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The Leafs and the last playoff spot: 8th place by default?

While it’s a pretty low bar, making the playoffs is still something to reach for if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs.  It is 8 seasons since the last time the Leafs even suited up for a playoff game, so it would be something to at least get to that next step in the organization’s continued development curve.

We can all agree the Leafs under Burke have made strides.  They are faster, deeper and simply better.  But they still—as I’ve posted here before—in my eyes at least, lack (in addition to some necessary personnel upgrades) the required team toughness to get to the level they need to be at to be successful in the playoffs.

But for now, the question is: will the Leafs even be there?

Ron Wilson has been encouraging his charges to look ahead at the teams they want to catch in the standings, rather than focus on feeling pressure from the teams chasing them from behind.  That’s a perfectly fine motivational ploy that I happen to endorse.  I’d rather my team be the chaser, be the one putting the pressure on somebody else who is seeing the rope slip out of their hands, than be worried about getting caught from behind.  We’ll see if that mentality works for Wilson and the Leafs.

As we sit right now, there is perhaps a bit more clarity around the playoff picture and possible standings/positioning, as we move toward the 50 games played mark.  Potential playoff seeding is a lot harder to put our finger on.  On any given day, the Leafs hover between 5th and 9th overall in the standings.  Win two and you’re “in” (at least on paper, for the moment).  Lose two and you’re “out”, it seems.

I wrote a few weeks back about who the Leafs, in my estimation, were really and truly in a fight with for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.  My thinking at the time was that five teams were in for sure—Boston, New York, Philly, Washington and Pittsburgh.  Various things, including injuries, have conspired to make the Penguins/Cap situation a little less certain, but I have to believe those five teams will still be there in April.

I ventured out far enough on a limb to suggest the Isles, Canes and Lightning were going nowhere this season, and that while Ottawa was way better than I thought they would be, I would be shocked if they lasted long enough to make the playoffs.  (I still think that’s the case, but they will make me look very, very bad if they keep up their determined play…)

That left Montreal, Winnipeg, New Jersey, Toronto, Florida and Buffalo to fight for the three remaining spots, as I assessed the possibilities at the time.

Acknowledging that things can change in a hurry (injuries, a hot goalie, etc.) I think we have to put the Habs on the list of teams on their deathbed.  Dysfunction is an over-used term, but it somehow seems to apply to a team that just isn’t going anywhere. Gauthier continues to make moves that don’t necessarily defy logic, but also don’t seem to be making things any better.

So I think we can safely say that, as of this moment, while Carolina, Montreal, Tampa Bay and the Islanders may have their moments they will not be making the playoffs this spring.

I still think the Senators will fade, despite an impressive display of what I sense is playing over their head.  (This is not to discredit the team’s achievements so far under their first-year head coach.  It’s simply my view at this point in the season…I may well be proven wrong.)  But they are right in the mix, for now.

So on my “list”, we have the above teams that I think for sure won’t make it (Islanders, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Montreal).  Plus, I’m going to throw in Winnipeg.  I love some of the young talent there, but I don’t think they have the veteran leadership, proven guys who can lead them through tough times and help them pick up their chins—and their boot straps—when the going gets tough.  I also think the Sabres are done like dinner (as Tiger Williams so famously said about the Flyers that fateful playoff night in the spring of 1977).  I just believe that nothing in the NHL lasts forever, and it’s time for owner Terry Pegula to clean house and bring in a new General Manager and a new voice for the dressing room.  Ruff has been there an awful long time.

So for me, that’s six teams who won’t be there, and five teams who will be there for sure.  That’s 11 teams “spoken for”, in my view. 

Ottawa has me confused.  They're the wild card.

That means that, the rest of the way, the 6-7-8 playoff spots will be between New Jersey, Florida and of course Toronto (we hope…) and maybe Ottawa.

So by my own descriptions above, Toronto should be in.  I don’t see Florida maintaining their first-half pace and while the Devils are better than I thought, they could do a swan dive as well.  So while this is hardly a bold prediction and certainly not a proclamation, I think that (to a certain extent by the age-old process of simple elimination) the Leafs should be in the “top 8” come April.

As I’ve opined here many times, the East is not a particularly strong conference.  It may be the salary cap, it may be parity, it may be a number of things, but I think because of that, it’s almost a toss-up again come playoff time with regard to who will ultimately advance from the East.  Yes, Boston looks good right now and they have the confidence of having won in the spring—and that should only help them.  They are the likely “favorites”.  But are they truly unbeatable?  The Rangers are good but again, not so good that they can't be beat. And I believe every other team can be taken out in a playoff series.  Things can go your way—or slip away—very suddenly.

Whether the Leafs are one of the teams that can take advantage of any slippage, well, we’re still a ways from finding out.  They have some problems of their own to deal with just to get to the dance.


  1. Consistency over the next 40 games will likely determine who makes it from the "bottom" contenders. My worry? The Leafs are terribly inconsistent. Unlike the Sens, it must be said. I'll be watching Tuesday's game closely, because I think it will give us an indication of what's to come. Not quite a "must" game, but it kinda is. We're on a two-game slide, our top line is being checked into zero SOG territory, and we need the other guys to get untracked. Reimer's game will also be important. I don't think Gustavsson played badly at all in the two losses - maybe one slightly questionable goal - so this game may determine Reimer's role for the balance of the season.
    One thing's for sure - the "muckulence" we keep saying is essential for playoff success is only there sporadically, as in the third period against the Rangers. That's going to have to change.

