Toronto Maple Leafs: 6 Things We Learned About Them This Season

Mark RitterSenior Writer IApril 5, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs: 6 Things We Learned About Them This Season

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    With the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff hopes officially crushed by a 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals Tuesday night, it is a good time to reflect on the 2010-11 season.

    Heading into this season there were a plethora of varying opinions regarding where the Maple leafs would finish in the Eastern Conference.

    While most Maple Leaf and NHL fans had the Blue and White missing the playoffs, where the team would ultimately end up in the standings varied from dead last to as high as eighth in the Eastern Conference.

    Looking back at my own Eastern Conference predictions, I had the Maple Leafs finishing around 18th—20th overall, with the Blue and White finishing the season in a heated playoff race.

    Obviously, the Maple Leafs were never really in a “heated battle” for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. That said, the fact that the Maple Leafs played at the level they did down the stretch has many fans believing that the Buds will make a strong push for a playoff spot in 2011-12.

    Truth be told, the 2010-11 season has been an uphill battle for the Maple Leafs.

    The Leafs started the season strong, going undefeated in their first four games. Inconsistencies, injuries and an inability to find proper chemistry between the players caused the Maple Leafs to go into an extended free-fall, including a horrible end to October, followed by an equally abysmal November which saw the Maple Leafs drop eight straight games, including two shootout loses from the period of October 28th through November 13th.

    Suffice it to say, the club that lost eight straight is hardly the team that we have watched over the past 25 games.

    The Maple Leafs have been one of the better NHL teams since the All-Star break. The biggest reason may be the promotion of goaltender James Reimer from virtual unknown in the American Hockey League with the Maple Leafs affiliate Toronto Marlies to legitimate NHL starter.

    Reimer’s arrival seemingly changed the fortunes of the team and the attitude of the players.

    Reimer’s rise to success is just one thing we were able to watch happen right before our eyes this season—and there were so many more things we have learned.

    With all this in mind, let’s take a look at six things we learned about the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.

1. Welcome to the Show, James Reimer

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    Ask any Maple Leafs fan who they want to see as the teams No. 1 goaltender next season and you will almost unanimously hear James Reimer’s name.

    Through 35 games (33 starts), Reimer has registered a tremendous 20-8-5 record to go along with a sparkling .923 save percentage, a very respectable 2.52 goals against average and three shutouts.

    While a case can be made the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke would be smart to find another legitimate goaltender to share the load with Reimer next season, there are just as many fans that would like to see Burke go “all-in” with Reimer, using the salary cap room saved to sign another defenseman or help bring in that coveted No. 1 centre.

    Many rookie goaltenders have flopped in their sophomore season. Recent examples include Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price and Columbus Blue Jackets netminder Steve Mason—both of whom had excellent rookie seasons, both of whom had a significant drop off the following season.

    Nobody has a crystal ball, so the only way Burke will find out if Reimer is the real deal is to play him next season. That said, wouldn’t everyone involved like to have an element of security on the bench should Reimer falter?

    What we do know about Reimer is that he appears to be ready to play at the NHL level. We also know that he has an uncanny ability to raise the play of others around him and, for the most part, has been the main reason the Maple Leafs had the success they did down the stretch.

    No question, Reimer looks to be a very special talent, I just hesitate to rush that talent...

    While the futures of veteran J.S. Giguere (an unrestricted free agent this summer) and Jonas Gustavsson (oft-injured and inconsistent) appear to be in doubt, Reimer will be in the show next season, which is comforting.

2. Ron Wilson May Not Be as Dumb as You Think:

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    Since his arrival here in Toronto in 2008-09, Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson has been made to endure an enormous amount of scrutiny.

    While some of the question marks surrounding Wilson have been warranted, the Leafs Nation penchant for blaming the coach for every team shortfall is astounding.

    Let’s face it Leaf fans, Wilson may not be the second coming of Scotty Bowman, but he is a very capable NHL coach. Sure, the Maple Leafs special teams have struggled since Wilson has been here, he changes his lineup far too often for most people’s liking and Wilson has put numerous players in the position to fail this season—but ask yourself this: Do you really, legitimately think that Wilson had the soldiers to do much better than he did this season?

    I mean, the poor guy has not had a complete first line all season long, and yet it’s “his” fault that the Maple Leafs power play stinks?

    The fact is, Wilson has done a decent job.

