Toronto’s New Formula for Success?

With the NHL season a mere one week old and already full of controversy, the success of the Toronto Maple Leafs has become a welcomed bright spot for the hockey world.

For many fans, asking how the Leafs have started with three straight wins might be a dangerous jinx. And in all honesty, for most other teams in the league, starting a season 3-0-0 would be little cause for extra excitement.

But Toronto always has been, and always will be, a completely different type of hockey market.

So the questions need to be asked: How have they started so strongly and how long can it continue?

How did they start so strongly?

The answers to this question will vary with each person you ask. Some will say pure luck; others will cite goaltending; while others may point to opponent underestimation of the Leafs. For me, the answer is quite simply found by looking at the roster.

Brian Burke hasn’t built a Pittsburgh, Washington or Chicago. The 2010-11 Maple Leafs don’t scream Stanley Cup contender (or playoff contender), but the team has been built to be an underdog. There is some pure skill on the team, but it is limited to players such as Phil Kessel and, arguably, Dion Phaneuf and Kris Versteeg.

Aside from those players, the team looks to be primarily second, third and fourth line type players. It’s that assumption which is leading to underestimation by teams and observers.

Burke has built a team of, for a lack of a better word, rejects. Clarke MacArthur was rejected by Atlanta; Fredrik Sjostrom and Dion Phaneuf were rejected by Calgary; Tomas Kaberle was essentially rejected by Toronto;  J.S. Giguere was rejected by Anaheim; and Tim Brent, Mike Brown and Mike Zigomanis were rejected by the NHL as a whole. These players were thought to be too expensive, past their prime, overhyped, or simply not NHL worthy by their respective clubs prior to coming to Toronto.

Anyone who has played hockey or knows hockey players at a high level realizes that rejection can be the tipping point of a career. Some players take it personally and never recover. Others take it personally but use it as motivation. The Leafs have been lucky enough to get the latter of those options with each of their acquisitions.

Every player on the Leafs’ roster has something to prove. Kessel needs to prove the trade was worth losing Tyler Seguin; Versteeg needs to prove that he’s a winner because of his play, not the supporting cast; Jonas Gustavsson needs to prove he’s an NHL starter. There is a motivated player in every stall of the Leafs’ dressing room. That type of team can be just as dangerous, or more dangerous as proven last night, than a team which boasts the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Ultimately, MacArthur won’t be a goal per game player, and depth scoring from Brent and Colton Orr won’t be as regular, but the team has the potential to use their momentum and motivation to win as a unit.

Has Burke built a team of rejects on purpose? Was the plan that motivated players would be just as valuable as star players? I never try to get into Burke’s mind, so I don’t plan to start now. To this point, however, this team is making him look good.

How long will it last?

This is the million dollar question. Can the Leafs maintain their Eastern Conference leading pace?

I don’t see this Leafs team being in a position where they have home ice advantage in the playoffs, but I’m a believer that they will make the playoffs.

Despite their strong start, most observers will still place the Leafs outside the top eight in the East. Many opponents probably take this same stance.

Being the underdog is never a bad thing in hockey. Just ask the 2004 Calgary Flames, 2006 Edmonton Oilers or last years Philadelphia Flyers, amongst countless others throughout history. For the 2010-11 Maple Leafs, how they respond to losing a few games will ultimately answer this question. They will need to build confidence from this winning streak in the same way as they let last season’s losing streak destroy their confidence.

Underestimated, but motivated teams have made a habit of playing playoff hockey, and all jokes about the Leafs’ cup drought aside, why shouldn’t we expect the same out of the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Will the early season streak become the norm? Definitely not. But will there be a lot of red faced cynics in April? I’m putting money on it.

Note: Just to be clear, I had the Leafs in a playoff spot before the season began. So don’t try that bandwagon theory stuff on me :-)

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