Toronto Maple Leafs: Story Lines That Remain to Be Seen This Season

Jon Neely@@iamjonneelyAnalyst IFebruary 1, 2011

Let's face it, the remainder of the Toronto Maple Leafs 2010-11 has the potential to be the least meaningful second-half in NHL history.

With more chance of winning the Superbowl on Sunday than making the playoffs, no first-round draft pick to look forward to in the off-season, and their biggest trade bait being a soon-to-be 33-year-old offensive defenseman with a no-trade clause and three goals in his last 73 games; it's difficult to find anything to look forward to. 

Even the All-Star break has the entire league laughing at the Leafs, as it seems the team has fallen from the tree and is hitting every branch on the way down. 

So, due to the lack-lustre Leafs' season looking more bleak by the minute, it might be a good idea to look at some of the story lines that will play out before the final nail is punched into their coffin (in case you had lost all hope that we wouldn't find anything to talk about for the next two-plus months).


How will Phil Kessel respond?

While the rest of his teammates sat back and avoided criticism for a few days, Phil Kessel had the prestigious honour of representing his club at the NHL All-Star Game, as the best players in the league came together for a showcase of skill. 

Then they sat him alone in front of his peers as they pointed and laughed, while a nationally-televised audience watched one of the most awkward sports moments ever unfolded. 

At least the NHL gave him a car, which prolonged his agony another few minutes so they could hand him the keys to his participation award. 

He then spent the next two days explaining how it wasn't that bad, and that he would of course drive the vehicle that cost less than what he makes per shot on net. 

Though he has more goals this season than most of the wingers involved in the weekend, the fact that he acted as the league's punching bag (and punch line) makes the rest of the regular season an interesting one for Kessel. 

It will be intriguing to see how he responds from all the ridicule, and if he can bounce back from a rough first-half of the season.

Plus, he who is drafted last, talks less of how he was traded for two firsts.

Kaberle Trade Watch 2.0

Actually, at this point it might be Kaberle Trade Watch 6.0.

Yes, it's make-or-break time when it comes to the Leafs longest-serving player. This being the final year in Tomas Kaberle's contract, in case you hadn't heard. And unless Burke shocks the world and re-signs him, he'll either be traded before the deadline at the end of the month, or walk away for nothing in the summer. 

The time for loyalty is over, and though Burke has repeatedly stated he honours no-trade clauses, he would easily win the dumbest decision award for making the, well, you know. 

Fact is, unless he plans on offering a new contract, he has to ask Kaberle to waive the no-trade, force his hand somehow if it comes to it. He just can't let the most valuable asset he has walk out the door for nothing. It can't happen. 

This should be the final month of Kaberle's career in Toronto. But that would suggest things were being done right, so we wait. 

Goalie Conundrum

James Reimer has been a wrench thrown into the Leafs' plans this season, but in a strange twist of fortune, it's been a good thing. 

The only problem is, well, the entire situation actually. Reimer has already proven he's the best goalie on this club right now, and it's not even close. But that leaves J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson off the ice, which complicates things as well. 

In a perfect world, Giguere would garner enough attention over the next month to entice a team to trade for the veteran goalie to bolster their crease for the postseason, before he becomes a free agent in the summer. So in order for that to happen, he has to play, and prove that he's recovered from his injury. 

This leaves Gustavsson, who has struggled mightily this season, but the team would be hurting him if they sat him in the press box for the foreseeable future. 

A tough situation, and one that is solved only when one of the three is out of the mix.

And if that one goalie was going to be Reimer, it would have happened by now. 

Ron Wilson's Future

To fire Ron Wilson at this point in the season would be silly. The Leafs are playing out the string, and Wilson is here to the end of it. Whether he's hung with it or not will only be figured out in the off-season. 

But how this team performs here on out will affect the decision.

The fact that he was just revealed as the least likely coach to play for in the NHL by the CBC Player Poll doesn't exactly help, but 76 out of 318 players saying they don't want to play for you isn't the worst thing in the world. 

Take a breath, friends. 76 percent of them voted someone else as the worst coach, and the way things have been going for the Leafs this season, that might call for a champagne and balloons. 

A cash reward, maybe? Oh, wait...

Trade Deadline: Buyers, Sellers, or both?

Players acquired at the trade deadline rarely have much of an impact on teams, especially ones looking to build for the future. Unless Burke can work players like Kaberle, Giguere, and Francois Beauchemin into deals, the chances of him snagging anyone significant is slim. 

It would be smart to focus mainly on moving those veteran, free-agent players that will likely walk at the season's end anyway, and leave any other major moves to the summer. 

Trading Brett Lebda for an empty Coke can isn't going to help the club, and is simply a waste of time.

Which funny enough, is exactly what putting Lebda on the ice is. 

Phaneuf getting his groove back

It's been a while since Dion Phaneuf was much of an impact player, and we're talking since he was a Calgary Flame here, but if he does what he's been saying he wants to, we should see some improvement from the captain. 

He's been back from his scary leg injury for nearly two months now, so the 'still recovering' excuse will only last for so much longer—like, five minutes—until it's time to put up, or shut up for Phaneuf. 

He's saying all the right things in the media and his game-changing hits are becoming more regular, but until he's both hitting and scoring like he once was, he won't garner the respect that the younger, better version of himself had.

The Big Three

No, we're not talking about LeBron, Wade, and that other guy. We're talking about Clarke MacArthur and his mighty line mates, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. 

They've been a breath of fresh air for the club this season, seemingly bringing their A-game almost every night. Their point production is up there with some of the best lines in the league, and could prove to be an important trio for years to come in Toronto. 

Those three would give some much needed anticipation for next season. But if they slow down and have a post-All-Star Game slump, it could get even uglier in Hog Town. 

If the only line that shows up every night doesn't show up anymore, we refer to that as a team in serious trouble.

Or the Ottawa Senators

Twitter: @therealjonneely


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