As we’ve discussed in this space, there is an optimistic—and not so optimistic—way to look at what the Maple Leafs are in the midst of building. (Maybe it's not the ideal moment to wax hopeful, but until the loss in Montreal on Saturday night, the Leafs were on a 4-1-1 "run". Credit, by the way, to the Leaf forward for blocking a shot when they were down 3-0 on that five-on-three penalty-kill situation in the final minute of the game. Was that Tim Brent? They were playing hard right to the end.)
If you choose to believe things are looking up, it may well be based on a number of factors. Let’s look at a few of the reasons why a fan could legitimately (at least from this “positive” perspective) feel good about Leaf prospects going forward.
Management and coaching
Brian Burke is a Stanley Cup-winning General Manager and Ron Wilson is one of the winningest coaches in NHL history. He has taken teams deep into the playoffs and is a proven coach.
Burke has turned the roster over almost completely, bringing in young stars in Phaenuf and Kessel and giving the speed a faster, edgier make-up. He has along the way acquired young defensemen like Aulie and Gardiner who may be cornerstones in the years to come.
Gustavsson is still not proven, but he is a youngish goalie with good size and he has displayed the athleticism which would seem to suggest he can play at this level. As with most goalies, confidence is important, and what he may be going through at present may be temporary. If he can work through recurring health issues and play well for the Marlies, his future remains in Toronto.
Reimer (who many Leaf fans probably didn’t know much about until a month ago) is the team's best goalie at the moment. If he continues to play as he has, then clearly there is a prime place for him on the roster. If he doesn’t, the team is no worse off than it was when it figured Rynnas was the next guy in line.
Giguere is, at worst (again, thinking positively) an experienced goalie who has some value on the trade market this month, especially if a contending team suddelnly loses one of their current guys.
The “system” includes the aforementioned Rynnas, and young Ben Scrivens. Those who follow the Marlies seem to believe they all can play, so that’s a good thing.
told Leafs TV recently that the Leafs have as much goaltending depth as any team in the league. ( I don’t want to misquote him. Did others hear the same thing?) Now, that sounds suspiciously like Burke’s summertime suggestion that the Leafs defense corps is was/is the best/deepest in the NHL. But I digress. The focus here is on the positives. Wilson
In Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Schenn, the Maple Leafs have three bonafide NHL defensemen who are entering their prime, all already with significant NHL experience. That’s pretty good.
Komisarek and Kaberle are all useful veterans, and may be helpful going forward or useful as trade pieces.
While the Leafs have had an issue for years finding or developing true “top-six” forwards, they have “discovered” a trio that seems to fit the bill—MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin. All can play with a bit of sandpaper, all have some offensive skill, and have produced this season while not being defensive liabilities.
The team has Kessel, at 23, an obviously gifted player who should only get better. Recent line-shuffling has given Phil a chance to play with more offensive players.
Bozak may be a player who just keeps improving, slowly but surely. A healthy Versteeg will only be better next season, more comfortable in blue and white. Lupul is a small risk with significant upside.
Armstrong, Crabb, Boyce and Brent are useful third/fourth line character players who work hard and fit well into the checking role, guys who can also score on occasion.
Rosehill and Orr provide some clout as fourth-line enforcers.
Up and coming
There is no shortage of guys who are young, talented and have already had a taste of NHL action. Aulie, Holzer, Mueller, Kadri and Hanson have all worn the big team’s jersey this season.
D’Amigo, Mitchell and Irwin are all names just waiting for their shot.
Again, and I stress this is the “positive” point of view, the team is extremely young, shows some speed, and has three young stud defensemen, with a potential goaltending duo of The Monster and Reimer.
The Grabovski line is playing like a very good second line. Kessel remains the cornerstone of a potential first line. Lupul may help, and a single trade or free-agent signing will give the Leafs two good first lines, with the aforementioned third and fourth line guys still available to contribute in their assigned roles.
The youngsters in the system may progress nicely, and that includes Kadri.
This could be a very different team in twelve months. More experienced, poised, better on the penalty kill and the power play. A couple of solid additions will only help.
In short, in the Eastern Conference, the Maple Leafs in a year could be a solid playoff team— and maybe more.
Part II will provide a different way of looking at where the team is at, with a less optimistic lens through which to assess the team.