  2. I do not have Michael’s knowledge of the other teams; however, I am certainly on board with Gerund’s summary of the current Leaf situation. While I am not able to watch other teams (a transgression that would incite a minor rebellion on the home front, as my hockey spectatorship is strictly monitored and ruthlessly commented on) I am looking forward to seeing what the Ottawa Senators are about, for one game at least.

    The muckulence factor: Is it there, is it not, do we need it or do we not; will hopefully come into focus in these key games. I am searching for a metaphor to describe the Leafs. Thoroughbred is the only one that comes to mind. I have noticed that they catch a lot of teams by surprise with their extraordinary speed and skill. When they can suck opposing teams into their game, the other team is often “done like dinner”. Then, there are games like the one last Saturday against the Rangers and that seeming want of muckulence rears its head once again. Is it relatively easy to throw a monkey wrench into the Leaf’s gears? I fear that it could be, meaning an early playoff exit or worse, Spring vacations in Helsinki for the select few.

    They say that thoroughbreds are very spirited animals. However, I am not sure how well they perform on the muddy obstacle course that is the second half of the season and beyond. Time will tell, I guess. Meanwhile, Winter has finally arrived in Saskatchewan. It’s minus 29 degrees with no wind chill. Perfect weather to lace up the skates and as the great pitcher Satchel Paige is attributed to have said: “jangle the juices”. Then again, Satchel Paige also said: “I used to overpower them; now I out-cute them”. Speed and skill obviously worked for Paige in baseball. The question remains: can cute work enough magic in today’s NHL?

  3. mike... as a leafs fan living in buffalo... this spring is shaping up to be satisfying for me no matter what (either because the leafs make the playoffs, or the sabres continue their down-ward spiral). here's hoping the leafs can bring some more toughness to their game... the phaneuf hit aside, the leafs were looking pretty soft during the rangers game.

  4. Gerund O'....well said. Bobby C's "muckulence" will need to be in evidence, and I'm not sure we as yet have the consistent team toughness I'd like to see...

    Bobby C...I smiled when I saw your line about your hockey viewing habits being monitored! We must say those things quietly.....Love any reference to Satchel Paige, too! And congrats on handling the annual cold snap in Saskatchewan...I'm assuming it breaks by May??

    Alex C...I see you may take almost as much pleasure in seeing the Sabres struggle as you do from seeing the Leafs do must listen to the local Buffalo media!

  5. I think tonight will be an important game. Ottawa wasn't thought to be good at all but proved everyone wrong regardless where they sit end of the year. It is a chance to stop a Leafs slide and gain 2 points from an Eastern team. Kessel and Lupul should be looking to get back on the scoresheet as well.

    Here is my question and maybe a problem I see with the Leafs. Everyone talks about sticking to a game plan but when your game plan is clearly not working (Rangers game) you need to be able to adapt to the game. The Leafs have yet proven they can adapt and scratch the game plan when it is not working. Does everyone feel the team needs to be able to adapt to the game on hand or just keep stinking to the plan hoping it shifts in your favour?

  6. Even with Buffalo fading fast, I don't think Ruff and Regier will be gone. IF someone was to be jettisoned look to Regier. Big IF. Teams like Buffalo and Nashville I admire in how ownership treats management. They hold the players accountable. Make the player buy into systems. The players know that the coach and GM aren't the problems and won't be going, it is up to them to perform.

  7. I very much agree, Skill2Envy, about how Buffalo and Nashville have conducted their business. And it's not always been because of steady, strong ownership, as both franchises have had their share of ownership issues.

    But the GM's have held a steady hand, for sure, and shown respect for-and patience with-their coaches. Both coaches have helped build strong franchises. And I admire that approach.

    I do think, though, that a coach's voice cane become stale, even when the personnel changes. So while I'm probably off on this one, I think both could go if the team continues to struggle, after spending big money in the off-season...

  8. Well arguments can be made for any of the 4 situations: Ruff goes, Regier goes, both go, both stay.

    The reason I gave the nod to Regier going over Ruff is that Regier signed the contracts. Most people thought Buffalo would be good, I wasn't buying it. All the signings had me shaking my head.

    Boyes was a good addition last season but hasn't fit into the team well, Leino was given too much without much merit, Ehrhoff was signed for too long and I couldn't believe $10M in the first year (or couple years). Regher was a good addition but with both new comers on the blueline it almost forced out Gragnani and/or Weber. And then they almost had no money and space for Enroth.

    And that is the reason I see Regier going if someone goes. Ruff is an incredible coach, much like Trotz, and has done well under Buffalo's past ownership woes.

    I can see Buffalo trying to offload Regher, Leopold, Roy and McMormick in the offseason to try to free salary. Cutting ties with Hecht and Gaustad UFAs, some old Buffalo era holdovers. Boyes will walk if he isn't moved.

    And the Leafs will make the playoffs while Buffalo golfs :)

  9. I'm with you on the signings, Skill2Envy. It's almost like they went to the candy story with their new-found wealth and just had to buy something. When they couldn't get a top-end guy, they took Erhoff and gave him money, simply because they had it. But 10 years?