Easter, for many of us, is a time for faith, for believing in things that we can’t exactly know about for sure.
In less important hockey terms, last night’s loss to a team that desperately needed the points was another in a string of games that gives Leaf fans something to believe in, in terms of the future.
What gives us hope? Here are a few things to sustain Leaf supporters facing an early hockey summer, now just a week away:
• Gustavsson, in the last few weeks of the season, has looked more like a calm, competent NHL goalie. I’m no goalie expert, but while I loved his early season enthusiasm and athleticism, I’m an even bigger fan of his more compact and controlled recent work. If he comes back in September ready to play, that can only help
• Bozak has shown more and more over the past month, becoming one of the best all-around Leafs. I like his overall awareness. He’ll get stronger over time and experience should make him an even better performer. It doesn’t hurt that he has the potential to be a high-end NHL face-off guy.
• Gunnarsson, as Wilson said after the game, is one of those guys you don’t always notice a lot during the game, but when you break down what he did you realize he does all kinds of little things well. I wonder—and I’m not predicting, just wondering—if he can become the Leafs’ best overall defenseman in years to come.
• Kulemin we’ve talked about here for months. High expectations may be an issue next season, but he has shown the overall game to be a real NHL player. He brings a bit of just about everything
• Phaneuf will infuse his own brand of leadership next season as captain. He’s already helped cut down on goals against, but most importantly I sense he has helped radically change the attitude in the dressing room. He’s not a mistake-free player, but he will demand a lot of himself and others.
• The penalty-killing has improved measurably since Phaneuf and Sjostrom arrived. It’s not just them, but that’s an aspect of the game that simply had to get better going into next season, and they’ve taken strides in that direction
• The Luke Schenn of the last few weeks has been more encouraging than was his play earlier in the campaign.
Now, there are two sides to every coin. Here are some concerning things going into the off-season:
• Who will we draft? We can dismiss the lack of early-round draft choices this June because Burke brought Kessel in and he has delivered for the most part—and will down the road. That said, it’s going to be a concern unless the GM can make a move to give his hard-working scouts something to do on draft day. I’ll bet Burke makes a deal to ensure the Leafs pick somewhere in the first two rounds.
• Kaberle may be one of those assets used to bring in a higher pick, but for all his flaws, the Leafs will miss the skills he does bring and, after all these years, are taken for granted by Leaf fans, myself included. GM’s look for his kind of skill and rarely find it. So trading away a top-four defenseman is not something you generally want to do.
• Not everyone can play with Bozak. What I mean is, the last few weeks have demonstrated that the rookie ex-collegian is the “center of choice” for Leaf wingers because of his vision and solid puck movement. But he can only center one line at a time. Where is our depth up the middle?
• I get really concerned when I hear people—even the coach—talk about Kadri as the second-line center next year. I’m sure he is a wonderful young player, and yes, many young guys in recent years have made the jump to the NHL and had an impact. But that’s hanging your hat on hope.
• I still don’t see a full complement of “top six” forwards. Kessel, Kulemin and Bozak, OK. And even there we need to see some staying power over time. But beyond that, I still don’t see guys who are legit elite forwards at this level. Free agency beckons.
• If Kaberle goes, that’s a lot of minutes on the backline that someone has to take on. Komisarek will return, but he’s a very different player, obviously. I like Beauchemin as a player a lot, but I don’t like the season he’s had. I realize plus/minus can be misleading, but those numbers do mean something. And he’s still -13 on the year.
• Stalberg, Hanson and Caputi have all shown flashes. If they progress, that will help immensely. But what’s the back-up plan?
• The Leafs have made a surge as the season winds down, coinciding with having nothing to play for in a pressure-free environment. You can’t really compare winning games like they have lately with winning games when you know your playoff future depends on it. The team obviously has to start better next season, or making the playoffs will be awfully difficult, even in the East.