Custom Search

Ten reasons why the Maple Leafs just might be contenders in the Eastern Conference…

As we’ve discussed here recently, it’s important as a Leaf supporter not to get too carried away with the recent run of good play.  However, a record of something like 12 wins, two losses and a tie over the past fifteen games or so has triggered a wave of enthusiasm—and hope that this may not in fact be a mirage after all, but rather a foreshadowing of what this team just might become.

Before I get ahead of myself, I’m well aware there are still plenty of imperfections on this Maple Leaf painting. If Bernier’s goaltending goes sideways at any point, or if the power play goes stone cold or a couple of key guys are injured, things could go south in a hurry.  If the team comes back off the Olympic break and has lost that  winning mental ‘edge’ along the way, that could be an issue, too.  There are all sorts of things that Leaf fans know only too well can go off the rails.

But for today, I am thinking that there’s nothing wrong with taking “yes” for an answer.  That is, let’s all acknowledge that this team has piled up points over the past few weeks at a startling rate, beating just about everyone in their path— including some very, very good teams. We all know that a team is rarely as good as it looks on its very best days, or as bad as it appears on its worst days.  We’ve certainly seen the best and the worst of the Leafs already this season, and there’s still plenty of time left in the regular season before we even hit the playoffs.

That all said, recognizing the roster flaws and a possible pull back in the standings may happen at some point, I believe this team may just be in a position to make some noise come playoff time.  Most of you know I’m not a “predictions” guy but I think there is solid evidence to demonstrate that this roster, even as currently assembled (and even without additional help via pre-deadline Nonis trade activity), is on the cusp of a playoff run.

Why?


  1. The Leafs are receiving consistently elite goaltending for the first time in a decade.  I’m a big Reimer fan and will continue to be. I believe he was more than capable most of last year and was certainly ‘elite’ much of the time.  He bailed them out on so many occasions.  Now, Bernier is the guy doing that.  If the former King back-up can play with the calm and composure he has displayed so far this season, who knows how vital a cog he can be come playoff time?
  2. Right now, the Leafs, as I discussed here not long ago, have one of the best first lines in the Eastern Conference— maybe in the entire league.  Bozak, Kessel and van Riemsdyk are flat out dangerous on a nightly basis.  Oh, they will go stale, I’m sure, and Carlyle will be forced to mix things up, but whether Lupul plays on the top line or whatever, this trio has been dynamite.
  3. Fortunately, however, the Leafs are not just a one-line team.  While Kadri has maybe not been as consistent this season as he was last year, he can absolutely provide the edgy play and the offensive punch as a triggerman that any aspiring club needs from their “next-in-line” offensive unit.  I think Lupul is going to hit his real stride after the Olympic break and Clarkson appears to have turned a modest corner.
  4. The Leafs now have versatility and flexibility (and some skill) on their third and fourth lines.  No longer anchored to two individuals who mostly are there because they are enforcers, Carlyle can throw out a Mason Raymond, for example, who could play on any one of the top three lines on any given night, as needed.  Clarkson and Kulemin are somewhat interchangeable parts between the second and third lines, depending on who is “going” in any particular game. McClement, I feel, is better when playing fewer minutes. Carlyle has the luxury of throwing Bodie, Holland, Ashton, Smith, etc. out there and they generally don’t hurt the team. Many nights, they do a lot better than that.  We still have Orr and MacLaren for those times when a pugilist is valued to protect the the less physical members of the Leaf flock.
  5. Dave Bolland will return, it seems, at some point.  This can only be good news.  I’m not concerned with the notion of, “what are we going to do with all the extra bodies”. That’s what Carlyle gets paid handsomely to do—manage the assets Nonis has given him.  Bolland (contract discussions aside—as in, should we give him a new long-term deal when we don't know if he’ll be the same player, etc…) is clearly a leader and a player who inspires those around him.  That’s a pretty good deadline “acquisition” for us right there.
  6. We have the players who can provide a formidable penalty kill.  We had that a year ago and now it would appear that Kulemin, Bozak and McClement are healthy. McClement is not being over-taxed with other duties.  So again, if they can find the form that made them one of the best PK units a year ago, that would bode awfully well heading into the spring.
  7. Phaneuf is averaging about 24 minutes a night.  I don’t have the stats right in front of me, but that feels like less than a year ago.  I have to believe that he will be more effective (and fresher come playoff time) if he does not have to play 28-30 minutes a night. 
  8. Morgan Rielly is getting more and more comfortable right before our eyes.  And I don't sense he is someone that will find the bright lights of the playoffs a problem. In fact, I think he will thrive on the opportunity to play on a bigger stage.
  9. Tim Gleason has made a huge difference on the backline.  Grit, shot blocking, protecting teammates.  That’s the definition of a difference maker.  But as importantly, we also have depth to call upon as needed across the roster and the system.  Players in the minors like DeVane and Broll could be useful low-minute guys if and when needed.  Paul Ranger is our seventh defenseman right now and we haven’t had to tap into the Marlie pipeline for defenders this season, unlike a year ago when there was a bit of a Leaf/Marlie carousel. We haven’t even seen T.J. Brennan yet and he is an NHL defenseman.  I always say you need to be “ten deep” on the blueline if you have any thoughts of a long playoff run and I believe the Leafs have the required depth on the blue line.
  10. Not insignificantly, the mood around the team has improved markedly.  Confidence breeds confidence.  Right now, these guys “think they can”, like the Little Engine That Could. The can come from behind for a win, score late goals, whatever it takes. They know they can do it.  That makes such a difference.


