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Can the Leafs over-achieve enough to make a playoff run?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve all been able to settle back and assess what the Leafs have done since the end of last season to get better.

They’ve added some pieces (Franson, Liles, Connolly, etc.) that could help, though the verdict on those acquisitions is certainly a ways off, still.

We are all wondering:  can the Leafs compete with the best teams in 2011-'12?

Just yesterday, I posed the question here:  when was the last time the Leafs had a true superstar on their roster?  And who would be that next guy to fit that bill?  (Fact is, I don't know that the Leafs have ever really had, at least in my memory dating back to the late 1950s, many true "superstar" players.  As I said yesterday, maybe, and only maybe, you could say Salming and Sittler were "superstars".  Mahovlich...yes, but borderline.  Dave Keon was a remarkable all-around player- and someone I thought was one of the best players in the game in the first half of the 1960s- but I don't know that everyone shared my view.)

In any event, the Leafs have not typically had the best player in the game, for example, on their roster.  No Gretzky, no Lemieux.  No one like Perreault, Potvin, Orr, Bobby Hull, Howe, Rocket Richard.  They still managed to win those four Cups in the '60s without a lot of superstars.  But since?

Which brings me to today.

The question, for me, is that given that the Leafs have lots of depth, relatively speaking, but not necessarily a great “top-six” or even a tremendous “bottom-six”, will their goaltending and defense, along with what we have up front, be enough to see the team into the playoffs next April?

To me, they look like one of those teams, at least as assembled right now, that will have to “over-achieve”—that is, play a fair bit better than they look on paper.

For example, if Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur stay the same as last season, or take even a small step back, is that enough?

If Kessel, now (we presume) with Lupul and Connolly, scores 30 again—but not 40—is that enough?

If our plethora of third and fourth-liners are good, but not really better than Tim Brent et all were last season, will that be enough?

And if Reimer is solid again in goal, even spectacular at times, and the young defense plays as they did last season (everyone was thrilled with Schenn and Aulie in particular, while wanting more from Phaneuf and Gunnarsson), will that be enough?

The answer for me is…no.

From where Isit, looking at the roster, the Leafs need to be appreciably better in all of the above areas—top-six, bottom-six, core defense players and goaltending, than they were last season.

And to me, that means guys will have to be better than many of us think they  are.  Connolly will have to rebound from some pretty mediocre seasons with Buffalo.  Lupul will have to not only stay healthy but be very productive; being a good checker won’t be enough, if he is a first-line guy.

The Grabbo trio will have to be even better, and the third and forth lines will have to be much better at both ends of the ice.

Penalty-killing…well, we all know that that just has to be better.  Will Connolly help?  Maybe.  We’ll see.

And you know what? I’d be OK with the Leafs being one of those teams that over-achieves, that is hard to play against, that is the underdog who has to fight for everything they get.  (That can be a fun kind of team to cheer for.)

At times, the Leafs were like that last season.  Most night we couldn’t complain about a lack of effort.  For the most part the team worked hard for the coaching staff.  But it still wasn’t enough.

This season, they will have to work even harder, and be even more productive and show steady improvement in their respective games—individually and collectively.

I think if this squad truly reaches beyond its apparent talent level and over-achieves, they can make the playoffs.

The bar has been set pretty low in recent times.  Leaf fans would be thrilled (at least many would) at the idea of a playoff spot, and maybe winning one round in the playoffs.

Just a decade ago, that would have been seen as a major disappointment.  But times have changed.

And for now, so have our expectations.

I’m sure the organization has much higher ambitions for the team than just making the playoffs, and who knows they may accomplish much more than I am anticipating.

But at this point, a playoff push seems like the low-lying fruit, something that is attainable.  More than that would be a very pleasant surprise.


  1. Hey man.
    Good article, as always. I think that we have to take a step back and comment on where the team is in their evolution/Burke rebuild. Once we do that we can temper our expectations, as hard as that is (just as Matteo from!!)
    Nobody and I mean noooobody would say that this team can win the Cup. Heck we still aren't sure if they can even make the playoffs. But, nobody can argue that this team isn't significantly better than that collection of pathetic stiffs we had a few years ago. Guys like Stajan, Ponikarovsky, Hagman...the guys that mailed it in whenever they went down a goal or two.
    The team we have now never gave up when down a goal last year. We can all agree on that. And we have amazing pieces that pathetic team never had..not superstars, but solid solid pieces like Aulie, Phaneuf (second half of last year), Kess, Reims.
    I think this team is will clearly compete for a playoff spot. If they don't make it, that's ok! They should be a fun team that plays with heart. Thats what we really want in Toronto. If they do make it, great, and winning a round is a bonus.
    The "real" time for us to truly compete in the playoffs is still coming. We need some superstars, hopefully by trade/FA. Let's just let these guys build, develop and grow chemistry.

  2. For a five-year span, say from 1975 to 1980, Darryl Sittler was a Superstar. Team Captain, 100 point seasons, big goals, Canada Cup Winner. Even then, he was probably a Top Five Centre - but this was in the days of Clarke, Perreault, Dionne, Trottier, and the waning days of Phil Esposito.

  3. If they play like they played in the second half last year, and stay healthy, I feel confident we'll make the playoffs. I still think it will come back to Reimer/Gustavsson/whoever - if we slide back in goal, it'll be another year of tears in the beer.

  4. I think this year is going to be close but ultimately the Leafs are going to miss again. This team gave up a ton of goals last year and it wasn't all the goalies. The defense looks good on paper, but we been saying that for a couple of years now. Hopefully the young guys can keep getting better, but I just don't see a signifigant improvement on the back end.

    Same with the forwards, can they find another 45-50 goals this year(roughly what I think it will take to make it) while knocking 35-40 goals against off? They are better than last year, for sure. Connelly is an upgrade over Bozak as number one. Lupul for a whole year is an upgrade on Crabb. I still just don't the total team improvement that will be needed to get into the top 8. They are getting close but they just aren't close enough. Hopefully, in a year or two.