Well, the playoffs are finally starting to wind down, with Chicago wrapping up a series sweep of the Sharks and the Flyers looking like they might finally knock out the Habs and save the city streets of Montreal from the Armageddon that would ensue if they were to make it to the Cup Finals or, God forbid, somehow find a way to win the Cup. For Leaf fans, or at least for me, the playoffs have been refreshing to watch for a number of reasons.
First off, it’s great hockey, and it has only continued to get better as the stakes get higher. The Olympics were awesome, but there’s something special about the Stanley Cup Playoffs that’s just not rivaled anywhere in sports. Second, the Canadiens and Flyers are living proof of the parity in the league that should give Leaf fans some hope for the future. Remember, these two teams that are now fighting for the Eastern Conference title didn’t secure their playoff berths until the final weekend of the regular season, and were, at best, considered nothing more than a couple of tough outs for their first round opponents. The thing that makes the NHL so much more entertaining to me than any other sport is that on any given night, even the biggest underdog can come away with victory. Given the Leafs’ late season surge, I have faith in Brian Burke and do believe that he will bring this franchise back to the playoffs in the very near future, possibly as early as next season. Before you ridicule me into oblivion, hear me out and consider the following.
Assuming the Flyers hold on to win their series, a Cup Finals matchup between Chicago and Philadelphia would lend even more hope to the rebuilding effort going on in Toronto right now. Just a few seasons ago, both teams were scraping the bottom of the league, much like the Leafs did this season. Of course, Chicago was able to turn their failures into Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Philadelphia on the other hand, had the worst season in franchise history in 2006-07, and were able to quickly turn their club around with a similar philosophy to what Brian Burke has attempted to create here in Toronto.
Forgetting the talent levels on their rosters, both Chicago and Philly have an aggressive, physical mentality that makes them incredibly difficult to play against on any given night. They forecheck hard, battle for every loose puck, and make teams pay for every square inch of ice on just about every shift. When Brian Burke says he wants truculence on his roster, I think it’s a pretty safe bet, that this is the type of attitude he’s trying to cultivate on the Leafs bench. The attitude that, no matter how good or bad the opponent is, by the time this game is over, whether we won or lost, two things will have happened. First, the other team will know damn well that they’ve been in a hockey game and not a figure skating contest. Second, every ounce of possible energy has been expended to win. That attitude certainly wasn’t prevalent for most of the season, but I think we got to see glimpses of it at the end of the year, and with a healthy injection of youth on the roster yet again next year, I think we’ll see it more consistently.
Another similarity that the Blackhawks and Flyers share is the young leadership that has carried them so far. Captains Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards are two of my favorite players in the entire league right now. Not only are they both incredibly talented, but they help their team in all aspects of the game. Both players are consistently among their team leaders in scoring, but they are both also committed to playing tough, solid defense and have already developed into some of the top two way players in the league. They hit, they kill penalties, they score goals, they manage the game well and oh yeah, Richards is 25 and Toews just turned 22 last month.
Finally, both Chicago and Philadelphia have developed solid blueline corps that are capable of handling their responsibilities in their own end while contributing offensively, with a great mix of young talent and veteran leadership. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook both have very bright futures ahead of them, and the same could be said of Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has emerged as a very capable defender in his own right. For Philadelphia, the addition of Chris Pronger and a healthy Kimmo Timonen have been perhaps the biggest difference makers between the playoff teams of past years that stumbled early and the current group that was able to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history. Matt Carle and Braydon Coburn, both aged 25, are averaging over 24 minutes of ice time in the postseason, and have done so with remarkable success (both have an impressive +7 rating so far).
Now, to bring this all back home. My point in looking at these two teams that have risen to the top this season is to point out that, while there are certainly many differences between them and the Leafs, the rebuilding process, when being carried out by someone who actually knows what they’re doing (read: not John Ferguson Jr.), does not have to take years. This season was certainly much worse than anyone, myself included, thought it would be, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Leafs are years from being competitive again. It’s precisely this reason that I am not, like many fans, incensed that we won’t be getting the services of either Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin when the draft rolls around. Call me an idiot, but having a proven scorer who will, in all likelihood, score 35-40 goals every season for at least the next four years sounds pretty damn good to me. Sure Seguin or Hall could turn out to be a superstar, and if one of them ends up being the next Crosby or Ovechkin, Burke will have to live with that. But I think Burke has put some of the pieces in place that will help this team win in the very near future, and Phil Kessel is one of those pieces.
A bigger piece of the puzzle for the Leafs will be Dion Phaneuf. All signs point to the towering blueliner being named the 21st captain in franchise history, and that could be a bigger factor than I think anyone really realizes. Since Sundin’s departure, this team has been without an identity, and never has that been clearer than the midseason slump that saw the Leafs fall from being within a win streak of competition to the depths of the league basement. Phaneuf’s got balls, he’s got attitude, he’s got tons of talent and, most importantly, he wants to win. From the brief period we got to watch him play at the end of the year, it’s clear that this is a young man who has, at least not yet, become accustomed to the mediocrity that has plagued this franchise in recent years, and genuinely desires to win. Having a player like that can do wonders for a team’s confidence.
Finally, the biggest problem for Toronto for most of the season was keeping the puck out of their own net. Looking at the blueline on paper for next season, that shouldn’t be as much of an issue. Assuming Kaberle gets moved, the Leafs’ defensive corps will have five very capable defenders, all in their 20s, and just about all of them playing with something to prove. Francois Beauchemin (29) will likely be on the top pairing with Phaneuf. Mike Komisarek (28), healthy and fully recovered from this year’s injury, should be ready to go, and Luke Schenn (20), as long as he can avoid the midseason disappearing act he pulled this year, could be a bigger contributor than I think alot of people are giving him credit for. Carl Gunnarsson’s emergence as a legitimate every night player was one of the few bright spots this season, and if the 23 year-old can stay healthy all year, we could see some very impressive numbers from him. Finger will be gone, most likely to the Marlies, and it will be interesting to see who Burke pulls in to round out his blueline, but regardless, Schenn, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Phaneuf and Gunnarsson sounds like a pretty solid blueline to me.
Sure, there’s a lot of work to do, and priority number one will be to find a legit number one center to play with Kessel. I would bet my life on the fact that Burke will be one of the most active GMs during the offseason and it should be fun to watch. If he can somehow work his magic and find a healthy dose of offense to go with this blueline and give the Gustavsson-Giguere tandem some goal support, I think we’re looking at a Leaf team that will be infinitely more competitive. Of course, this is Toronto, so there’s always the possibility that Kessel tanks it, Phaneuf turns out to be the locker room cancer that some say he is, Beauchemin ends up washing out, Schenn takes another November nosedive and Gustavsson’s heart fails him again. But if my gut is right and the Leafs can find that level of competitiveness and physical aggressiveness that has been so successful for other teams, I think next season should be much more enjoyable.