Ten Things To Watch For In The Leafs' Final Games of the Season
With playoff chances merely a dream, the Toronto Maple Leafs are simply acting in the role of spoiler as they play out the remaining games of the season before they take in the post-season play from the comfort of their own homes.
Its not a position any player wants to be in come the final months of the year, but for a Leafs team that is becoming more and more used to this sort of thing, it's a tough pill to swallow as they play out the string of games that matter the most for the majority of their opponents.
But this isn't a time for the players to simply pack it in and coast through the final umpteen games; they can't afford to do that. With Brian Burke watching from above, keeping a keen eye on the performance of every individual wearing a Leafs jersey, they're playing for jobs next season at this point.
Thus, wins could be more important than those on the outside may think. No GM likes losing, but the only thing worse than that is a team that gives up. That's one thing that'll get you a one-way ticket out of Toronto.
So with the young Leafs club still worrying about playing at their best, it will be interesting to see how things play out as April peeks around the corner. And there will be plenty to watch for.
So here now are the top ten things to watch out for as this Leafs team wraps up yet another a disappointing season in Toronto.
Phil Kessel's Chase for 30
He was brought to Toronto to score goals, and Phil Kessel has certainly shown that he can do that. With 22 goals through 54 games, he's proven in a short time that he can be the guy that this team needs if they plan on getting out of their playoff drought.
Coming off a 36-goal season last year with the Bruins, Kessel missed the first month of the season this year and has a much less skilled team to play with, but has still been a factor on the score sheet.
It's not a stretch to think that he could reach the 30-goal mark with 16 games remaining - especially if he gets on a hot streak like he's done more than once this season. One goal every other game will do the trick, and if he can manage 12 goals he'll hit the 100-goal mark for his career.
In the long run how many goals he scores the rest of the way won't matter, but being a previous 30-goal scorer it would be nice to see him come close to his total from a year ago. And no doubt it's a mark he expects to hit every season.
If he stays healthy for the entire year next season we'll hopefully be talking about chasing 40 goals, but for the time being Leaf fans can hope he manages eight goals before the season is up.
Leadership Role - A Captian in the Making?
It only took a few weeks before Leafs management slapped a letter on the front of Dion Phaneuf's jersey, and it might not be too much longer until he has a letter of a different kind in the same place.
He has come in and become the most vocal member of the Leafs, and is easily the most significant presence when he's on the ice. He is a massive hitter, always physical, and since the lockout has the most goals for defensemen in the NHL.
Throw in the fact that he's more vocal than any other player on the team, and you have more than enough reasons why Phaneuf should be the captain of the team starting next season.
He is the prototypical Burke-type player, with all the truculence and any other complicated adjective you want to spout out. His glare could scare the grin off any opponent and he's one who would never back down from protecting the players on his team.
In the final 16 games it will become more clear that he is the leader of the team, and it's about time the club named a captain. Phaneuf is already the most deserving of that role and it would be tough to see any other player in the room disagreeing with that decision.
Get the jersey-press warmed up, there's only one player on this club worthy of wearing the C after Mats Sundin.
Generation Next - Rookies Get a Chance to Show Their Stuff
Unless you live under a bridge, you'd have noticed by now that the team on the ice is looking more like an AHL team then one that's supposed to be in the NHL. These Leafs are young, yes, and between now and the end of the season that's not going to change.
The average age of the team is 26, and just in case he thought he was still young, Wayne Primeau is the eldest member of the club at the ripe age of 33.
With Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Luca Caputi, Carl Gunnarsson, and Jonas Gustavsson all playing a large role on the team until season's end, there's no doubt that this new generation will be a big part of where this team goes from here.
Playing out the string in these final games may be academic for the older players on the club, the few that there are anyways, but for these young guys its a great opportunity to not only improve as players but prove they belong with the big boys.
It also doesn't hurt that they'll get a chance to pad their rookie stats and make a last second push at the Rookie of the Year Award.
Jonas and Jean - The Growth in Goal
A word that has been followed by cringing in Toronto for years might finally be a strong point for a club that has needed it badly. With Jean-Sebastian Giguere a huge step up from the terrible play of Vesa Toskala, and Jonas Gustavsson improving his game every day, the Leafs look to have a goalie duo that can actually be relied on to steal a game or two when the need be.
The two will split the remaining games evenly as they both look to finish strong in a disappointing season overall for the team.
Gustavsson will look to improve the aspects of his game in the offseason, like rebound control and stick-handling after a solid debut season while Giguere will simply be looking to reclaim his starting goalie status in the league.
They both have looked good in recent games as the young Leafs start to come together as a team defensively, if they can continue to improve to end the season and start next year strong it will only mean good things in Toronto.
Kaberle Swan Song?
He's played 804 games as a member of the Maple Leafs, and the 16 remaining games could be his last. It's been quite the career in the blue and white for Tomas Kaberle.
