Despite the less than fully engaged effort in Dallas the other night, it’s hard to argue with the Leafs getting 13 points out of a possible 16 in their last 8 games. That includes, of course, a nice little comeback on Saturday night in Winnipeg, a game where Reimer was given the start by Carlyle, but couldn’t produce the results he or Carlyle were looking for. (The young Leaf netminder is fighting everything these days. It’s not a question of not battling or fighting through difficult times; he is doing that, I sense. Right now, his confidence doesn’t appear to be what it needs to be to play as effectively as he can. The reasons for this have been well-documented here…)
But the Leafs generated enough to tie the game late, and they now come home to the ACC with what can only be considered a successful road trip behind them—and more points than most Leaf fans would have forecast when this stretch of games began.
While the recent surge has been nice to see, a question keeps going through my head whenever I think about the Maple Leafs. And the question is simply this: is this a team, with its present roster and coaching staff, that can make real noise in the upcoming NHL playoffs?
I guess what I’m getting at is that, as we have discussed here at VLM from time to time, just “making the playoffs” is the low hanging fruit. Given this franchise’s history and the money MLSE has to attract and hire the best amateur and pro scouts available (and the largest management team we could imagine)—not to mention the tremendously pent up fan base—that is the least we should be looking at. Just “getting in” seems, to me at least, to not be nearly enough.
I’m well aware that it generally takes time to rebuild a franchise, and to a certain extent, that was what was facing this organization back in 2008 when the new management team came aboard. We all know the moves that have been made since then—some daring, like acquiring Kessel and Phaneuf in massive trades, others under the radar but which turned out awfully well, like getting Lupul and young Jake Gardiner from Anaheim. Then there was the trade for James van Riemsdyk and most recently, the arrivals of Jonathan Bernier and young Peter Holland. Along the way they’ve drafted Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly, and a boat load of young Marlies are pushing for time (some have already had the proverbial cup of coffee already) with the big club.
On any given day, all of the above looks pretty promising. There is young talent there; some of it, I would suggest, is legitimate front-line NHL talent.
Do we have flaws? Well, on our frustrating days, Leaf fans can seem to find plenty—and understandably so. We have not built championship level squads in a decade, and when the team struggles in a game, or over a stretch of games, it can be a challenge to keep our Leaf spirits up. This season has reflected the up and down reality of being a Leaf fan. (The mood swings on Twitter alone on game night reflect that.) Early this season, though playing far from mistake-free hockey, the Leafs were winning a lot of games. It felt OK to be hopeful. Then came a rather prolonged and concerning lull with too many losses and a continued dependence on goalkeeping.
The last two weeks, just when things looked a bit bleak, the Leafs teased us with a six game winning streak, seemingly out of nowhere. Dallas reminded us that we aren’t there yet, and Winnipeg brought despair and a great comeback all in the same 60 minutes.
So if you sit back for a moment, what does the current Leaf picture tell you? Do you see a team that, if they play to their capabilities, can (back to my original point) do damage in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Or is it a team that still lacks either certain player pieces, or other attributes (we’re maybe back to grit, leadership, experience) that will prevent it from being serious players come the spring dance?
I would argue that most NHL teams are fighting something right now. Out west, a Cup-contending team like the Kings, for example, can’t buy a goal it seems. Here in the East, Carey Price, so hot recently, has now cooled off significantly (so have his teammates) in his four starts (all losses), which must be very concerning for the Habs and their followers.
I could go down the list. I’m not sure any teams are absolutely certain they are without issues. While I’m not a fan of a three-week break in the middle of an NHL schedule, I do wonder if the Leafs may have an opportunity to recalibrate during that off time (for some of the players, at least) and recharge a little. It can be a long season.
What are you seeing? Is this a team, comprised as it is right now (pre-trade deadline) that is good enough to beat good teams come playoff time? Or do we need more?