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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…