With 479 points in that time, Kaberle has been as steady an offensive defenseman as there's been in the league. His pin-point passing and ridiculous puck handling is second to none and it will be tough to replace the confidence and skill that he gives you on the blue line.
Though the offense isn't exactly stunning this season for the Leafs, Kaberle does lead the team in points, which makes him the only defender to do so in the NHL.
It's widely speculated that when his no-trade clause is up this summer he'll be dealt for some much needed help in the forward position, as the best "trade bait" that Burke has to work with.
There's a chance that he'll receive a contract extension from the team, which is probably his first choice after repeatedly stating he wants to play in Toronto for life. But whether he stays or go, we won't know until the season is over.
So if you want to watch the man who's been a Leaf since 1998, you better do it while you can. 16 games to go, and if this is it, thanks for the memories, Kabby
In The Nik of Time - Kulemin's Transformation into a Star
It might have been tough to imagine at the beginning of the season, but as it stands now, Nikolai Kulemin is turning into a pretty darn good hockey player. If ever there was a player who didn't want the season to end, it might be him.
Kulemin is playing the best hockey of his life, and it's not only because he's frequenting the score sheet more often. His grit and determination has him winning a lot more battles along the boards than he loses.
His strength on the puck is incredible, and he plays a lot bigger than he is which allows the Leafs to get more chances around the net when he's on the ice. His effort has never been in question since the season began. You might think his success is only because of the depletion of the core of forwards giving him opportunity; but that would be wrong.
Kulemin was playing at a higher level than many of his teammates even before the team became drastically younger. He has laid the groundwork of becoming a star on the Leafs, and as he continues this season playing on a line with Kessel or other young talent, his stock will continue to rise quickly.
As the season winds down it will be interesting to see him continue to mature as a budding power forward.
On a team that has so many questions for the future, it's tough to see a team next season without Kulemin on it. A European who is adopting a very North American style of play; something Burke will no doubt notice in the summer when deciding whether to resign him.
Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin Becoming Shut Down Pair
If you look at the majority of the best teams in the league, you'll notice something about their defense; they've got a solid shut down pair to play against the opponent's best lines.
In the case of the Leafs, there is a real opportunity for Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin to become such a pair. They've got the grit, the size, and the skill that is needed to keep the best players in the world off the score sheet on a nightly basis.
And with a month of hockey that generally doesn't matter in the standings remaining, the two can continue to work on their chemistry and come into next season as a feared defensive pairing that could rank up with the best in the league.
It won't matter who the Leafs are suiting up against on any given night if these two can combine their talent and work together effectively.
And with the booming slap shots that both these guys have, it won't only be in the defensive zone that they'll strike fear into an opponent.
Cool Hand Luke - Importance of Finishing Strong
The year started off exactly what you'd expect a sophomore slump to look like for Luke Schenn. He looked shaky on the ice, gave the puck away frequently, and eventually found himself sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch for more than one game.
But as the season wore on Schenn not only found his game that was so strong in his rookie season, but was able to find his place on the team as well. His play improved as he fit more into the role that the coaching staff wanted him to play.
And it hasn't just been his play on defense that's improved though, as Schenn has shown an improved shot and have factored in more offensively as well.
He had two goals and 14 points in 70 games last season, and has four goals and 14 points through 63 games this year, with 16 games remaining.
It's not that he needs to have a great final month of the season to cement a spot on the roster next year, but with his confidence undoubtedly taking a hit this season, it would greatly benefit him to finish strong heading into the offseason and spend the summer getting better.
The future is bright for Schenn, and he has a great chance to concentrate on honing his skills as the 2009-2010 season winds down.
Battle of Ontario One More Time
What, who doesn't like a classic Toronto-Ottawa game?
Tues., March 16, Orr-Caulker round four. Mark it on your calenders.
The Battle of Ontario is back, baby.
The Dreaded Lottery Pick
First of all, get used to people talking about this, because until the pick that Boston gets out of the draft is playing on the team, we won't know if Burke made the right call in trading two first-rounder’s away for the sniper.
Second of all, get over it. It happened, Kessel is a Leaf, and that isn't changing anytime soon.
But all that doesn't mean we can't keep a keen eye on the standings and hope that the Leafs can move up a spot or two and limit the chances of the Bruins drafting first overall.
It might not be much, but as fans it's all we've got as far as watching the standings in the Eastern Conference goes for the Leafs.
As we sit and watch the young Leafs grow right in front of us while the season winds to a close, most of Leaf Nation will take a peek at the standings once in a while just to see how far off they are from the team in front.
But in the end, whether Boston picks first or not, this season should be all about the future of the Leafs, and not be spent worrying about how our former pick could help a division rival in the long run.
Besides, all the more to write about in the future.