Despite streak, Leafs still have room to grow

Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Phil Kessel (81) carries the puck past Phoenix Coyotes left wing Mikkel Boedker (89) in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – As the Toronto Maple Leafs strutted out of Arena and made their way to Denver on Monday night, some key members of the organization’s front office staff headed in a different direction.

And boy what a tough task they’ll face in the days ahead as they convene in Palm Springs, Calif., to try and make sense of this season. The official purpose of the business trip is pro scouting meetings where vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, assistant general manager Claude Loiselle, director of pro scouting Steve Kasper and scouts Mike Penny, Rob Cowie and Tom Watt will compare notes.

The discussions will include both a detailed evaluation of the current team and a look at other players around the NHL – an important exercise ahead of a March 5 trade deadline that is actually closer than it appears. Starting with Tuesday’s contest against the Colorado Avalanche, the Leafs have just 12 more games to play before the trading period officially closes.

That really doesn’t leave many more opportunities to try and determine where this up-and-down group is headed. The picture seemed particularly muddied following Monday’s 4-2 victory over the Coyotes – a game that displayed some of the best and worst the Leafs have to offer.

“We feel that this group can continue to grow and play to a higher level,” said coach Randy Carlyle. “It’s enough talking about it; it’s time that action speaks louder than words and we’ve got to continue to grow this group to be a playoff hockey club.

“We believe that we’ve got more.”

Carlyle was quick to note that team had just won its fifth straight game – the first time that’s happened since 2007 – after deconstructing some of the mistakes and turnovers that drew his ire against Phoenix. As the season wears on, it seems that the results become just as important as the process.

The driving force behind the current surge has been the offensive output of the top line and the solid goaltending of Jonathan Bernier. Both made a difference again on this night. Phil Kessel had a goal and an assist to bump his point total to 12 during a six-game scoring streak while Bernier turned aside another 39 shots, leaving him with a stellar .927 save percentage.

Toronto was particularly impressive during the opening period and managed to build a 3-0 lead before sitting back a little too much in the later stages. However, it was the second straight game where a strong start set the tone for the evening and it’s a trend the Leaf players would like to continue.

The fact that they’ve managed to reel off five consecutive wins is particularly impressive given where they were just 11 days ago. After an ugly 6-1 loss in Carolina on Jan. 9, their third in a row, some news outlets even started to call for Carlyle’s firing. That talk has disappeared completely following a string of better efforts, which included a victory at TD Garden in Boston last week and an emotional win over Montreal on Saturday night.

“It’s been a big step (since then),” said Bernier. “We knew we were a great team, we just didn’t compete enough. That’s the main thing. I think we’re doing it right now and that’s why we came out with two points most of the nights.”

Some of the team’s younger players are still going through growing pains. Defenceman Jake Gardiner made a couple impressive offensive plays against Phoenix – opening the scoring before setting up Nazem Kadri’s third-period goal with a great pass – but also committed a few ugly turnovers.

Even Kadri, whose goal was just his second in 18 games, turned the puck over less than a minute after giving Toronto a 4-1 lead and had to watch as Antoine Vermette finished off the subsequent 2-on-1 rush to give the Coyotes more life. That prompted Carlyle to call a rare timeout to try and settle the group down.

The roller coaster is just a fact of life for this team.

“You kind of almost just forget about it and act like it never happened,” Gardiner said of dealing with mistakes. “That’s what Randy says, too – it’s in the past, we were up 3-0 going into the third period. It wasn’t just me or it wasn’t just (rookie) Morgan (Rielly), there were other guys that made mistakes, too.

“As a team, we kind of just threw it out the window.”

And so they moved on to Denver for the second game of a four-game road swing through the Western Conference. There is no denying that there is still all kinds of room to grow – “We’ve got a long ways to go here, we’re not satisfied,” said veteran defenceman Carl Gunnarsson – but at some point soon the Leafs management group is going to have to determine what it wants to get out of the 2013-14 campaign and settle on a course of action to reach that intended target.

Much of the groundwork will be laid down this week during the pro scouting meetings in Palm Springs. How the players perform over the next dozen games will help determine where things are headed as well.

For now, the Leafs are rolling and they’re providing the front office with a little food for thought in the process.

“We’ve found out that winning is fun,” said Gardiner.

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