Maple Leafs fans, without question, are loyal and long suffering. Oh, I’m sure most Leaf supporters have become tremendously frustrated at various junctures along the way over the past decade (over the past 45+ years, for that matter), but that’s the reality of being a sports fan. If your team doesn’t win a championship at the end of the season, the goal was not accomplished and you have to go back at it next year.
I’m always shocked at how many Leaf fans visit the VLM site from so many countries around the world. Leafers are just about everywhere we can imagine. We complain and criticize, sure, but if the Leafs win three games in a row—or goodness knows, make the playoffs—the passion is quickly rekindled and there for all to see.
So as the calendar turns to summer and the NHL finals are (finally) about to get underway this week, there will be only two teams left that started this journey back in September. And really the journey started well before that, because the annual draft, free-agency and the constant reality of re-stocking a team through your farm system means it’s a never ending process. The Leafs, of course, are not one of those two remaining teams. In fact, the blue and white did not make the spring dance, which would seem to suggest, on the surface, that they are a long way from being in championship contention.
But we also know that things can change in a hurry, and that last year’s also-rans can suddenly find themselves in the mix next season and as has been said before—once you get to the playoffs, who knows what can happen? Did anyone really expect, a year ago, the Rangers (who fired their coach at the end of the 2012-’13 season) would be in the finals, with a chance to win the Stanley Cup this spring?
The Leafs almost experienced that Cindarella turnaround a year ago when they very nearly upset the Bruins in 7 games—as the Canadiens actually did a couple of weeks ago. There were times this past season that it looked like the Leafs had built on their short playoff experience against a really good opponent and were in fact poised to make a run in the Eastern Conference. Oh, we all saw that they were often outplayed and out-chanced, but they were winning games.
They struggled at the end, however, and that negated a lot of the hopeful fan sentiment that had been built up at certain points during the season.
But here’s the question: having watched these playoffs and and seeing what it takes to get where the Rangers are, for example, how far are the Leafs away?
We know they have a bona fide number-one goaltender in Bernier. He’s not had a chance to show he can lead a team well into the playoffs, but that’s not on him. He was backing up Quick in LA and the Leafs fell out of the payoff hunt when Bernier was hurt this past season. I believe the Leafs have a top goalie in place.
On the blueline, we have a minute-eating defenseman in Phaneuf. He may not be everyone’s idea of a true shutdown defenseman but he can play and is a valuable guy. Beyond the captain, the Leafs employ two of the most entertaining and offensively talented rearguards in the game in Gardiner and Rielly. They have serviceable defenders like Gunnarsson and Franson as well, along with up and coming youngsters like Granberg and Finn, among others.
Up front, they have real talent (as all teams do, of course) on their first two lines, with Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Kadri and Lupul as the skill centerpieces. We don’t know if Bolland will be back, but on paper, Bolland and Clarkson should be ideal third-line contributors. But hockey reality—as in things don’t always go as planned, including injuries—reminds us that the Leafs need depth on the third and fourth lines, and probably still need one more true front-line forward as well.
Our third and fourth lines were not what they needed to be this past season. That could be the roster (Nonis) or it might have been roster deployment (Carlyle). Leaf fans know that there are plenty of youngsters who are in the system and poised to assume bottom-six roles on the team. Ashton, D’Amigo, Holland (he may have a higher ceiling, but I don’t think we really know yet) are some of the already familiar names that could take on a more prominent role in the years ahead.
Some hockey observers (experts?) don't rank the Leaf prospects that highly. Others are positive about what is in the pipeline. It does appear that there are likely no true break-out stars on the horizon in the system other than Rielly, who is already here. That said, young players sometimes surprise the brass—and fans—because they emerge over time and show above and beyond their earlier ‘projections’. A couple of the young Leaf defensemen may fall in that category, but only time will tell.
Here’s the reality: there is a fairly solid core here—most objective observers would acknowledge that. But virtually every non-playoff team has a handful of really good players, including some really good young players. To get to the playoffs every year and to make noise once you get there, you need all the things we’ve talked about here for years: skill, chemistry, coaching, goaltending and yes, the requisite willingness to do the little things that make teams successful. That includes being willing to fight for the puck all over the ice, from the face-off dot to the front of the net. It includes being willing to take a hit to make a play. It certainly includes knowing the difference between “protecting” a teammate and taking bad penalties. It can mean blocking shots, getting off the ice before you’re exhausted and countless other little things like paying heed to the coaching staff’s instructions—whether you agree with the “system” employed or not.
You also need at least a smattering of winning playoff experience on the roster, character and yes, leadership. And I don’t mean leadership from just one guy. Good teams have a lot of leaders, who set an example in a host of ways.
So how close are the Leafs? One really good player? Do we have any untouchables?
After watching the playoffs and what good teams look like, are they truly a bottom-tier team or are they closer than we think?