There’s plenty of time left in the 2011-’12 NHL season for teams to make a playoff push. And my column title today is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I well realize the Leafs have been quite serious about their efforts so far this season, from management through to the coaching staff and every guy on the roster.
They are trying hard to win every night and we’ve all seen some legitimate progress across much of the roster this season. It’s just that now is the time for an objective and cold assessment of where they “fit” in the wide-open and very much up for grabs Eastern Conference.
I say this because, as we approach the official mid-way (41 games) point of the current season, the Leafs are in the mix in their Conference, very much in the playoff hunt in the jumbled standings where one win—or one loss—changes the flow.
Yes, the Leafs have every opportunity to make the playoffs, and in the East, they really should. There are no excuses. Virtually every team is fighting through injuries—Markov in Montreal, Myers in Buffalo, Sid in Pittsburgh, Staal in New York, etc. So while yes, the Leafs face some injury hurdles, they have plenty of depth and should not miss a beat. None of the injured players—while helpful, to be sure, such as Liles—are irreplaceable. In fact, it’s an opportunity for other guys to earn more ice time or a spot on the roster.
So when I look at the standings and see the Leafs neck and neck with the Ottawa Senators—a team I thought might win 15 games this season—well, it’s not exactly what I was expecting. I give the Senators credit, but let's be clear: if it’s not reasonable for Leaf fans to expect to be ahead of the Senators half-way through this season (and well ahead, actually), then the team has not progressed as much as Burke and Wilson would have us believe. You can’t really have it both ways. You can't tell fans that we are a playoff team, we are much better, we have all this depth, then point at injuries and struggle to get past what should be one of the weakest teams in the East.
Yes, the Sens are just one opponent. But we have to be honest in our assessment. Tampa Bay has really not been much this season so far, but appears to be playing better of late. If that is indeed so and Miller starts to play as he can Buffalo can be a factor, too (we have to assume the Capitals will make it) and the Leafs will be in tough. I posted a while back on whom their real opposition is for the final playoff spots in the East, and I still believe that’s what it will come down to. But while I believe there is every reason that the Leafs should make it, there is not a whole lot of room for giving away points.
That said, every team has games where they can’t hold a lead and end up giving away points here and there throughout a long season. And there are nights you steal points when you shouldn’t. But I’m talking about the overall trend here. The Leafs need to get back to being a team that other teams have to worry about a bit and game-plan for. They can’t be a team totally dependent on one line and a sometimes predictable (if occasionally potent) power-play.
What's the call to action? It's very simple and there is nothing very scientific about it. They need everyone to step up—Reimer, for sure, the young “D”, and all 12 forwards every night.
This is not a time for excuses- injuries, youth, a tough schedule, whatever.
With a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, one that is young, presumably highly-motivated and hungry, they should be really to play every night. And if they do, they can make the playoffs.
And I think it's fair to say that's the least fans should be able to expect at this point in Burke's tenure.