With the start of each NHL season, Maple Leafs fans everywhere plan the Stanley Cup parade route in Toronto, and book time off work in June to watch playoff games. For the past six years all of these dreams have been arduously unnecessary, as the Leafs have failed to make the playoffs since the 2004-2005 NHL lockout.
Despite the excitement surrounding this season's early success for the Maple Leafs, there is a feeling of pessimism and doubt hanging over Toronto that seems well-founded; like a jilted lover refusing to accept another apology despite wanting to believe that things have indeed changed for the better.
However, there are reasons to believe that the 2011-2012 Maple Leafs squad is more than a mirage, and here are the top 5 reasons to believe that this is the year the Maple Leafs return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is safe to say that the team on the ice belongs to Brian Burke. Almost all remnants of past management have been shipped out by Burke as he rebuilt the Maple Leafs into what we see today.
Bold moves like the acquisition of Phil Kessel may have irked fans initially, but so far they have given Leafs fans reason to trust Burke. His draft picks, such as Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri, now take the ice in the sold-out Air Canada Centre indicating that the Brian Burke era has officially began.
Head coach Ron Wilson is fully supported by Burke and his job security is entirely in the GM's hands.
There are no more excuses for Burke as the team on the ice is now his own creation rather than an inherited problem to be solved.
Although Maple Leafs fans have been perennially labeled as blind followers of a losing team (and for the most part rightly so), the Toronto fanbase's attitude has changed over the past six years from baseless enthusiasm to hopeful skepticism.
Where once every third car on the road flew a Maple Leafs flag from its window, and horns sounded around the city following each playoff goal, there is now quiet talk of draft picks and an undefined future playoff berth for future generations to enjoy.
With the success of the Vancouver Canuks and the Canadian men's Olympic Ice Hockey Team, Toronto fans have been shaken awake from their seemingly endless playoff drought with renewed enthusiasm.
This time the fans rarely talk about winning it all right now. The expectations of the fans more closely matches the team's performance and the legendary scrutiny placed on Toronto players has eased a bit. This will help the team that now feels supported rather than hated for not leading the league.
A huge name signing for the Maple Leafs, Dion Phaneuf has stepped into the captain's role and given the new-look Leafs a unique voice and attitude.
Phaneuf is exactly what the Leafs needed to get back on track following the lockout and departure of longtime captain Mats Sundin. Phaneuf is young, assertive, and talented. In the leadership vacuum left by Sundin, Phanuef was able to provide a base upon which the rest of the team can be built.
Phaneuf puts points on the board and opponents in the glass, and despite drawing the ire of some fans for not producing even more offense, it should be noted that his most valuable contribution to the team is being the unquestioned young leader of a young team.
Early in the 2011-2012 season head coach Ron Wilson was faced with a new kind of problem for the Maple Leafs: too much talent.
Clarke MacArthur was returning from suspension and the 2-0-0 Leafs would have to shuffle their lines to accommodate their productive second-liner. Such a problem, if it can be called that, will persist for the Leafs as Tim Connolly is set to return and usurp the top line centre job from Tyler Bozak.
From Joffery Lupul to Mikhail Grabovski, to Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn, the Leafs have many more roster options than were available in the past six years. Gone are the days when the debate was who to call up from the Marlies (Maple Leafs AHL affiliate team).
Now the question is who to send down.
The question of who the Maple Leafs' goalie hasn't been clear since the days of Vesa Toskala (I know, I know, what ever happened to him? Well, he's playing for his hometown pro team in Finland).
Now, James Reimer has stepped up to once again solidify the goaltending position.
Andrew Raycroft was an overvalued disappointment. Vesa Toskala was solid but played during the darkest days of the Maple Leafs playoff drought, and had no support.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere was a salary dump the Leafs took on in a trade, and was too old to be the goalie of the future in Toronto. J.S Aubin (whom many compare to Reimer as they were both late-season call ups from the Marlies who made miracle playoff pushes) was a flash-in-the-pan veteran. Jonas Gustavsson is still in clear need of some development time.
In the young James Reimer the Maple Leafs have found a solid starting goaltender who is confident, yet humble. Although he is not a superstar, he has stepped up to the NHL level quickly to stop pucks and keep the Leafs in games.
It's unclear how good Reimer will become, but it is clear that he will anchor the team for the time being, giving the team stability and a chance to win every game.
With the NHL changing into a league where young, fast, and skilled teams are rewarded with perennial playoff runs, the Maple Leafs are well situated to become a dangerous opponent for any team to go up against.