I still don’t know if we have the kind of experience and leadership on the roster to 'will' a playoff round victory when the time comes.  But the team has shown me something.  Will the Leafs have success in the playoffs?  I don’t know.  But I think they can. 

The points I raised above are enough, for me, to believe that in a middling Conference, the blue and white don’t have to hang their heads at the thought of playing against any team these days.  There is no unbeatable team in the East.  Check out the rosters.  Even the Bruins and the Penguins are filled with replaceable parts, just like we’ve said here about the Leafs for many years.  I’m not saying the tide has turned in the East just yet, but  think it’s fair to say that the Leafs are “in play” as a threat in the Conference.

They can now enjoy the break (those that aren’t Olympics-bound, at least) and get ready mentally for the most important part of the 2013-‘14 NHL season.


Am I being too hopeful, or are my thoughts on the money?  You tell me…

10 comments:

  1. If we can rise above the wild card (and avoid Pittsburgh/Boston in the first round), I think we match up against any other team presently playoff-bound (including the bubble teams on the outside looking in).

    Even the Penguins/Bruins are beatable, I'm just thinking "would we have anything left if we beat 'em in the first round" because you really do start pondering the possibilities when you look at the rest of our potential opponents. The Leafs' management have quietly built up some depth that have had a taste of the NHL and 'held their own' when in the mix... that's a good sign.

    I think that I've unbalanced my thinking by focusing upon the cap issues (both when Bolland returns and looking at next year). Am I so habitually used to 'rebuild mode' that I'm failing to see that we should just keep our expiring UFAs and bring a close-knit unit into the playoffs as is?

    Who wouldn't want to acquire Bolland, Kulemin and a cost efficient Raymond for the playoffs? Why not just keep 'em all? If Bolland has trouble with stops and starts (needing the summer or more to fully recover and find out where he's at), we just saw Carlyle comment on the surprising unveiling of Kulemin at Centre. What if that allows a hybrid of the 2 to give us greater flexibility as Bolland works his way back into the lineup (giving more time to assess the value of both, for cap purposes, in the meantime)

    For a high cap team, Mason Raymond is worth more than his contract, even if not exactly the kind of player that Carlyle might want. Nevertheless, he is worth keeping unless somebody will give us a 1st rounder or excellent prospect more in line with the future look of this team.

    I don't think we need to acquire anybody for the playoff run... I don't think we have enough to go all the way, but I'd sure like to see more than one round and I think that's possible with our present mix. Unless it's clear that Bolland can't recover or Kulemin will demand far more than his worth to the Leafs, or Raymond brings us something we can't say 'no' to, then why not keep 'em all?

    On another note, I forgot the Saturday game would start early, so missed the 1st period... just remembered that CBC has games archived so watched and saw the pre-game ceremony honouring the Leafs 64 cup team.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Dave Keon in the mix!

    However, I was even more aware of the 'polite applause' from the fans in the ACC, especially as I pondered your idea to do such a ceremony on a non-game night, and inviting the generation of fans that remember these guys to give them the recognition they truly deserve.

