The Leafs pre All-Star break were a complete mess by all accounts. A team struggling to put together two good consecutive passes, struggling to get consistent goaltending, struggling to spend money wisely, and lastly, struggling to win consistently, saw them 15 points out of a playoff spot at the break.
Now, after the All-Star break, the Leafs, led by Phil Kessel and rookie phenom goaltender James Reimer, have went on a tear in the month of February and a bit of March, stringing together a record of 10-3-4 for a points percentage of .676 in 17 games.
Phil Kessel has carried the team on his back in the last month after getting picked last at the All-Star game fantasy draft, looking like a young Brett Hull.
James Reimer has nearly been lights out for the Buds, going 12-5-3 with the big club with a 2.45 GAA and a .924 SV% and two shutouts. Those numbers from a Leaf goalie have not been seen since the days of Ed Belfour, another fellow Manitoba native.
But let's not kid ourselves; these kids have a long way to go before we start whipping out those lofty comparisons and expectations. Right now, all Leaf fans should just enjoy the ride while it lasts.
After taking a hard 5-3 loss on Saturday night to the Chicago Blackhawks—a team that I think the Leafs should model their club after—it got me to thinking how close this club really was to a playoff spot, and more importantly, a deep playoff run.
Granted, the Hawks right now are a few years ahead of the Leafs in terms of development, but the pieces are definitely there to model the Leafs after that Blackhawks squad. They have more experience right now, but the concept of each team are very close.
Comparing the Leafs to the Hawks today is like comparing apples and oranges. But in the future (say two to three years), the two teams could flow quite nicely together and compare favorably.
Patrick Sharp/Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane
Marian Hossa/Dave Bolland/Bryan Bickell
Troy Brouwer/Jake Dowell/Michael Frolik
Viktor Stalberg/Ryan Johnson/Tomas Kopecky
Joffrey Lupul/Tyler Bozak/Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin/Mikhail Grabovski/Clarke MacArthur
Joey Crabb/Darryl Boyce/Colby Armstrong
Mike Brown/Tim Brent/Fredrick Sjostrom
Duncan Keith/Nick Leddy
Niklas Hjalmarsson/Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell/Chris Campoli
Dion Phaneuf/Keith Aulie
Carl Gunnarsson/Luke Schenn
Mike Komisarek/Brett Lebda
Corey Crawford/Marty Turco
James Reimer/JS Giguere/Jonas Gustavsson
Right now, I won't compare every player, but the framework is there for the Leafs to really shoot for. Tyler Bozak by all accounts is a first line center that is miscast and should be likely a second or third line player.
That brings me to our first need and first type of player the Leafs should be seeking. A first line center. Who is out there; who compares favorably to Jonathan Toews if were using their team as a comparison? The one and only free agent name that even comes close is Brad Richards.
Do the Leafs have the cash to push for him? Absolutely. Will he leave Dallas, though? That remains to be seen.
Other potential free agents that come to mind are Tim Connolly, Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott and Tomas Fleischmann, who, to me, screams Mikhail Grabovski with a blood clotting problem.
The free agent cupboard is fairly bare when it comes to free agent first line center talent.
The Leafs have a few very good prospects in the system who could eventually fit into that mold in Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne. Kadri, though, is more likely to become a winger than Colborne.
When or if they develop into those top line talents remains to be seen, but most importantly to note, it will take time for them to develop in the NHL.
Still on the first line, I look at a guy like Joffrey Lupul, a former 25+ goal scorer, who again is arguably not a first line forward. Personally, in the future, I would love him on a scoring third line with Bozak and Armstrong, all of whom are pretty responsible in both ends. The Hawks also have a very good scoring third line with likely David Bolland centering Troy Brouwer and Michael Frolik.
That brings me to the second player of need, a first line winger.
Free agents are fairly bare again with respect to this, so again the Leafs will likely need to build from within. After Rick Nash re-signed in Columbus, it really saddened me as a Leafs fan. All that is left is likely Simon Gagne, Scottie Upshall, Alex Frolov and Erik Cole for likely replacements.
This position will likely need to be filled from within. Players such as Brad Ross, Nazem Kadri or the two first round picks in 2011 could eventually evolve into that position of need. The 2012 free agent class will likely be a lot more stronger for this type of player.
The Leafs defence again compares fairly nicely to the Hawks. The Hawks defence, however, is more of a rich man's version of the Leafs, pretty well forcing the Leafs to say what if with regard to their defence for the most part.
Dion Phaneuf and Duncan Keith are somewhat comparable, but Keith is the better player. Luke Schenn and Brent Seabrook are also comparable, but Seabrook is also more offensive and more comfortable with the puck giving Seabrook the edge.
Gunnarsson is more of a poor man's version of Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Keith Aulie and Brett Lebda are fairly comparable to Nick Leddy and Chris Campoli, although both Leddy and Campoli are better skaters and better with the puck.
Where the comparison falls apart is Mike Komisarek and Brian Campbell. Although both are vastly overpaid, Brian Campbell is still an elite level skater and puck distributor, two assets Komisarek can only dream of.
The Leafs had a guy like that in Tomas Kaberle but dealt him prior to the February 28th trading deadline.
That brings me to my last player of need for the Leafs, a top two level puck moving defenceman. Many options are available in the free agent crop, with names like Andrei Markov, Kevin Bieksa, Joni Pitkanen, Christian Ehrhoff, and yes, even Tomas Kaberle.
This position will more than likely be filled via free agent addition or trade. Names like John Michael Liles will again re-surface following the season, so don't be surprised if you hear his name again as well.
The goaltending to me is where the Leafs manage to win out miraculously. Reimer compares nicely to Crawford or if last season was anything, Annti Niemi. J.S. Giguere gives the Leafs a veteran netminder much like Cristobal Huet and, this season, Marty Turco serve.
The Leafs have much better goaltending depth in the organization, something the Hawks should really take note of. After Crawford, the Hawks are struggling to find a good netminder with very good potential. The best option might be Alexander Salak, who was recently acquired from the Florida Panthers in a trade with former GM Dale Tallon.
So in reality, the Leafs aren't the Blackhawks, but I hope this comparison helped explain my point of view. Please take a second and vote so I can get an idea of the opinion of Leafs nation on this one. Are the Leafs three players away from a serious playoff run, or are they three years away from a serious playoff run?
Thanks for reading.