With a win on Tuesday evening by the Buffalo Sabres combined with a loss of any kind by the Leafs, Toronto will be eliminated from postseason contention. This season will be memorable for many reasons, but probably mostly for the inability to challenge for a Stanley Cup. The Leafs will be the only team since the 2004/2005 lockout to fail to do so, as it appears that Florida is well on it’s way to a playoff birth. The Panthers have the privilege of holding the longest streak without postseason contention, but the Leafs are catching up. While the last few weeks have been largely about what went wrong for the Buds, today seems like as good a time as any to look at some of the things that went well.
Jake Gardiner – The defenseman is a gem, costing Toronto only Francois Beauchemin and a conditional pick for the amount of games that Joffrey Lupul was able to accomplish. Gardiner at times has not only been one of the better rookies in the League, but often nights one of the best defenseman on the Leafs. Toronto effectively stole Gardiner from Anaheim, and thankfully Brian Burke had some pause when considering moving the young man in February. Gardiner looks like he will be a major contributor to the Leafs for a long time into the future.
Joffrey Lupul – Not often do all parts of a trade work for one team. This is the case with this one, as Lupul was really considered a salary dump by Anaheim when sent to Toronto. He has not only distinguished himself as a top 6 forward in the Leafs, he was for a period among the highest scoring in the League. His future will be uncertain next season as his contract expires one year from July 1’st, but depending on the price he should be a major part of the Leafs future.
Second Half Penalty Killing – An eyesore in the months that end with an “R”, the penalty killing has been inspired in all but a couple of occasions since New Years Eve. The unit has been killing at a clip of close to 90%, but mainly due to how awful it was early in the season, they have not been able to escape the basement in the category.
New Ownership – It will be interesting to see the tolerance Rogers/Bell have when it comes to the level of success the Leafs are able to achieve under their umbrella. No question the Blue Jays have been largely disappointing while being owned by Rogers, but baseball is not Canada’s national past time. There really is no question the team performed well at times under teachers, namely in the early years while Pat Quinn was somewhat an independent contractor running the show, but the level of incompetence shown in getting out of the basement over the last few years will likely be the first item on their epitaph. Ironically a lot of the issues the team is having right now ties well back to when Quinn had full reign and draft picks were shipped out like it was the 1980’s, leaving the talent pool in the development system paper thin. Either way new ownership should not have a negative impact, but at worst it will be negligible.
Phil Kessel – It has been well documented here that this is a player that really can’t be built around. By definition, any player that requires additional players to make them more complete is a player that can’t be built around. This not withstanding, Kessel has been the offensive catalyst for much of the Leafs season, and the chemistry between he and Lupul has been well documented. In short, if Phil Kessel was not playing for Toronto this season, they could potentially be in competition with Columbus for top overall pick.
Early Season Power Play – For the first three months of the season, this was a badge of honor. At times since the play has been good, but not as deadly as early on. The biggest thing to happen to cause the slow down was the concussion suffered by John Michael Liles, who has not looked the same since returning. Scott Gordon was identified early on as the architect of the man advantage unit, and he deserves some credit for the tremendous improvement.
The Marlies – Nobody saw this coming. Mostly because not many people follow the baby Leafs. As much as Brian Burke gets judged by the performance of the Maple Leafs, he deserves some higher grades for the rise of the Marlies. Many of his draft picks are occupying the team now, and they are quite a bit better than the teams of the past few years. There are some players that are close to being in the NHL and this may help alleviate some of the concern going forward about filling the Leafs roster. The goal going forward should be to have July 1’st be a meaningless day, not relying on the market to build a team. The Burke era has got the team closer to that goal, and hopefully in the near future the Leafs will be the beneficiary of all the front office work.