Regardless, it strikes me that the blue and white are right in the middle of a very interesting stage in their development. They are not a “great” NHL team, but given a) where they were just a few short seasons ago and b) the parity in hockey these days (especially in the Eastern Conference), well, these are, relatively speaking, heady times indeed.
This is not to suggest that the Leafs should, as our new MLSE President has already proclaimed, be planning a parade route of any kind. It is simply to suggest that while there will no doubt be down times this season (and beyond), by current NHL standards, this is a pretty good team. And that means they should comfortably make the playoffs and we all know that once that happens, just about anyone can advance. And a good team has an even better chance of playoff success.
And I’ll say it: I now think the Leafs, while flawed, are a “good” NHL team.
How can I say this? Well, they win games they shouldn’t (Saturday night being a prime example). The can kill penalties and score on the power-play. They have more depth than they have had in years. They are winning despite a slew of early-season injuries (and a key suspension). They have received generally stellar (though not so much Saturday night against the Oilers) netminding. They are not fun to play against, and can even win games when they don’t engage in fisticuffs.
Yes, things are not so bleak around Leafworld any longer.
- Do you ever wonder if James Reimer would be a nice fit for the Oilers or the Flames? I’m hardly trying to rush him out of town—anyone who visits here regularly knows my feelings about the young Leaf goaltender. But ultimately, might that not be an answer that will make everyone happy? Bernier will be the undisputed number-one guy (that has been pre-ordained form the day he was traded here) and Reimer, who cannot possibly be happy plied to the bench as he is, could earn the top job on other teams trying to fight their way back to respectability.
- Wonder if the Jake Gardiner trade talk will fizzle as the Leafs pile up the wins? (Did you notice Saturday night that his old teammate, Justin Schultz, only played 13 minutes even strength? There was lots of ballyhoo about the college free-agent in the summer of 2012 and that fact that he chose Edmonton over Toronto. It will be interesting to see how these two talented young defensemen develop in the years ahead.
- Morgan Rielly obviously (as we’ve all known all along) has the skill to play here. I just still feel we could use the roster spot differently. I’m sure he loathes the idea of going back to junior, but long-term, why waste a year on his entry-level deal when he could instead lead Team Canada at the World Juniors? But I’ll soon give up the fight—I’ve said since camp Carlyle wants him here and I believe Rielly will stay here.
- Carter Ashton likely has only a fragile hold on a fourth-line wing spot right now. There are lots of players nipping at his heels, I would think. He’s done some good things but there is plenty of competition for that spot.
- It will be interesting to see the team dynamic evolve once Clarkson returns. If the team had been struggling, the typical response might be that he would help kick-start things, that they had really missed his presence. But they may be 8 and 2 by the team he is back and playing.
- Both Broll and Davane have played (albeit limited minutes) already this season with the big club. If they can put up the occasional point and play tough, will this make McLaren expendable at some point?
- I don’t know if we can say that Gunnarsson has been great, but he’s playing 20 minutes a night and is often hard to notice (which is usually good). Not sure we can expect much more than that. He seems to be delivering.
- A lot of us have wondered in Ranger is totally comfortable yet, but, like Gunner, he’s playing 20 minutes a night. He is also a plus player. He has an edge to his game and should only get better with time. (And also like Gunnarsson, he has only drawn two minor penalties all season, which means he is not putting his teammates in a tough spot killing off any bad penalties.)
- Kessel has been Kessel; Lupul is Lupul.
- Phaneuf is playing 25 plus minutes a night and is a solid “plus” player so far. To sign or not to sign, that is the question…
- Kadri is kicking it into gear, earning about a point or so a night. Some are upset that he is not playing more but I think this will all get sorted out in the weeks ahead. He’ll play plenty when all is said and done.
- It no doubt drives some Leaf fans crazy, but Bozak is playing more than 22 minutes a night (24 against Edmonton). But even his critics must see him back-checking hard, putting up points, fighting to win face-offs, killing penalties. I’ve not always endorsed him in the most glowing terms, but I've always said he is a nice player. Right now, he is doing a job.
- McClement remains a personal favourite. I’ve always admired players who reek of just being good, old-fashioned solid professionals at what they do. Without any fuss, they simply do their jobs well. This guy seems to fit that bill.
All in all, it's an encouraging time for Leaf supporters. How many young Marlies have already played with the Leafs this season? I don’t know the number off the top of my head but every night seems to bring a new face.
Again, I’m hardly forecasting destiny here. But things are looking better.
Maybe what I need to do to finish this column is simply to ask: what lurks around the corner? What am I missing that should make me think that the Leafs, while not a juggernaut, area anything but a top team in the East? If not up there with Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh, they are surely in a tier just below—with very few others, right?
We're not at the 20-game mark (when many of us think it's time to make real assessments) yet, but let me know what you think…