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Maple Leafs are in a different category than the so-called elite teams—at least for now...

Yes, the new "season" (pre-season style) has finally started.  But I'm not a believer in early pronouncements based on limited information in exhibition games.  (Yes, I realize that for youngsters trying hard to make an impression these games are important and yes, it was good to see Gardiner earning points on the power play, The Monster start in goal, Colborne do some nice things and the new "third line" showing some jump, but I'll leave the early excitement for others, before I get sucked in, too...)

The game against the Sens, though, did get me thinking about where the Leafs "fit" in the NHL right now.

There are a few teams in the NHL for whom the regular season is an “assumed” thing.  By that I mean we expect them to do well.  They do well every year, essentially, heading into the playoffs.

In those instances,  even their fan base needs, wants and expects more.  In other words, doing well in the regular-season doesn’t cut it any more.  The fans need to see success when it really counts, in the playoffs.

In this category, we can place, for example, San Jose, Philadelphia and Vancouver.  Teams that have not won a Cup in recent memory—or at all— and can never seem to close the deal.  (I include Philly largely because they have had generally very good teams most years, as re-build under Holmgren, but goaltending has not been their greatest strength and so they can’t quite go all the way…)

San Jose has been very good for years, a perennial Cup “contender”.  But so far they haven’t made it to the finals, much less win it all.

The Canucks, too, have been building for years. They have a “world-class” regular-season goalie, perhaps the best-constructed line-up in the league and came achingly close to winning it all this past spring.

(Colorado, Detroit and New Jersey, for me, are in a different “category” of once-elite teams.  All have won their Cups.  Colorado and Jersey are trying to claw back to what they once were, but without a young Brodeur or Roy, I don’t see it happening.  They had great teams—and superior goaltending.  They don’t have either, any more, though I'm sure Brodeur will have his moments this season. As for Detroit, they have been a model organization for 20 years.  But Lidstrom’s eventual retirement will leave a huge hole.  They have never relied on goaltending quite the same way as did Colorado and Jersey, but their goalies were good enough to win those four Cups and very nearly a fifth.  The Wings are still a team “in contention” but I’m not sure they will be what they have been.)

This brings us to an entirely different level, or category.  That is, teams like the Leafs who seemingly are happy/satisfied just to be playoff contenders.  There is little question that the Leafs have a better roster than anytime in the last seven plus years.  Younger, quicker, tougher and better at the back end.  They have more prospects than they have had in a while, it seems (though again, I will say, all prospects seem to look great at this time of year, or in meaningless end-of-season games  Doing it game in and game out is much tougher, of course...)

And Toronto is not alone.  There are a number of teams who will be nip and tuck to even be in a serious playoff race, and their fans, like many of Toronto’s supporters, will be happy if they just squeak in, or at least fight to the end to make in interesting.

Where the Leafs obviously need to get is to those “higher” categories.  They need to establish a winning tradition again, for starters.  While a Cup would be nice, they at least have to reach a point where it will be an annual expectation that they make the playoffs, something we all just assume.  The hope will—and should—be that they go well into the playoffs, just like San Jose, Philly and Vancouver.

Then, once they reach that level, they will need to take that last step, so they don’t, like perhaps San Jose has, miss that window of opportunity to grab a championship.

We’re not there yet, but fans are hoping that we're at least clawing our way up into a different "category".

1 comment:

  1. This team feels different. I think this is the first year in a while that Leaf fans EXPECT a playoff spot. And though they may just squeak in, I'm expecting more than that. I also think that, based on the moves Brian Burke has made and the perceived improvement in the team, that expectation will continue for many years to come, as you suggest.
    I like where we are at the moment. If we get the goaltending, we should do well.