While it’s a pretty low bar, making the playoffs is still something to reach for if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs. It is 8 seasons since the last time the Leafs even suited up for a playoff game, so it would be something to at least get to that next step in the organization’s continued development curve.
We can all agree the Leafs under Burke have made strides. They are faster, deeper and simply better. But they still—as I’ve posted here before—in my eyes at least, lack (in addition to some necessary personnel upgrades) the required team toughness to get to the level they need to be at to be successful in the playoffs.
But for now, the question is: will the Leafs even be there?
Ron Wilson has been encouraging his charges to look ahead at the teams they want to catch in the standings, rather than focus on feeling pressure from the teams chasing them from behind. That’s a perfectly fine motivational ploy that I happen to endorse. I’d rather my team be the chaser, be the one putting the pressure on somebody else who is seeing the rope slip out of their hands, than be worried about getting caught from behind. We’ll see if that mentality works for Wilson and the Leafs.
As we sit right now, there is perhaps a bit more clarity around the playoff picture and possible standings/positioning, as we move toward the 50 games played mark. Potential playoff seeding is a lot harder to put our finger on. On any given day, the Leafs hover between 5th and 9th overall in the standings. Win two and you’re “in” (at least on paper, for the moment). Lose two and you’re “out”, it seems.
I wrote a few weeks back about who the Leafs, in my estimation, were really and truly in a fight with for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. My thinking at the time was that five teams were in for sure—Boston, New York, Philly, Washington and Pittsburgh. Various things, including injuries, have conspired to make the Penguins/Cap situation a little less certain, but I have to believe those five teams will still be there in April.
I ventured out far enough on a limb to suggest the Isles, Canes and Lightning were going nowhere this season, and that while Ottawa was way better than I thought they would be, I would be shocked if they lasted long enough to make the playoffs. (I still think that’s the case, but they will make me look very, very bad if they keep up their determined play…)
That left Montreal, Winnipeg, New Jersey, Toronto, Florida and Buffalo to fight for the three remaining spots, as I assessed the possibilities at the time.
Acknowledging that things can change in a hurry (injuries, a hot goalie, etc.) I think we have to put the Habs on the list of teams on their deathbed. Dysfunction is an over-used term, but it somehow seems to apply to a team that just isn’t going anywhere. Gauthier continues to make moves that don’t necessarily defy logic, but also don’t seem to be making things any better.
So I think we can safely say that, as of this moment, while Carolina, Montreal, Tampa Bay and the Islanders may have their moments they will not be making the playoffs this spring.
I still think the Senators will fade, despite an impressive display of what I sense is playing over their head. (This is not to discredit the team’s achievements so far under their first-year head coach. It’s simply my view at this point in the season…I may well be proven wrong.) But they are right in the mix, for now.
So on my “list”, we have the above teams that I think for sure won’t make it (Islanders, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Montreal). Plus, I’m going to throw in Winnipeg. I love some of the young talent there, but I don’t think they have the veteran leadership, proven guys who can lead them through tough times and help them pick up their chins—and their boot straps—when the going gets tough. I also think the Sabres are done like dinner (as Tiger Williams so famously said about the Flyers that fateful playoff night in the spring of 1977). I just believe that nothing in the NHL lasts forever, and it’s time for owner Terry Pegula to clean house and bring in a new General Manager and a new voice for the dressing room. Ruff has been there an awful long time.
So for me, that’s six teams who won’t be there, and five teams who will be there for sure. That’s 11 teams “spoken for”, in my view.
Ottawa has me confused. They're the wild card.
That means that, the rest of the way, the 6-7-8 playoff spots will be between New Jersey, Florida and of course Toronto (we hope…) and maybe Ottawa.
So by my own descriptions above, Toronto should be in. I don’t see Florida maintaining their first-half pace and while the Devils are better than I thought, they could do a swan dive as well. So while this is hardly a bold prediction and certainly not a proclamation, I think that (to a certain extent by the age-old process of simple elimination) the Leafs should be in the “top 8” come April.
As I’ve opined here many times, the East is not a particularly strong conference. It may be the salary cap, it may be parity, it may be a number of things, but I think because of that, it’s almost a toss-up again come playoff time with regard to who will ultimately advance from the East. Yes, Boston looks good right now and they have the confidence of having won in the spring—and that should only help them. They are the likely “favorites”. But are they truly unbeatable? The Rangers are good but again, not so good that they can't be beat. And I believe every other team can be taken out in a playoff series. Things can go your way—or slip away—very suddenly.
Whether the Leafs are one of the teams that can take advantage of any slippage, well, we’re still a ways from finding out. They have some problems of their own to deal with just to get to the dance.