It sucks to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan these days. I mean, it really sucks. They have unpredictable goaltending, no leadership and a lack of both mental and physical toughness. And 2012 will mark the seventh calendar year the "flagship franchise" of the NHL will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. While the fanbase is more jaded and upset than ever before (and that's saying a lot), if Leafs fans stopped and looked around, they'd realize that things aren't really as bad as they think.
Here's a list of the reasons the Leafs will be back in the postseason in 2013.
Say what you want about the job Randy Carlyle has done so far—either way, it hasn't been very impressive. Leafs fans chanted "Re-Hire Wilson" just a few weeks into his tenure, if that tells you anything.
Sure, it may not seem like Carlyle has any sort of impact since he was hired; but at the end of this season, he will have a chance to meet individually with each player and clearly explain his expectations for 2012-2013.
When he was hired, he said the Leafs lacked top-end fitness, and that's something simple that can be solved over the offseason. At the very least, the players will have a long offseason with Carlyle's tough, demanding presence in the backs of their minds.
Remember that word you hear every time Tim Tebow is mentioned? Polarizing? Brian Burke is polarizing. He's a smart man, a determined and confident competitor. He's also arrogant, stubborn, crass and, at the moment, disappointing. Many people want him to be fired. I just want him to do up his tie properly—and also make sure the 2012 offseason shows some roster turnover for the Maple Leafs.
It's clear that if the Leafs are left untouched this offseason, they will not make the playoffs next year. We know Burke isn't going to overhaul the roster, but adding an experienced goaltender, a big forward and a top-four defenceman is essential. To be honest, I don't think there's anyone more qualified to accomplish those things than Burke. He explores any and all options and certainly isn't ignorant as to the needs of his team.
Bear with me on this one. The Red-Sox and Braves had two of the most incredibly collapses in baseball history in 2011. Each team fell apart in September and missed the playoffs after losing one-game tiebreakers. The thing is, the Red-Sox and Braves were, and are, top-tier baseball teams. Both teams will field largely unaltered lineups this season and both are expected to make the playoffs. Throw out their ridiculous, statistic-defying, anomaly-creating late-season collapses, and the Sox and Braves are two very good teams.
Well, so are the Leafs, if you ignore their late(ish)-season collapse. It may be delusional to say that the Leafs are not as bad as they have been playing over the last 20 games, but the reason their fall down the standings has been particularly disappointing has been because they should be better. On paper, they're a playoff team and hopefully they can play to their potential in 2013.
The Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate have been playing spectacular hockey, currently sitting second in the AHL's Western Conference, and fifth overall. Some may argue that the AHL is somewhat irrelevant in predicting the future success of an NHL team, but here are some stats:
After winning the Calder Cup in 2006 and losing in the final in 2007, the Hershey Bears had four players graduate to the Washington Capitals in 2008. The Caps, after finishing last in the Southeast Division in 2007, won the division in 2008. Coincidence?
Sure, that's just one example, but it's a known fact that the majority of NHLers need at least a few years in the AHL to properly develop into consistent contributors. Prospects like Joe Colborne, Nazem Kadri, Marcel Mueller, Jessie Blacker, Korbinian Holzer and Ben Scrivens just to name a few have all had productive seasons with the Marlies and once Jake Gardiner and Carter Ashton join them, all these young players could gain valuable postseason experience in the AHL playoffs.
Why, yes, Al Michaels, I do believe in miracles.