshmen Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson who will both suit up for the Marlies when they open their season on Sunday. With the likes of Colton Orr, Jamal Mayers and Wayne Primeau bringing the presence of pugnacity, Rosehill – who played on the Marlies fourth-line alongside Ryan Hollweg last year – would appear redundant.
Head coach Ron Wilson defended his selection of Rosehill to the roster as he spoke to reporters on the last day of the team’s retreat to Huntsville. “Jay Rosehill is one of those bottom six guys who is going to stick up for his teammates, obviously get into some fights and add some stiffness,” said Wilson. “You don’t have all skill players on your and then cry when your teams get punched out. You need guys with backbone, and that’s what Jay Rosehill brings.”
Home openers, Facts and figures:
The Leafs and Canadiens have each played 91 opening night games since the NHL was formed in 1917-18. Toronto’s record is 34-41-16 (.462 winning percentage). Montreal’s record is 48-26-17 (.621).
The Leafs are 22-22-11 (.500) in 55 home openers to start the season. The Habs are 14-13-7 (.515) when opening the season on the road.
Leafs head coach Ron Wilson has a 5-8-1 (.393) record in 14 season openers behind the bench in his career. His counterpart for the Canadiens Jacques Martin is 7-3-3 (.654) in 13 career season openers.
The Leafs record for most points in a season opener is five, shared by two players. Coincidentally, both games occurred against the Habs Babe Dye scored 5 goals against Montreal on December 16, 1922. Dye shares the NHL record with Joe Malone and Harry Hyland for most goals scored in an opening night game.
23 years ago, Toronto’s Tom Fergus had a hat trick plus two assists as Toronto opened the 1986-87 season with a 7-4 win over the Habs at Maple Leaf Gardens on October 9.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca
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