Fans now realize for sure that we won’t get (yes, I know, again) to see the Leafs in the playoffs. And we all know there is just about nothing like being in and around
when the Maple Leafs are doing something come spring and playoff time. There is a feeling in the air. Just being down around the old Gardens years ago in the spring (playoff) time, and nowadays near or inside the ACC is a special feeling when you know there is a big hockey game around the corner. Toronto
So no, no playoffs this spring. But let’s be honest: in a way, we’ve had our playoff run. The last two months, since the All-Star break, the Leafs have been playing just about every other night, just like in the playoffs, and they have been facing “must-win just-to-stay-on-the-edge of contention” hockey. And way more often than not, they have not only won but competed with pride and played awfully well.
So, we got our playoff hockey. It just came in the winter, a bit too soon. But fast-forward twelve months, and who knows?
Wasn’t it a neat feeling when the crowd was on its feet applauding Reimer late in the third period against the Caps? Everyone in the building knew the Leafs were about the walk the plank, but they were moved enough by Reimer’s gusty play to give the young netminder a special thank you.
Despite fighting increasingly deflating (at least emotionally) odds in recent weeks, the Leafs have played some inspired—and yes, exciting—hockey.
The natural conclusion is to suggest the team needs to get off to a better start next season to solve what ailed them, and of course, that would be nice.
The thing is, they did start this season well, really well, with four straight wins. But a difficult—and lengthy—stretch ensued, which really never ceased until after the All-Star break- too late to make a difference this season.
But I do think momentum, to a certain extent, can be carried on into a new season, and certainly the attitude that this Leaf squad has exhibited while playing a never-ending run of close, nail-biting games should only help next season and beyond.
Not to overstate what has already been widely discussed, but this is a young team, with serious upside. Now, one thing we have to keep in mind is that the Leafs are not alone in that regard. Many teams are building with younger players (look at
’s defense, youthful guys are their key defenders, just like the Leafs) including really good young goaltenders around the league; that’s just the way the game is going, especially with the cap. Most teams have a select few highly-paid stars (whether young guys or veterans), some replaceable mid-range guys and a lot of determined-to-stay-in-the-league youngsters. Washington
But the Leafs are at least in that group of teams that should be very competitive next season and beyond
Credit to the Sabres and the Rangers, particularly. I say this because they have both displayed an awful lot of heart to hang in during the playoff race, notably when the ‘Canes and Leafs were making a push. The Sabres aren’t overly talented and are playing without one of the best goalies in hockey, while the Rangers have overcome staggering injuries that would have felled teams with less determination.
And I say it, in part, because it's easier to be the team striving to catch up, than be the team with the lead in a playoff race. The team that is ahead faces the public perception of possibly "blowing it" and having more to lose, and both the Sabres and Rangers handled that pressure very well.
The old “Nik” with the Leafs never quite met expectations here. Nik Antropov had size and skill and on occasion an edge in his game, but injuries and maddening inconsistency killed his ability to be a go-to player here, and ultimately dulled his market value, too.
But the newest “Nik” in blue is very much the opposite. Nikolai Kulemin can skate, plays hard every night and he is anything but inconsistent.
A minus 8 in his rookie season, he is now plus 9 with two games left in the season, a testament to his growth and solid play at both ends of the ice.
Some of you may remember that I wrote, near the end of last season, that I thought Kulemin might double his point total this season. Well, he hasn’t done that (though he has almost doubled his goal output), but he has continued to develop his game all over the ice, while managing to net 30 goals along the way.
That wasn’t a super big number a few years back, but the way the game seems to be going these days, we’re back to 50 goals being an elusive goal, and 30 is indeed a significant achievement.
This should give Nikolai added confidence heading into next season. He will be a guy that becomes integral to any success the Leafs achieve in the years to come.
Those who follow this site know I have a lot of admiration for long-time (now former) Leaf defenseman Tomas Kaberle. In 12+ years with the blue and white he distinguished himself as a consistent performer and did nothing to embarrass or disgrace the logo or the organization.
Now, he was a tantalizingly frustrating figure, as we all recognize: talented, and a fine skater who could pull away from trouble, carry the puck and make outlet passes like few others. He didn’t shoot the puck nearly enough for his coaches (or fans) but inevitably led all team defensemen in assists most seasons.
That said, his defensive lapses (almost as prevalent now as in his early years) were maddening, to say the least. He was not tough enough in front of his own net, and he wasn’t a superior shot blocker or a commanding physical presence.
I was sad to see him go and refuse to see him as part of the supposed “blue and white disease”, but, like others have commented here, it seems clear the Leafs are none the worse for his absence. If anything, they are much harder to play against, though they miss his assets.
, he has had, by various accounts and from what I have seen myself, an uneven impact. The team won the first six games that he was there, but has been consistently inconsistent since. (I felt he was ordinary, sub-par, really, for the most part, in the two games that he has played for the Bruins against the Leafs. In the last encounter, he played the role of a statue as the Leafs scored a key goal, doing nothing to even try to thwart the goal-scorer). That inconsistency, on the part of the Bruins and Kaberle himself, manifested itself most recently –and most damagingly from a Leaf perspective—Monday night against the Rangers. Boston
Through most of the first two periods, the Bruins held a 3-0 lead. Kaberle picked up an assist and was a plus two. Good night, eh?
By the end of the game, the Rangers had rebounded to win 5-3, and Tomas was “even” on the night. The Bruins struggled under pressure—and so did he.
The Leafs were the last thing on his mind, of course. But I was among those legions of Leaf backers watching the scoreboard who thought the experienced Bruins would at least hold on to a 3-0 lead, given that they are preparing to make a serious run, one would think, for the Eastern Conference championship in the playoffs. (Good teams give up big leads in the NHL, of course, and momentum can change awfully quickly. But for the Leafs, it was a bad time for it to happen.)
As disheartening as it was for Leaf fans, it may, more importantly for
supporters, send shivers through the Bruin organization. They knew Kaberle was flawed when they paid a pretty big price to get him. But it’s one thing to see a guy’s imperfections when he’s playing for someone else—quite another to see it in person when he’s on your team and you’ve given away big-time potential assets to get him. Boston
It’s just one game and that Ranger loss was hardly all on Kaberle by any means. (
won Tuesday night anyway, and the Leafs took themselves out by not winning nearly enough earlier in the season, so no excuses there.) But as I mentioned in a recent post, Tomas’ NHL legacy will largely be written by how he performs now, as a league veteran, when the chips are down in the playoffs, with a good supporting roster. (He hasn’t been in the playoffs since he was 25, back in 2004.) Buffalo
If he plays well for the Bruins when it matters (and in any future playoff runs as well), then games such as this past Monday night will be just a distant memory. But if he continues to make as many mistakes as he sometimes did with the Leafs, the legacy could well be tarnished.