Over a busy weekend, some of you may have missed yesterday's post on whether Jake Gardiner should stay or be sent down to the Marlies. Click if you'd like to read that column...)
Those who happen by this site fairly regularly will (hopefully) recognize that this is not simply a wide-eyed “booster” site for the Leafs. I’ve followed the club closely since the late 1950s, so in addition to having been a "fan" forever, there is some historical perspective whenever I sit down to pen some thoughts on the club, past and present.
To a large extent, I suppose, my thoughts on what they are doing now, fair or not, (relevant or not) are formed in part by what I have witnessed for decades—good and bad.
So while I start every season hopeful, that perspective is almost always tempered by reality and experience. It can’t be any other way.
I remind myself, when I start getting a little too optimistic, of the words of one of the more reserved Leafs of my youth, Dave Keon. Keon, by this time the captain of the team for several seasons, opined publicly at training camp (this was sometime between 1972 and 1974, I can’t quite get my memory to recall this one precisely) that he felt that that particular version of the squad was (and I’m not one hundred per cent certain of the words, but you’ll get the drift) the best, or most talented, since he had been with the club.
Now, keep in mind Keon was not one to make bold or outlandish predictions. And he joined the team in 1960, before they went on to win those four Stanley Cups in the Imlach era.
I wasn’t that optimistic myself at the time, but I remember thinking, well if Keon thinks so, maybe they aren’t bad after all. Long story short, it turned out to be far from the best, or most talented team in Keon’s years with the club.
But hope springs eternal at this time of year. And that’s how it should be in sports.
As for this year’s club, you’ve heard me say quite clearly that that there is a long, long way to go. But some good preliminary work has been done in restoring the roster with youth, some speed and a bit of toughness and that “compete”, if you will. Again, I’m loathe to make predictions (I mean, they are fun and all that but truly meaningless…) but I will say this: there are reasons to believe that this Leaf team, as currently constructed, can make the playoffs.
And, if certain things go well, they could actually do something in the playoffs.
“If” is a big word, I realize. But here are specific reasons I believe Leaf fans have a right to be justifiably playoff-hopeful on the eve of the new regular season:
- Goaltending. Now, I realize we have had this discussion every year for many years—since Belfour left, actually. It was Raycroft, it was Toskala, it was The Monster, it was Giguere. I just sense that we now actually have the guys who have the mental make-up to play the position, and that includes Gustavsson and Scrivens. Are they all “all-world”? No, they’re not. But Reimer seems to have awfully good “bounce-back” ability (after a slow start to a game or after a rough game) and you need that if you’re going to play with the Leafs.
- While I don’t love our “top-six” forwards as presently constructed (I’m open to changing my mind) there is some talent there. Again, not world-class, but not bad. Kessel can score, clearly, without breaking too much of a sweat. (Hopefully he will start breaking a sweat come the regular season. He didn't exactly extend himself in the pre-season, which was fine- for now.) Connolly will remain a mystery to me for a while, but it’s hard not to like the so-called “second line”. If Grabovski remains healthy (and he gets banged around a bit too much for my liking), we have a very effective trio there at both ends of the ice.
- On that point, we just may see MacArthur and Kulemin emerge as near high-end forwards. Kulemin has progressed very nicely over the past three seasons. We are all concerned about MacArthur being a one-note wonder but my instincts suggest all three guys are legit players, and since they are in their prime and play effectively together, should only get better.
- The Leafs are young and will grow together. While I am concerned about leadership, at the same time, sometimes it’s a good thing when there is no discernable "pecking order". When Sundin was here, things revolved around him. Right now, Wilson can treat everyone more of less equally and everyone has to pull their weight every night.
- While there are some wild-cards here (will Aulie have a sophomore slump? Are Liles and Franson as good as we hope? Will Phaneuf ever be the old Dion?) when Komisarek is your 6th or 7th defenseman (or 8th), I think you have a reason to feel reasonably optimistic about your team’s defense corp.
- Some fresh voices behind the bench. Hey, I’m not going to suggest that assistant coaches make the world go round. And Acton and Hunter are two well-regarded people in the industry, whatever people may intimate in Toronto. Both are solid people. But sometimes changing the deck chairs does flip things around. While I’m not sold, I’m open to the idea that two new coaches may bring some new ideas and hopefully some improvement on special teams, for example.
- Last season, the Leafs had three big surprises—MacArthur, Aulie and Reimer. You could even throw in Brent and Boyce. While there are certainly no guarantees the team will see that kind of thing happen again, I’m anticipating someone will step up and surprise us that we aren’t even thinking about right now. Given that the Leafs are a better team now than they were 12 months ago, you don’t need that many surprises. One would do the trick.
- I believe the team is closer to actually having an identity than just talking about one. We’ve heard all the words—truculence, swagger, etc.—but this should be the season the team becomes something. A blue-collar team, a third-period come-from-behind team, a hard team to play against—any one attribute will do.
- Management should have the cap room to massage the roster if and when the time is ripe, probably in January if the team seems to be in a position to make something happen in the standings (and playoffs?).
- There is, simply, a cycle to all things in sports. It’s time for the Leafs to make their way into the playoffs. They will have to earn it, for sure. But it is within their grasp.
All last season I was of the view that the Eastern Conference wasn’t really very strong. Good teams, but few truly elite teams. I expected the West to run away with the Cup. (In fact, I thought about four teams in the West were probably better than just about anybody in the East…)
This year, I feel much the same. There is league-wide parity. I’m not sure Montreal is really better but if they are healthier, that’s important. Is Markov going to be OK?) Rangers? I hear arguments both ways. What about Malkin and Crosby? If they return, will the Pens sit back and wait for their two superstars to do it all?
Boston will be good but won’t win another Cup. They have to be exhausted. There could be mental slippage there. Carolina, Florida, Buffalo, Islanders. Every team thinks they are better (same can be said for the Leafs) but they have to show it on the ice.
My point being is that every team in the East has weaknesses, and all kinds of factors—how rookies jump in and play, injuries, goaltending going south, cap issues—can have a huge impact on what happens over the next six months.
I’m sure not betting the Leafs will go deep into the playoffs, or even make them. I may even write a post with 10 reasons why they may not make the playoffs. But there are reasons to believe that they can.
Send your thoughts. Let the debate begin.