With their impressive 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs are now just five points behind the Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
With a game in hand on the Maple Leafs it appears as if the Sabres’ lead is safe, which means there will likely be no playoffs for the Blue and White...again!
While it appears as if Maple Leafs fans will be left disappointed by their teams inability to make the playoffs this season, there are a number of reasons to believe that this team will make the playoffs in 2011-12.
Let’s take a look at five reasons your beloved Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs next season.
Through 32 games played (30 starts) rookie goaltender James Reimer has registered a 18-8-4 record to go along with an impressive .922 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average and three shutouts.
Just as important as Reimer’s great record, the team seems to play a much more competent and confident game in front of the 23-year-old goalie, which has translated into much success for the Blue and White.
While there is no guarantee that Reimer could keep up this torrid pace through 82 games, it appears as if Reimer is for real—capable of starting 40-50 games next season and registering as many as 30 wins.
I am of the opinion that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke will sign a veteran goaltender this summer to help offset a possible sophomore slump from Reimer, which should give the Blue and White a measure of stability between the pipes that this team has not seen in decades.
They may not win every night and they may not be the most competent team on the ice when it comes to special teams, but this group does have one thing going for them night-in, night-out—Heart.
It took a while, but it appears as if Brian Burke has assembled a roster that works hard every night.
Maple Leafs Captain Dion Phaneuf has been leading his troops in the heart department for about two months now—scoring big goals, making big plays and bringing the pain in the form of big hits to opposing forwards.
Mike Brown, Tim Brent (UFA), Keith Aulie, James Reimer (RFA), Luke Schenn (RFA), Joey Crabb (UFA), Darryl Boyce (RFA), Clarke MacArthur (RFA) and yes, even Mikhail Grabovski “bring-it”, night-in, night-out, which has led to a number of Maple Leafs’ wins down the stretch.
The games the Maple Leafs have been scratching and clawing to win down the stretch should pay dividends, as will some much needed familiarity when the 2011-12 season rolls around.
This team wants to win for each other and, for the first time in a decade, it appears as if the Maple Leafs are playing like a “team”, which is the key to any playoffs teams success.
Bottom line? There is no quit in this team, and it’s been a long time since we Leaf fans have been able to say that.
While it appears as if Brian Burke has some work to do before he will have assembled an elite top-six, there is every indication that the Maple Leafs are on the right track.
As it stands now, the Maple Leafs top-six consists of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur (RFA this summer).
What’s missing is a top-notch centre to play alongside Lupul and Kessel—an area Burke will do everything in his power to address this summer.
The bottom six is also in need of a tweak or two, including a more capable penalty kill specialist and some added scoring prowess.
On the backend, Burke looks to have three very solid defensemen in Luke Schenn, Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie, while Carl Gunnarsson and Mike Komisarek still need work.
It appears as if Burke will set his sights on landing another puck moving defenseman this summer, which should help round out the defense.
Needless to say, the Maple Leafs need some work this summer, but with more than $22 million in cap room available to Burke this summer, you just get the feeling he will be able to plug a number of holes and sign restricted free agents Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, James Reimer, Darryl Boyce, Tyler Bozak (maybe) and Carl Gunnarsson to new contracts.
Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke has assembled a decent cast at the NHL level.
Just as importantly, Burke has put into place a number of players at the AHL level that, with a little development, should be able to help the big club before long.
Forwards Nazem Kadri (currently with the Maple Leafs), Jerry D’amigo, Marcel Mueller, Joe Colbourne, Brayden Irwin and Luca Caputi all have the potential to be called up as early as next season as may defenseman Jake Gardiner, Simon Gysbers and/or goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas.
Sound far-fetched? Look at the job virtual unknowns James Reimer, Darryl Boyce, Joey Crabb and Jay Rosehill have done with the big club this season.
Just because the “experts” say the aforementioned players may not be ready for prime time for another two to three seasons does not mean it cannot happen.
Besides, in the event that Burke is unable to sign one or more of Clarke MacArthur, Boyce, Crabb, Rosehill, Tim Brent or Rosehill, Burke will have to rely on one or more of his AHL prospects filling in.
No question, many of Burke’s prospects look to be a long way away from becoming key contributors to the big clubs success, but rookie goaltender James Reimer is a prime example of a player coming out of nowhere to make a big impact right away.
Bottom line—anything can happen.
Yep, I said it—coaching will be a factor in the Maple Leafs success next season.
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson received plenty of criticism for overplaying departed defenseman Francois Beauchemin, sticking with veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere too long and for consistently employing players on the power play and penalty kill that could not get the job done.
To all the Wilson haters out there, riddle me this—what choice did Wilson have?
Let’s face it Leafs Nation, Wilson did not have the talent, the goaltending or the depth to ice a decent roster for much of the season, thus leading to Wilson having to ask players to play well beyond their capabilities and skill level.
Case and point—Tyler Bozak.
Nobody believes Bozak should have been relied upon to be the Maple Leafs first line centre. When Wilson called upon Bozak to do so, he had no other options.
Rookie centre Nazem Kadri failed and Mikhail Grabovski was needed on the second unit, which meant Wilson was out of candidates.
Look at the development of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Dion Phaneuf (who looks to be back), James Reimer, Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb—does Wilson not deserve at least some credit for their development?
Now, Wilson is not without his faults. The Maple Leafs’ special teams continue to unimpress and his penchant to change up his lines can be downright frustrating.
That said, it says here if Wilson has the right mix of talent he can lead this team to the playoffs.
Until next time,
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