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10 reasons why Leaf fans can feel either encouraged or discouraged heading into next season

With the Leaf playoff train derailed (not because of their own ineptitude but because the teams they were chasing didn’t fold) there are hopeful as well as not-so-hopeful ways of looking at the Maple Leaf picture heading into the summer and the 2011-’12 season.

My sense is the vast majority of Leaf faithful are excited about the future, believing that this time, things really are "different".  That may well be the case but let's look at both sides.  By all means send your thoughts along...

Looking at the many positives on the horizon, here are a few:

  1. The team, as currently configured, has become a team that is hard to play against.  There are very few teams that are 'out of reach' for the Leafs, especially in the East where there is so much parity and talent-thin rosters everywhere.
  2. For the first time in 20 years, the Leafs have a young goalie who has emerged, with the mental make-up to handle the adversity that he will no doubt face next season and beyond.  Reimer is the closest thing that we have had in net to unflappable in a long time.  (Even the veterans Belfour and Cujo could lose their cool, as we well remember.)
  3. A young defense corps with four emerging players all 26 and under—Schenn, Phaneuf, Aulie and Gunnarsson, with gardiner perhaps waiting in the wings before too long.  There is an almost ideal mix of skating skill, toughness and puck-moving ability.
  4. The organization has a stable and skilled management team.  Burke, Nonis, Poulin and Loiselle are sharp hockey people who have built a very young roster with some elite-level skill that was not here when they arrived, most notably Kessel amd Phaneuf.  But they have stockpiled some draft choices, too.
  5. In addition to those upcoming draft picks, which could be flipped for assets that can play next season, they have on their roster or in the system three guys from the 2008 NHL draft’s first round (Schenn, Colborne, Gardiner).
  6. Nazem Kadri appears poised to take that next step, whether as a front-line center or, as Wilson has projected, a winger.  As importantly, he is no longer seemingly the “only” young guy who is in a position to take steps forward as early as next season.  The team is now filled with youngsters, so if one guy steps back or falters, there are others standing by to jump in and compete
  7. The team should be in a good position, cap-wise, heading into free agency this coming summer.  They will be looking for offensive talent.  (Giguere’s salary is coming off the books, and they may even be able to retain him, if they want, on a much more modest salary for next season.)
  8. The re-built Leafs are now one of the youngest (second-youngest, is it?) teams in the NHL.  Now, youth alone is not enough, you need talent and experience, of course.  But youngsters like Bozak (playing his first full NHL season) and others have gained invaluable experience.  Whether they stay on the roster and grows into a prominent role next year or are supplanted by other young players or a free agent, Burke’s stated intention to have roster “competition” may be legitimate come September.
  9. They now have some young players with seemingly legitimate potential with the Marlies and also in junior hockey.  With two first round picks in the summer draft, they can flip those choices or draft more assets.
  10. Tyler Bozak, to me, can emerge as a solid NHL'er.  He can skate, make plays and win draws.  And now he has experienced the ups and downs of a full season in the NHL.  First line, third line?  Don't know, but as he gets stronger, he will get even better.  I'm not saying he will be Adam Oates, but let's be patient.

The flip side of the coin needs to be acknowledged as well.  Here are a few of the areas that remain a concern going forward:

