Before you read this, you should know that I am not an overzealous fan thinking the Leafs are going to win the Stanley Cup this year. For the record, I am unbiased, and I am merely a reporter stating fact.
The fact is, the Leafs are on an upswing.
The team from last season is unrecognizable to the team they are now. Slowly, Brian Burke has been putting the blocks together for a run at the Cup. It all started with the Phil Kessel deal—it will forever be analyzed, there is no stopping it, lets move on.
Some say that you don't believe it until you see it. Well, the very fabric of the Leafs' abysmal years have been torn up and renewed.
There is not one Leaf left that was on the active roster with the big club when John Ferguson Jr. was fired.
Back then, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov being centred by Matt Stajan was the top line, and a cast of characters such as Alex Steen, Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman and Lee Stempniak chipped in on occasion.
Another problem left from the J.F.J. era were the lingering no-trade clauses that allowed Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Pavel Kubina to stay in Toronto.
Sundin left for nothing, Tucker was bought out, Kubina was traded for Garnett Exelby and McCabe waited for his bonus to kick in before being packaged with a fourth-round draft pick to Florida for Mike Van Ryn, who retired.
The tides have definitely turned from those days. Fighting for the playoffs isn't something Leafs nation has said often, but building from the back and having a great deal of patience has put this team where it needs to be.
The playoffs do look doubtful right now, but there is still hope. Next year looks to be even better and the off-season promises to be interesting, to say the least.
First, the Leafs need to worry about expiring contracts.
Restricted Free Agents: Tyler Bozak, Clarke MacCarthur, Fabian Brunnstrom, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarson and Keith Aulie
Unrestricted Free Agents: Aaron Voros, Fredrik Sjostrom, Tim Brent, Joseph Crabb, J.S. Giguere
Chances are, the restricted free agents will be locked up, as they are some hot commodities in Leaf land. Giguere and Sjostrom will leave and Voros and Crabb will see Marlies action if they re-sign. Brent has been a good story on this team, so expect him to continue on with the Buds and provide a character role and some skill on a tough fourth line.
This is what we are looking at right now, as I see it going into the 2011-2012 season. Missing pieces that I believe need to be addressed this summer are designated with question marks.
Joffrey Lupul-(??)-Phil Kessel
Nikolai Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski-Clarke MacCarthur
Nazem Kadri-Tyler Bozak-Colby Armstrong
Mike Brown-Tim Brent-Colton Orr
Dion Phaneuf-Keith Aulie
Carl Gunnarson-(??/Brett Lebda)
James Reimer is not letting this hot streak go to his head and has provided goaltending not seen since Ed Belfour. Jonas Gustavsson has a year left to go and would serve well as a backup for next season.
The Leafs need a top centre man, which will no doubt be addressed around July 1. Brad Richards is the most obvious choice to fill the void, but Richards has said that he loves it in Dallas.
Mike Komisarek has not been what the Leafs envisioned of him when he signed in 2009, and was reduced to third-pairing duty, getting under 15 minutes a game. The recent on-ice fobbles between him and Brett Lebda leave me questioning what the Leafs are planning for the back end this offseason.
Should they stay the course or trade Komisarek for a capable, offensively gifted defenseman to go with the defensive tactics of Luke Schenn or Keith Aulie.
Who will walk down Yonge Street when the Leafs finally hoist Lord Stanley's mug?
The answer is still out there and it will take work and a couple more years of development, but the fact is, the Leafs aren't far off and the excitement is back in the air of Leafs Nation.
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