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What “level” are the Leafs really at- 3 out of 5, or better? Here's a breakdown

If we were to suggest that there are five basic numerical “categories”, or ways we can describe teams, maybe we could do simply- on the traditional 1-5 scale. If you are a 1, you're not close to being a playoff team.  2 means you're getting thetre, but aren't there yet.  3 means you are on the cusp of being a playoff contender, and may be able to squeeze into the round of 16. At 4, you're in very good shapre and have a shot at a long playoff run.  A 5 means you are a bonafide Cup hopeful.

So a top NHL team, a truly elite side (ranked at “5”) is a legitimate Cup contender.  They would have, in my mind,  the following:

1.      high level goaltending
2.      depth on defense, including a puck-moving defenseman who can anchor a power play and
3.      a “shut-down” pairing that can play big minutes, including at crunch time in the playoffs
4.      strength down the middle:  at least two premier center-types, and
5.      two other centers who can play either a shutdown role or kill penalties and win face-offs
6.      some toughness and scoring ability on the wings
7.      overall special teams proficiency
8.      legitimate overall depth
9.      ability to deal with injuries
10.    management and ownership prepared to spend to make the team better at the deadline
11.   a coach who can make a difference, most particularly at playoff time when split-second      decisions matter
12.  Anything that is missing above
If you proceed down the list to a team that might be ranked as a “1” (a club that won’t make the playoffs because it lacks too many of the above characteristics) it leads Leaf fans to make their own assessment and ask the question:  where does our team fit? 

Most would acknowledge the Leafs are not yet a “5”, but are surely better than a “1”.

But where, in fact, is the team, right now?  Not based on future projections, draft picks that may pan out, or trades or signings that are happening in our imagination (but not in reality), but what the team actually has, right now.

Looking at my checklist above, my sense is that the Leafs are in good shape (though, yes, I recognize Reimer will still have to “prove” himself over time) for number 1.  They do have depth on the blueline; I would even argue pretty good quality depth.  I’m not sure who the puck-movers will be (presumably Liles and Franson?).  A shutdown pair should emerge from Schenn, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson and Aulie, though the proof will be in the springtime pudding.

I don’t feel at all comfortable right now with number 5 on my above list.  Optimists, which I often am, will project Connolly and Grabbo as elite centers.  (We're told Connolly is working his tail off to get ready for camp; we'll see...) But I often think of baseball teams who like their five starting pitchers during spring training.  By June, they are desperately looking for third, fourth and fifth starters who can get somebody out.

It’s a long season in the NHL if you’re not strong down the middle.

In terms of number 6, well, we have new personnel so I have no idea if we will kill penalties better than in the past.  The jury is out.

The same applies to number 7.  On paper, you’d like to think the Leafs would be capable on the power play.  But I have no idea.  Many teams don’t at this time of year.  It’s all "projections" and pretty uncertain ones at that, with the way rosters change annually nowadays.

I like us at 8- in part.  Last year, Burke said, if I’m not mistaken, that he liked his teams’ top 8 on the blueline,  compared with anyone on the league.  I won’t go that far now, but I do think the team has legitimate depth on the backline—guys who can play at the NHL level.  How that will translate to what is needed at playoff time, again, we don’t really know, as a lot of these guys don’t have that kind of experience yet.

But as for the rest of the team's overall depth, we are not "proven" in goal, and there are concerns not only about the "top six" but the "bottom six" forwards as well.

Which leads us to number 9.   Last season, the Leafs were remarkably fortunate when it came to injuries.  Many of the teams they were competing with in the East saw their teams hammered by serious injuries to top players.  The Leafs were relatively unscathed.  While they have blueline depth, I’m not that comfortable that we have back-up depth on the first two lines.  We have plenty of “bottom-six” forwards vying for positions, but I wouldn’t rate the team too high at the moment in this regard.  Again, we’ll see.

At 10, it’s clear Burke and company will make moves that they see as helping the team compete now- and win down the road.  They want to build a team that will be a power every year.  They are not there yet, despite the massive overhaul of the roster over the past two seasons plus.  But most Leaf fans feel secure that the brass is constantly looking to improve the team.  They are active, at least, not just sitting back.

Coaching?  For years, many years, Wilson was probably regarded as one of the brighter NHL coaches, with a solid track record of regular-season success at his every NHL stop—Anaheim, Washington and San Jose.  After three seasons in Toronto, though, his team’s overall record is poor.  They have not reached the playoffs and special teams have been a disaster. Many other, younger, (and less NHL-experienced) coaches have stepped in and produced some impressive results around the league.

Can all this change this season?  I don’t think anyone knows.  No contract extension means he’s coaching for his job, and he has a new staff, too.

Will it be the same old Ron, or something invigorating come September?

For me, my overall assessment is that this team is between a 3 and a 4.  If certain things/changes happen, they could move closer to a legitimate 4.  Teams in that latter range (between 3 and 4) are borderline playoff teams.  Those between 4 and 5, or sitting at 5,  are legitimate Cup hopefuls.

Your thoughts?




1 comment:

  1. For many of the same reasons as those you mention, I think we're a three at best. If Reimer doesn't work out, we're a two. I'm happy with the D as is, but I think we're still weak in the forwards dept. I don't see any of our moves so far really addressing the weaknesses we showed last year. - we're still relatively small, we don't have a first-line center, and we don't have a crunching power forward. I expect we'll be dealing throughout the year,
    As far as the coaching goes, we certainly finished strong last year, and the players seemed to have bought into Wilson's system. It will be interesting to see if that continues this year, and what the coaching changes will mean to the team.