    They had microphones picking up comments from the Alumni, and Shack was pretty vocal about the crowd reaction (especially when Bobby Baun was introduced as the LEGEND who played on a broken leg during game 6 AND came back 'with the leg frozen' for game 7. He got quite a rousing response that was noted by the guys out there. What if we were there? How much better would that be!!

    Thanks for continuing to foster this idea of yours, Michael... I hope it catches on while these guys are still able to come out for these events (Johnny Bower couldn't make this one... hope he's okay).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very fair point about the importance of a first-round match-up that would not leave us exhausted before we move on, InTimeFor62. It's encouraging that we feel we can even have this conversation.

      As for the '64 event, frankly, I can't get cranked up, as I've said before, about doing it the way the Leafs do. 90% of the people in the building never saw any of those guys play, much less in their prime. Polite applause for guys like Keon is just, well, upsetting.

      Thank you for remembering my earlier suggestions. I'd be there in a heartbeat if they opened up the doors on a non-game night to old-time fans who would appreciate those individuals who helped to build the Leaf legacy. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

      Delete
  2. It's hard not feel enthusiastic these days, isn't it? Do we have a team that can do some damage in the playoffs? Yes, if our PK improves, we cut down on the defensive zone giveaways, improve our shots for/against ratio, and we continue to get the secondary scoring we've been benefitting from recently.
    Despite a couple of lacklustre performances over the past three weeks or so, it feels as if there has been a change in the Leafs' psyche to me. You might say we're even developing the "team character" we hear about so often. And it's starting to feel like we CAN will ourselves to victory. The Kessel/JvR/Bozak line, particularly, seems to have certain shifts where they've decided they're going to score - and they often do, or get a really good chance. The chemistry that's developed between those three is really something to behold.
    For me, the addition of Gleason was a key moment in our evolution this year. This is the kind of player who inspires his teammates through his tough, selfless play. His arrival seemed to settle our core D-men, giving Carlyle three solid pairs, and somehow giving everyone more confidence.
    Interesting that you wrote about Kulemin the other day, because his play at center is making him more noticeable for me. He's made some big league plays in the last couple of games - pinpoint passes, (the one he sprang Raymond free with vs Tampa Bay was a beauty!), good defensive work, and strong in the offensive zone. And this is all to say that if our "secondary" guys can keep playing at the level they have been, I think we'll be a formidable opponent for just about any team.
    But we haven't been in the kind of tight-checking games the playoffs usually are, and we've repeatedly gotten away with horrendously flat starts. We need to find a consistency that's eluded us for most of this year if we want to really dance with the big boys come April.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Consistency and bad starts remain an issue for sure, Gerund O'. And there's little doubt the playoffs are a different game. The one good thing, I suppose, is that all teams raise their level of play. We saw that with the Leafs last spring. It's not just the opponent who will be more focused and willing to take a hit to make a play. Thanks Gerund- enjoy the Olympic break!

      Delete
  3. Going into this season there was reason for cautious optimism, and despite some hiccups along the way, there is still good reason for optimism. You've listed many good reasons in this post Michael.

    To be honest, I'm not sure we have seen how good this team can be as of yet. Here's why....

    a) Clarkson has yet to show his full worth or potential. He started the season with a lengthy suspension, and then struggled to catch up once he returned to the lineup. When he returned, Lupul missed a couple games with a foot injury, and then Bolland had his serious ankle injury. With the injuries, the lines got shuffled and Clarkson just never got going. Clarkson himself had his own injuriy problems (elbow), and missed a lot of games in January. Once back he's looked much better, playing on both the 3rd and 2nd lines. If he can stay healthy and play well after the Olympic break, that will help bolster this team immensely.

    b) The emergence of Holland, as a decent 3rd line center, has been a plus. This kid deserves a spot on this team, and could give them some much needed depth down the stretch. I'm hoping they can find a way to keep him when Bolland returns. Bodie has been a pretty nice surprise as well and hopefully can stick.

    c) Bolland has been missed. His return will help balance the lines, bolster the Leafs' defensive play and improve their PK. Hopefully he can return and be effective. If he does, this team gets an important player back and will help both down the stretch, and in the playoffs.

