As another seasons end fast approaches, the Toronto Maple Leafs remain the bridesmaid and never the bride when it comes to making the NHL playoffs.
Yet there is plenty to look back on this season and feel good, even proud, about.
When it comes to the post-season, it may have all gone horribly wrong early on this year, but by the final curtain there is still some joy in Mudville.
Lets review the top 10 reasons why this season has been a veritable success for the Maple Leafs.
I know what you must be thinking, the Leafs power play and penalty kill suck. And to be honest, they have been nothing short of anemic this year, there is no debating that.
However, both special teams units have seen modest improvements over last season.
The power play has risen by 1.7 percent, while the penalty kill has improved by three percent, moving the Leafs out of the basement in both categories. That comes out to about five and a half more goals scored this year on the power play and about eight less goals given up on the penalty kill.
In no way are these number good enough for a team that desperately wants to make the playoffs, but at least they are an improvement over last year.
This year, they just plain stink, and hopefully, next year the Leafs will surge forward enough to attain the lofty distinction of just being bad.
With six games still to be played, the Maple Leafs have recorded four more wins than last year, which has translated into an upward movement in the standings by five positions.
At their current pace, they are projected to win 37 games, which would be an increase of seven over last year. The Leafs are also projected to end the year with 84 points, an increase of 10 points over the prior season.
A similar increase next year would turn the Leafs into a solid playoff team.
Whether we will see a like kind improvement next year, however, remains to be seen.
The Leafs have had much better goaltending this year.
While Jonas Gustavsson has struggled, both Jean-Sebastien Giguere and, most notably, James Reimer have contributed to the improved numbers for the Leafs.
Overall, the Maple Leafs goals against average has dropped by .22 goals per game from 3.21 last year to 2.99 this year. To put that into perspective, only five other teams improved their GAA by a larger margin than the Leafs, and all of them are playoff teams.
The Pittsburgh Penguins saw the biggest improvement, as they were able to reduce their goals against per game by an unbelievable .5 goals per game over last year.
While the Leafs are giving up one less goal every five games, the Penguins are giving up one less goal every other game.
That is huge.
Last year, Toronto was fifth in the league with an average of 32.6 shots per game. This year they have dropped to 25th with an average of 28.8.
However, that stat is as misleading as the notion that one size fits all.
Case in point, the Leafs connected on a measly 7.86 percent of their shots last year. Only the Boston Bruins were worse at 7.5 percent.
Contrast that to this year, where the Leafs score at a 9.0 percent clip, and you can see just how meaningless the shots per game stat really is. With a projected 2364 shots taken for the year, that translates into 35 more goals scored.
Opposing teams are also having a harder time finding the net against the Leafs this year as well.
Last year, the opposition scored on 10.8 percent of their shots against Toronto goaltending, while this year that stat has dropped 1.1 percent to 9.7. With 2522 shots expected against the Leafs this year, that equates to 27.7 less goals against over the course of the season.
Combining the improvements in both shooting percentage and shots against percentage, the Leafs are only behind the Bruins as the most improved shooting percentage team in the league.
That must count as a major positive for the Leafs.
Toronto has four players who will score at least 20 goals this season after only having two last year.
One could even make an argument for a fifth 20-goal scorer, by combining Kris Versteeg’s 14 goals with his replacement, Joffrey Lupul’s six.
With Phil Kessel one goal short of his third 30-goal season in a row, the Leafs are stacked at the top with five or six legitimate goal scorers. The problem is that there is a huge drop off in scoring after these players, and there is virtually no scoring from the defensive corps.
Still, there is a bit of solace knowing that the Leafs can put two lines on the ice that can score enough to get by.
The Leafs have shown a marked improvement in every category for recording wins.
When scoring first, they have won 64.3 percent of the time and rank 21st in the league in this category. That is up from the 60.0 percent last year when they were ranked 25th.
The same can be said for their record when the opposition scores first. Last year Toronto ranked 27th with a 23.1 winning percentage, but this year they are ranked 15th overall with a 33.3 winning percentage.
When leading after the first period, Toronto has improved from 26th to 21st by increasing their winning percentage from 63.2 to 71.4. Even their record when leading after two periods has improved from 81.8 percent (22nd) last year to 84.6 percent (19th) this year.
When out-shooting opponents, the Leafs have improved from 38.3 percent (26th) last year to 39.3 percent (21st) this year. And finally, when being out-shot, the Leafs have shown the most improvement by turning their 35.7 (28th) winning percent last year into a surprising 50.0 percent (17th) this year.
This is a lot to chew on, but it is worth noting that Toronto has improved in every single one of them.
Many Leafs have picked up their games this year. With so many changes to the roster, though, it’s hard to set a baseline for some team members.
Certainly, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur are all vastly improved, as each are having career years.
Luke Schenn has improved his game over last year as well. He is on pace to set career highs for points, hits, blocks and take-aways. Unfortunately, he is also going to set a career high in giveaways as well—more than double his total from last year.
Even players like Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Nazem Kadri have shown modest to fair improvements in their game.
With a decent corps of young talented players, the Leafs have established a nexus to build around.
It is unlikely that any of the players mentioned have already peaked, therefore there is still potential for growth in most if not all of them—which bodes well for the Leafs’ chances going forward.
There has been much written about Toronto’s rookie goalie recently, and deservedly so.
Many have claimed that it is Reimer and Reimer alone that has made the discussion of the playoffs for the Leafs even possible. While the fantasy of reaching the playoffs this year has probably turned into a pipe dream, there is no discounting Reimer’s electrifying contribution to the team.
Aside from his spectacular goals against average, save percentage and winning percentage, "King" James boasts three shutouts as well—all while playing less than half a season.
Three shutouts may not seem like a lot, but considering that the last Leafs to have had as many shutouts in as few games as Reimer, you have to look back six years to Ed Belfour, who managed 10 in 59 games with a much stronger Leaf team.
At the beginning of the season, there were no standout prospects for Toronto outside of the possible exception of Nazem Kadri and Keith Aulie.
While its true that Kadri has been tearing up the AHL with the Toronto Marlies, he has yet to show he can compete at the NHL level on a daily basis.
On the other hand, with the trade of Thomas Kaberle to Boston, "Mohamed" Aulie has earned himself what looks to be a permanent roster spot with the Leafs.
Even still, these two players were rated by Hockey’s Future as an 8.0C and 7.0B respectively.
As the season progressed, Brain Burke was able to obtain the likes of Joe Colborne and Jake Gardiner, both rated 8.0C, via trades with Boston and Anaheim respectively.
Along with goalie Jussi Rynnas, there are now four prospects in the Leafs system rated 7.5C or better.
Whether these players can make the transition to the NHL, or be used as trade bait to lure the missing pieces of the Leafs’ puzzle, remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, when Brian Burke needs to go to the cupboards, at least they won’t be bare.
Like the prospect pool, Toronto was delinquently short on quality draft picks for this years rookie chase. However, all that changed with Burke's fast and furious wheeling and dealing during the mid-season trading period.
With the departures of Versteeg to Philadelphia and Kaberle to Boston, Toronto picked up the Flyers and Bruins first round picks. Along with their own early second round pick, the Leafs will be picking three times in the late first and early second rounds of the draft this summer.
With that many picks, Burke may opt to put a trade package together to move up in the pecking order, though with the apparent lack of high profile players this year’s draft, the price to do so may be too high.
Regardless, Toronto has a decent chance to add some quality to their prospect pool and maybe, just maybe, they will find a gem in the rough.