As the lights went out on the Leafs’ season Saturday night at the Air Canada Center, it was a bittersweet feeling for the loyal fans of the storied franchise. For the sixth straight season, Toronto will once again be watching the postseason rather than partaking in it. However, most fans had already resigned themselves to that fact in December, when the team was stumbling through yet another midseason slump, hampered by consistently inconsistent play in just about every aspect of the game with little reason for hope in the short term future.
Since the start of 2011, however, the Leafs found new confidence in the solid goaltending of James Reimer, were one of the most active teams in the league in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, and put together one of the better post-All Star break records in the NHL, at 18-9-6. The hole they dug themselves with a couple of elongated winless streaks in the season’s opening months was, in the end, too deep for them to climb out of, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that the strength this team showed down the stretch was more than just a typical Toronto late season winning streak of years past.
First of all, the record the Leafs compiled over the last half of the season was more than just a couple weeks of strong play. Leaf fans have grown more than accustomed to seeing their team begin winning when it’s far too late in recent seasons, usually picking up a handful of wins in late March before trading their skates and sticks for golf carts and 9-irons. This year, though, the Buds played consistently good hockey aside from a brief dry spell in January before Reimer was given the reins full-time, racking up 24 wins and 55 of the 85 points they finished with.
The trades Brian Burke pulled off have set the Leafs up very well heading into the upcoming offseason. With over $20 million in cap space, the Leafs will have plenty of room to re-sign restricted free agents like Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, James Reimer, Clarke MacArthur and possibly Tyler Bozak (who will likely see his pay drop a bit after a somewhat disappointing season). The Leafs also hold two first round draft picks, as well as a handful of later picks, which gives Burke plenty to work with in terms of either dealing for immediate help or continuing to stock up for the future.
The re-emergence of Dion Phaneuf, especially in the weeks following the Tomas Kaberle trade, is a great sign for the Leafs, as he appeared to regain some of the form that saw him earn a Norris Trophy nomination in Calgary. Keith “Muhammad” Aulie is looking like he may have been a huge steal in the Phaneuf trade, as he stepped in seamlessly when Francois Beauchemin was dealt to Anaheim, while the Leafs still have a number of talented young blueliners in the pipeline (Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer – to name a few). With Brett Lebda likely demoted to the Marlies if he’s still with the club next season, the Leafs will probably be looking to add a depth defenseman to the mix, but if Mike Komisarek can find his game again, something he showed signs of doing in the late stages of the year, the Buds will be a very tough team to play against defensively.
Up front, the biggest question mark obviously remains down the middle. Tyler Bozak clearly isn’t cut out for service as a top-line center, and while his dismal +/- rating may not show it, I think he actually has some talent as a two-way center and could be a pretty capable 3rd liner. Joffrey Lupul, whom many considered to be a throw-in salary dump in the Beauchemin deal, took the opportunity to showcase his talents and finished the year very strong, netting 9 goals and 18 points in 28 games with the club. His size and physical play certainly benefited Phil Kessel, who finished the season with 32 goals (tied with Alex Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews, Thomas Vanek, Logan Couture, Brenden Morrow and Sidney Crosby’s total from just 41 games) on the heels of a 10 game scoring streak. Assuming MacArthur is re-signed, the addition of a legitimate top-six center to play with Kessel and Lupul would give the Leafs a pretty well-balanced attack.
Saturday night’s game also gave Leaf nation their first look at the Leafs’ future, as Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin made their NHL debuts. While it would be foolish to expect both players to be in the roster as early as next season, there is little doubt they will be given a chance to prove their worth during the preseason. Both kids are exceptionally talented, with good size and speed, and certainly have the potential to develop into top-six talent. One player who should be in the roster full-time next season is Nazem Kadri. Kadri looked far better during his latest call-up then he did at the beginning of the year, and while there’s still work to be done on his game, he is certainly capable of contributing to the club.
In net, Brian Burke has apparently already decided that Optimus Reim will be given every opportunity to maintain the starting role next season, and the decision shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the fact that the kid won 20 games and lost just 9 in regulation. It’s doubtful that JS Giguere will be back, unless he wants to come back in a backup role at a heavily-discounted rate. The real decision Burke will have to make centers on young Swede Jonas Gustavsson. The Monster was signed to a two year deal last summer, after a strong finish to the season that many predicted would land him the starting role this past fall. Unfortunately, injuries, poor play and the rise of Reimer not only shook Gustavsson’s confidence but left him out of a job, as he has not made an NHL start since a 7-0 drubbing in New York. I think the jury is still out on this kid, and you have to feel for him given the difficult career he’s had so far. He’s clearly got talent, but it remains to be seen if he can convert that talent into consistent, steady play under the duress of a grueling NHL season. Burke will have to decide if the Monster will be good enough to provide consistent play in relief of Reimer next year, or if he will choose to go out and sign a more proven veteran keeper like Johan Hedberg, for example.
Overall, there’s still steps that need to be taken to make this team a true contender in the ever-evolving modern NHL, but this summer, the gap that Burke and the Leafs have to close is significantly smaller than it has been in the past. There’s no question this team is on the right track, and while it’s disappointing to miss the playoffs again, there’s a hell of a lot more to be excited about than there was in the past.
Topics: Brett Lebda, Brian Burke, Carl Gunnarsson, Clarke MacArthur, Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Jake Gardiner, James Reimer, Jesse Blacker, Joe Colborne, Joffrey Lupul, Jonas Gustavsson, JS Giguere, Keith Aulie, Korbinian Holzer, Luke Schenn, Matt Frattin, Mike Komisarek, Nazem Kadri, Phil Kessel, Tomas Kaberle, Toronto Maple Leafs, Tyler Bozak