    If JvR and Kessel can come back from the Olympics healthy, and not too tired out, then that 1st line should be able to play well down the stretch.

    Its time to say adieu to at least one of the two enforcers. With the addition of Bodie there is no need to carry both Orr and McLaren. I dream of the day that this league can police itself, WITHOUT the need for a one-dimensional enforcer-like player.

    This team is markedly better than last year, and that team pushed the Bruins to 7 games. Bruins are on top of the East again (with a similarly strong team), so in theory any of the Eastern teams are beatable if the Leafs play to their potential. Lots of reason to be optimistic.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Don (TML_fan). It just felt as though today was a good time to acknowledge the progress the team has made.

      Delete
  4. The way the Leafs have played lately - and if they can keep playing that way (big if) they could do some serious damage in the playoffs. Bolland will only help and Clarkson is just starting to get his game back. If Bernier stays hot they can beat the Bruins and the Pens which means they could be playing for the Stanley Cup against a pretty tired western team. How much gas would a team like the Blues have left after seven game series against the Kings, Ducks and Hawks? One thing we know for sure is the Leafs are definitely headed in the right direction and are still a very young team with some very good prospects in the system. But maybe everything will fall into place this year the way it did for the Habs in 86 when he Flames upset the Oilers and had nothing left for a well rested Hab team. Guess that happened again for the Habs in 93.

    It really does take a lot of time to rebuild a team and the Leafs have pretty much done it and they may be at a point where they can replace their UFA's with younger players in the system. If you look at the team Burke started with five years ago there are not too many players that would fit in with the current roster. Just looking at the current roster it quite amazing how little they gave up to get where they are now and by not giving up much it means the development actually has some good players which will keep the Leafs near the top for a long time.

    Bozak, Clarkson, Raymond, Bodie, McClement, Ranger, Smith, McClaren, Orr all free agents plus Gardiner, Lupul for Beauchemin another free agent. Franson for taking on Lombardi.Then Phaneuf and Aulie / Ashton for Stajan. Bernier for Frattin who is not doing anything in LA (so he probably goes the route of Colborne if he stayed) and Scrivens another UFA. So essentially a 2nd round pick for Bernier. JVR for Schenn was a steal. So the only players that really cost were Kessel and Holland for Blacker and a 2nd round pick.

    Maybe I am a little overly optimistic but this is a young team with a lot of talent so it is hard not to be excited.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, there is talent here, Alton, and young players who are just hitting their stride in the NHL, too. The roster has been rebuilt, as you outline in your post today, without giving up the future, it seems. Kessel, Phaneuf, Gardiner, van Riemsdyk, Bernier (and others) have all made major contributions.

      When a team begins to believe it can win, it's amazing what can happen. I'm not suggesting the Leafs are there yet (as I mentioned in the post, things can always slide backwards) but there is progress here. The East has few if any unbeatable teams, which helps. Thanks Alton.

      Delete
  5. As long as the Leafs play well enough to avoid Boston and Pittsburgh in the first round, the Leafs could go deep into the playoffs. Part of may reasoning is based on the Leafs depth.

    The playoffs can be wars of attrition. Unlike many teams the Leafs actually have the extra NHL players to cope with the inevitable injuries. The top line of Kessel JVR and Bozak needs to stay healthy along with Phaneuf, Gunnarson and Gleason but after that we can probably cope most injuries without a great drop in play.

    Peter Holland could play in Kadri's role. Kulemin can move up to play second line wing or over to play third line center. We have gone without Lupul and Clarkson before. Bodie can play on the third or fourth line. Ashton, Smith and D'Amigo can also come in if needed. At forward there's also Lievo, Abbott and Broll, who have all played NHL regular season games this year.

    On defense beyond our current seven, we have T.J. Brennan who is 4th in AHL scoring with 51 points and could probably play on many NHL teams. Pettr Granberg is + 16 in the AHL. He was on the top pairing with Alex Edler against Canada at the world championship and they played most of the game against Stamkos’s line, so he could probably play on if they needed a defensive guy.

    In goal we have Bernier and Reimer

    It's taken some time, but the Leafs have become a good organization. They have lots of talent on the big team and some nice depth developing in the minors.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You're so right, DP- depth is huge. It now appears the Leafs have it, at long last.

    ReplyDelete