The Toronto Maple Leafs may be closer to Lord Stanley’s Cup than you might think.
Oh, I am not saying that the Leafs will bring home the coveted trophy this year or next, but I am saying that they are much closer to being a cup contender than many in Leafs’ Nation would give them credit for.
Sure, this season is all but done and buried—a season that started off white-hot and then promptly sank into the dark abyss, was then temporarily resurrected, and will end with shades of gray.
Like the famous Charles Dickens novel, this year’s Leafs have been a tale of two teams.
You can look at the disparate teams in two ways. There were the Leafs of 2010 and the Leafs of 2011 and there were the Leafs before James Reimer and the Leafs after him. Both are almost but not quite identical in as much as the Leafs played completely different under each.
Prior to New Year’s Day 2011, the Leafs posted a record of 13-19-4 for 30 points in 36 games. That is a pace that would have garnered 68 points on the season and left Toronto in the unenviable position of dead last in the eastern conference, and given Boston another lottery pick.
The Leafs of 2011 are a completely different team, posting a 21-12-6 record for 48 points in 39 games. That’s a pace that would have them finish the season with 101 points and be among the top three or four teams in the conference.
Using only prospects and picks, can the Leafs compete for the cup next year?
If the Leafs are Jekyl and Hyde, than Dr. Jekyl is 33 points better in the standings than Mr. Hyde.
Then there is James Reimer, the rookie sensation who has seemingly turned the franchise around simply by being placed between the pipes.
One cliché says, "the stats don’t lie.” And if you look at the stats, they indicate that the Leafs are a far better team when Reimer is in the lineup.
Without him, the Leafs have posted a record of 17-24-6. That’s 40 points in 47 games. Conversely, when Reimer is minding the net, the Leafs have gone 17-7-4 for 38 points in 28 games.
Now get a load of this stat.
Of course, there is another cliché that may be relevant here, “there are lies, there are damn lies and then there are statistics.” I leave it to you to decide for yourselves that which is true.
But the fact of the matter remains, if the Leafs continue to play to their current pace with Reimer in goal, they are already among the best performing teams in the league.
Consider what the Leafs have waiting in the wings with the Marlies and other prospects. Consider the picks they have accumulated for the upcoming draft and what they have in unspent cap space. Consider who is going to leave this team come the off-season and who must be signed. There are no players leaving who will break this team and there are no high-end talent players left unsigned either.
The Leafs have virtually nowhere to go but up and they look to be going there in a hurry.
Yes, there are some holes to be filled and yes, the team needs to continue to play at their current pace. But there are prospects and draft picks for the holes, and very few reasons why the level of play can't continue.
The team is young, and will continue to improve on a daily basis as each player gains valuable experience and develops team chemistry.
It is not as far-fetched as some might believe to say that the Leafs may be on the verge of being an all-out cup contender as early as next year.