    No, he hasn’t been spectacular, and Lord knows he is not very popular with the media. That said, when you look at what Wilson had to deal with, you couldn’t expect much more and, with the team extremely close to being in possession of three 30-goal scorers for the first time since the 1995-96 season.

    The last time the Maple Leafs had three 30-goal scorers it was Mike Gartner, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin getting it done. You just have to throw Wilson some props for helping Nikolai Kulemin (30), Mikhail Grabovski (29) and Phil Kessel (30) and others to post career highs in many offensive categories, don’t you?

3. Dion Phaneuf Has Heart

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    With his dedication and heart being questioned by many Maple Leaf fans over the first half of the season, Dion Phaneuf appears to have done a gut-check, digging deep to find the “Dion of old.”

    While nobody is suggesting that Dion is back to the way he played in his first four years with the Calgary Flames, it appears as if the young captain is reasserting himself, which, in turn, has seen Dion making a number of timely hits, contributing a number of power play goals and leading by example both on and off the ice.

    There were a lot of question marks within the NHL community when Brian Burke elected to make Phaneuf captain of the Maple Leafs this summer. With Phaneuf playing as well as he has, it appears as if the critics have quieted down to a whisper.

    Bottom line—Dion is the captain of this team, which is to say, he has earned the respect of his teammates and is very deserving of the team captaincy.

4. Joffrey Lupul May Be a Steal

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    Looking back at the deal which saw Brian Burke ship veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin to the Anaheim Ducks in return for Joffrey Lupul, prospect Jake Gardiner and a conditional fourth-round draft choice, there were very few people that felt Lupul was any more than just a throw-in to help make the numbers work.

    Fast forward to today and you will find that Lupul has been anything but a throw-in; in fact, he has been a major contributor to the Maple Leafs success since his arrival back on February 9th, which is a credit to the young forward.

    Through 26 games with the Blue and White, Lupul has registered a total of nine goals and 17 points. Not to be ignored is the balance that Lupul brought to the Maple Leafs lineup, affording Wilson a measure of depth that he didn’t have access to at the beginning of the season.

    Lupul’s willingness to crash the net, make a hit and play hard in all zones has rubbed off on his teammates—including Phil Kessel, who seemed to catch fire when Lupul arrived.

    Throw-in? Not anymore. Lupul appears to be a very important piece to the Maple Leafs’ puzzle.

    Kudos to you, Mr. Burke!

5. Brian Burke Does Have a Plan

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    Brian Burke may be attempting to re-build the Maple Leafs in an unconventional manner, but it is hard to argue that he is not on the right track.

    Since arriving on the scene a little over two and a half years ago, Burke has completely gutted the team he inherited. Truth be told, Burke has just three players left from the everyday roster he inherited—Mikhail Grabovski, Luke Schenn and Nikolai Kulemin.

    If I had told you three seasons ago that the Maple Leafs would have Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Colby Armstrong, Mike Komisarek, Joffrey Lupul, J.S. Giguere and Kris Versteeg (now departed) in their lineup, many of you would have laughed hysterically.

    Not only did Burke bring in those players, he also managed to grow his talent pool considerably, bringing in the likes of Joe Colbourne, Keith Aulie, Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas, Jake Gardiner and many other prospects—many of which are already being given an opportunity to make an impact on the Leafs roster and/or expected to be major contributors in the near future.

    The team, minor league system and prospect cupboard has never looked better in nearly a decade, which is a credit to Brian Burke and his plan.

6. The Maple Leafs Still Need a Top Centre

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    As good as the Maple leafs were down the stretch, there was still one lingering hole in their lineup—a first line centre.

    Outside of Brad Richards there does not appear to be any UFA’s available this summer that will help Brian Burke address his shortcoming at centre.

    Nazem Kadri, Joe Colbourne and Tyler Bozak look more suited to play on the second or third line. Truth be told, none of this trio of players is a “lock” to make the Maple Leafs lineup next season, although it does appear that Bozak (who is a RFA this summer) will be back.

    Burke has assets he could use to acquire a genuine number one centre via trade—including two first round draft choices he acquired in deals with the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins this season.

    If Burke cannot sign Richards he may be forced to trade for that elusive number one centre. Don’t expect Burke to sell the farm, rather, look for Burke to identify teams that are in cap trouble, swooping in in hopes of getting a player at a bargain price.