It is fashionable (and easy—I’ve certainly done it myself) to consider the 2011-’12 NHL season another unsuccessful year that was pretty much wasted by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
And yes, it was in many ways unsuccessful. If you miss the playoffs nowadays in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, you haven’t exactly set the world on fire, eh? We can talk about youth, goaltending issues, injuries and such things, but making the playoffs in a mediocre and parity-filled Conference should be a minimum expectation for Leaf fans when it comes to the blue and white. And the team failed, no question.
But the season was not, I would argue, a total waste—far from it.
While I could easily go on—at some length—(and I have, in this space) about the team’s struggles, some good thing did indeed happen. And they are still happening, as we see with the Marlies now skating their way toward a berth in the AHL Calder Cup finals.
Let’s review briefly a few of the hopeful things that came out of this past season for the Leafs:
- Who expected Lupul to have the superb season that he did? Yes, he is a heavy contract, but did we honestly anticipate that he would deliver the way he did when he was acquired from the Ducks? Only an injury curtailed what was going to be a stellar season, as he put up some startling career numbers. Yes, he is not the world’s best defensive winger, but he may become a better all-around player with the team’s renewed emphasis on defensive structure in 2012-’13—assuming he and the coach mesh better than the last time they were together.
- Is there a living, breathing Leaf fan who would trade Jake Gardiner now? As I’ve posted here before, if I was a rival GM, and Burke was looking for a difference-maker (Getzlaf, Nash, etc.), Gardiner is the guy I would insist on getting back. But there’s no way Burke will send away the player who has opened more eyes than any other Leaf prospect or acquisition in Burke’s three and a half seasons on the job. He’s too smart, too good a skater, such a calm presence on the ice- with an upside that says “All-Star”.
- Carl Gunnarsson finished the year on IR, but while he had some rough patches to his season, for me he remains an indispensible part of the Leaf blueline corps going forward. I like his game, the way he makes simple plays and doesn’t often crumble under duress. He plays an old-style, smart game. My only concern is that, since the Leafs can’t really move Gardiner, Gunner becomes the kind of trade bait that would likely have to go the other way in a deal to bring in an impact forward.
- The fact that Reimer was injured so early in the season (and clearly never subsequently fully felt like himself) has pushed the organization to now look for additional help in net. Unlike a lot of Leaf observers, I liked Gustavsson, but as I’ve posted here many times, his future is best to unfold somewhere else where he might be better developed—and appreciated. Here, he had no future. But this means the Leafs will look to add something in goal, whether it be a UFA like Harding or a big “name” like Luongo. Either way, I hope they stick with Reimer as part of the plan, because I’m not prepared to write him off in any fashion after one injury-plagued and inconsistent season. We’ve all seen too many goalies hit rough patches and then come back strong, to ignore what he did in 2010-‘11. I’m not guaranteeing he will rebound, but I believe the young man can play.
- I was pleasantly buoyed by Frattin’s development this past season. He has the potential (there’s that word again) to be a bit of a power-forward, a fellow who can skate, go to the net (off both wings, which not everyone can do) and cause a bit of havoc. He has a shot and some offensive moxie that should show itself further as he continues to gain confidence at the NHL level.
- Clearly, while we can’t be certain that all or any of these “kids” will be impact guys or even solid role players in the NHL, surely there is reason to believe we will generate some value out of Kadri (it feels like he’s been around forever but he’s still only 21), Colborne, D’Amigo, Blacker and some of the other young Marlies who have been so impressive this past season.
- Luke Schenn has four NHL seasons behind him at the age of 22. We can rightly debate whether he would have benefitted from spending more time in junior, or extended time with the Marlies. But for his perceived slowness afoot, he is a gutsy player who hits guys hard, and can be a physically imposing defenseman. He’s one of those guys that, if he plays a simple game, can be effective. Maybe we should forget that he was a top-five pick and just accept the good things he brings for as long as he’s here.
- I think we can feel reasonably assured that Liles will again be the Liles we saw pre-injury this past season. (Whether he is moved in an off-season deal is another issue, but the same can be said for just about any Leaf…)
- I don’t know how the Carlyle-Kessel relationship will evolve, but surely we can expect that, at least this coming 2012-’13 season, Phil will be devoted to trying to impress the “new” guy with his improved all-around play. Therefore, we can expect Kessel’s offensive production to reasonably approximate what he has done in his first three seasons with the Leafs. As the roster presently stands, we still need Kessel to score enough to offset the sometimes imbalanced offense that we tend to show many nights.
- If we can accept that Phaneuf is what he is—a good NHL defenseman, not the “best” as Wilson referred to him last October, or necessarily an All-Star—we can appreciate the good things he brings to the Leafs. That includes some occasional physicality, a bit of offense, some passing ability and a generally decent all-around game. I sense that Phaneuf may actually be a better defender under Carlyle, as the team assimilates a system that should make it easier on the goaltenders and the defensemen.
- It’s fair to say that Ben Scrivens has inserted himself into the Leaf goaltending debate, given his steady, sometimes spectacular play with the Marlies this spring.
- Nick Kulemin will, I believe, rebound in 2012-’13. Guys have off-seasons. They just do. We all know that he was one of many Russians playing with a heavy heart this past season, and I believe that, on the heels of helping his native Russian national team win the 2012 World Championships this past weekend in Finland, he will come to Leaf camp in September bolstered by that experience—and knowing he has something to prove to a suddenly growing number of blue and white Kulemin doubters. (For the record, he played over 12 minutes in the championship game against Chara and the Slovak national side. Overall, Kulemim earned 4 points in 10 World Championship games, averaging over 14 minutes of ice time a night in a largely checking role.)
And hey, if we could "trade" coaches, we could pick up a heck of an asset for Dallas Eakins...He has his team up 2-1 (and looking awfully good) in the AHL semi-finals. You just know some NHL teams are watching him closely.
In any event, I’m sure I’m missing some of the positives that came out of last season, but as always, I’m counting on you to fill in the blanks.