  1. Despite the obvious progress the club made post All-Star break, the bottom-line reality remains that the organization has not made the post-season since the spring of 2004.  Wilson has coached the team for three full seasons, and Burke has been GM almost that long, and to date, they have “built” but they have not proven anything.
  2. We assume the Leafs will re-sign Reimer at some agreeable rate, and that he will be the number-one guy heading into camp.  But there are question marks in that Reimer himself is “unproven” in terms of NHL longevity.  Beyond Reimer, "The Monster" has struggled with health issues and inconsistency in his first two NHL seasons, and Giguere is likely out of the picture.  Some believe the Leafs need a veteran to either compete with or back-up Reimer.  That’s an off-season decision the brass will have to wrestle with.
  3. There is still this nagging feeling that the team is shy of some high-end talent.  We all know what Kessel can do.  He’ll score in stretches and not in others, but put up good numbers at the end of the day.  Grabbo went way beyond what most of us ever expected.  But can he repeat?  Kulemin may be their most consistent all-around forward and Lupul has been a nice, if expensive addition.  But there aren’t a lot of offensive game-changers in the line-up, and when Kessel goes cold, it can be tough to find the offense.
  4. On that note, while, as I mentioned above, the Leafs have cap space this summer, who will they spend it on?  They need skill- and size.  People keep mentioning Brad Richards, but I just don’t see that happening.  Richards is still a wonderful player, but we would be paying huge money for a guy coming off a serious injury who has already played an awful lot of hockey in his career.  (I’d rather pluck a guy on his way up then on his way down…)  I may be wrong, but I don’t know that there are all kinds of high-end forwards who will be available out there.
  5. We're three years into the Wilson regime and we still don’t seem to have developed a consistently productive power-play or effective penalty-killing unit.  We show spurts (we all love Brent and Brown and their shot-blocking ability when killing penalties or closing out games) but overall, the special-teams are not what they need to be to be a Cup contender.  Personnel matters, of course, but penalty-killing should be a strength, not a weakness, at this stage.
  6. As gutsy as the third and forth lines have been most of this season, is the “bottom-six” forward contingent strong enough going forward to get the Leafs deep into the playoffs next season and beyond?
  7. While it doesn’t impact the on-ice product, it would be nice if Wilson could lose the edge (and the inconsistency in the things he says) when interacting with the local press.  As annoying as that part of the job can be in Toronto, coaching here is one of the great privileges in sports, and to me, it's a shame when a guy making that kind of money is so often disdainful when answering simple questions.
  8. The Leafs were remarkably healthy this season.  Compared with most teams in the East (and the West, for that matter) they were very, very fortunate.  Phaneuf was gone for a while, Gustavsson, Giggy and Armstrong, but most of the key players like Kessel, Grabbo, Kulemin, MaCarthur, Bozak, etc. and the young defense were there pretty much every night.  That’s a good thing, but we need to keep that in perspective.
  9. While management may think they have shed the organization of the dreaded "blue and white disease" (which I don’t personally believe has even existed since the early ‘90s and certainly not until 2005, if ever) this group still hasn’t won anything.  Hasn’t made the playoffs.  Hasn’t won a playoff round.  Not to say they won’t make huge strides next season, but they have a lot to prove, yet.  Being ecstatic over a late-season push that fell short is fine, but it’s an 82 game season.
  10. Both the Leafs and, significantly, the Marlies will miss valuable playoff experience this spring.  For a lot of the young players, it would have been a tremendous opportunity to gain exposure in the intense playoff environment and what is needed to compete at this time of year.
I suppose this is part of the fun –and frustration— of being a Maple leaf fan.  It’s a moving target and you never quite know if we are finally turning a corner, and which corner it is.

There is a tendency to assume that, like Lucy does to Charlie Brown every time in the Peanuts carton, the ball will be pulled away from us just when we finally allow ourselves to believe something special is about to happen.

We’ve come close a few times since the early 1990s.  Just not close enough—yet.


  1. I'm definitely on the positive side here - but truthfully, it WAS their own ineptitude that caused them to miss the playoffs. They had a terrible first half, and they had an awful power play and PK throughout. Even with the PK stats, a few PP goals could have made a big difference for us. Wilson's staff has to be accountable for this, I think (not that they deserve a pass for anything else). There'd better be a change next year, or it could be another Lucy-pull-the-ball away season.
    Having said that, and not counting the Montreal game (which felt like the Leafs of November), I do feel hopeful. We've needed patience, to be sure, but next year feels like we'll finally see some real improvement.

  2. Additional reasons to temper expectations:
    The Leafs were 18th in league in second half points, and 23rd in goal differential.

  3. I will be a LOT more confident if the Leafs sign a competent veteran 1A / backup goalie this summer with some of that cap space. Reasons:

    a) Reimer SEEMS very promising so far, but has only played a few games, so we aren't SURE he is for real (we merely have very reasonable grounds to suspect he is)

    b) We are only one nasty injury away from being left gambling on Monster (who may still come good, but who doesn't look very promising ATM)

    c) Reimer can't play every night, and both Giggy and Gus have been putting up TERRIBLE numbers.

    I don't mind if they throw some hefty-ish short term money, or moderate long term money at it, but poor goaltending sunk the Leafs in the first half of this season, and we can't risk getting stuck with it again, or it will bugger up our rebuild timeline.

    Last summer there was a glut of competent and cheap-ish goalies on the market. Hopefully the same will be true this year, and we can get one.

  4. Leafs won a crapload of 1 goal games late this year. While that might be viewed as a positive sign of the team's mental strength and focus, it's also pretty much unsustainable.

  5. @ Wan Ihite:

    Goaltending didn't sink us at the start of the season, in fact Gustavsson put up some great numbers in the losing skid after going 4-0 to start the year. We simply couldn't score, and by the time we could his confidence had gone well out the window.

    Here's hoping for a bounce back.

  6. Yes, let's flip more draft picks for bottom six forwards and AHL defencemen, that always brings teams the Cup. You watch, whoever wins the Cup this year will have done it with FA's and trades, nobody playing a prominent role will have been drafted. Which means, uh, who has no prime time drafted players??