One thing is clear: the expectations of Leaf fans have dropped severely over the past decade.
Whereas Leaf supporters once aspired to go deep into the playoffs and perhaps even compete for a Cup (see 1999 to 2004), now the talk is: if this happens and if that gets better, maybe the Leafs can compete for a playoff spot next season.
So with the season winding down, at least for the Leafs, we can briefly examine where they need to get to, to be a playoff team as early as next season.
Let’s compare them with a team like the Flyers, who may make the playoffs this season. They are not, to me, an elite team, but they have built what is now a competitive team, in part, around the emergence of the two youngsters they drafted not that many years ago, Richards and Carter. Leaf fans can ask: will Bozak and Kadri fill those roles?
One area where the Leafs are, objectively, better than the Flyers heading into next season is in goal. The Flyers have not had an undisputed, proven, reliable number one goaltender since…..maybe Ron Hextall (early ‘90s), and perhaps even before that. Not that they haven’t had some guys with talent through the years, but long-time General Manager Bob Clarke never made having an elite goalie a priority (odd, since he knows how valuable Bernie Parent was when the Flyers were winning Cups) and neither have his management successors.
On defense, the Flyers have the ageless but aging Pronger who, despite predictions that he would struggle in the post-lockout “new NHL” with more penalties being called – and I was among those who felt that way - has not only survived but won a Cup (in Anaheim) and generally thrived.
Beyond Pronger, Coburn is an elite young defenseman, but the Flyers, next season, should not be vastly ahead of the Leafs on the blueline, with Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Schenn all under 25.
Up front, I’m not sure Simon Gagne is the player he was in previous seasons. Injuries have not helped in that regard. While Richards and Carter have, at times, been dominant performers, they have lacked consistency and Briere isn’t a kid anymore. Beyond those names, they do have a couple of youngsters with potential (van Riemsdyk, for example), but they look like most salary-cap teams nowadays: a roster filled around the edges with well-worn and well-travelled, low-cost players.
Predictions for the future at this time of the year are generally useless- both teams could re-make their roster significantly over the next twelve months. That said, if I had to bet, I think the Leafs could jump past the Flyers next season, based on improved – and superior - goaltending, penalty-killing and team defense. The Leafs are still light up front with precious little scoring depth, as I’ve discussed many times here, but it would not take too much to see them jump past some teams, and be in the mix for a playoff spot at this time next season.
• I used to be a big fan of Scott Hartnell in his early days with the Predators. The more I see of him, the less effective he seems. The penalty he took near the end of the game against the Leafs last night was ill-timed, showed a complete lack of discipline and could have cost the Flyers big-time with them desperate to make the playoffs.
• Leaf fans are scratching their heads over a power play that has gone south. Most anticipated that the combination of Kaberle and Phaneuf would trigger a flood of goals. And it just hasn’t happened.
• Conversely, the penalty-killing is so much better since Phaneuf and Sjostrom arrived. It’s a stretch to suggest this will carry over into next season, but hopefully a foundation has been laid in this aspect of the game.
• If Giguerre plays most of next season the way he has in certain games of late, he can be a big help. When he is “on”, he just seems to inhale the puck and not give up those bad rebounds that can kill a team.
• It’s way too early to make assessments about what Kessel can be in Toronto. He is still so young- yet immensely talented. Having said that, I’ve said many teams he will need to become a complete player. And, I wonder if he will be a big-game, clutch performer. If he can make those around him better (and he did that with Savard - and vice-versa - in Boston), that’s a big plus. Long-term, how he will co-exist with Wilson?