10 Reasons To Believe That 2011-2012 Will Be the Maple Leafs' Year
A warning to readers: this article will be way more optimistic than Leafs fans are used to. The general assessment by Leafs Nation is that the team is off to a great start this year, but is overachieving and will eventually fall back down to Earth.
Still, as of this morning, the Leafs continue to be the leaders of the Northeast Division with 17 points in 12 games. They currently have a three-point lead over the surprising Ottawa Senators with a game in hand.
When I came out with an article three weeks ago about how the Leafs could win the Northeast, many in the comments section disagreed and said that realistically the Leafs were looking at the seventh or eighth playoff spot. And yet, here we are.
Let’s take things like “reason” and “proper judgement” and lightly toss them to the side. We don’t need those things right now. Maybe we’ll pick them back up later.
What if this is the year?
What if Brian Burke’s rebuilding efforts are finally coming to fruition this season, right in front of our eyes? Leafs fans are like a girl who’s heart has been broken one too many times and can’t trust anyone, anymore. Is it time for us to trust again?
Here are 10 reasons to believe that 2011-2012 will be the Leafs' year to win it all.
10. Anything Can Happen in the Playoffs
The first post-lockout Stanley Cup Final featured the Carolina Hurricanes and the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were the eighth seed for the Western Conference, but managed to make the final with superb goaltending and gritty play.
Even if the Leafs don’t win the Northeast Division and still make the playoffs as a lower seed, there is still the possibility that they could go all the way so long as good things happen at the right time.
There has only been one post-lockout President’s Trophy winner that has won the Stanley Cup in the same year — the Detroit Red Wings, in 2008. We all know what happened with last year’s winner (sorry, Canuck fans).
The introduction of a hard salary cap has changed the NHL landscape, creating a more level playing field where anyone can win. Hopefully the Leafs can be the next example of that.
9. An Improved Power Play
Cynics will point out that the penalty killing unit for the Leafs has been absolutely horrendous this year. They would be right, as the Leafs are currently ranked last in the league.
However, the power play has gotten better and they are ranked 16th in the league, a six-spot improvement over last year.
Having John-Michael Liles has made quite a difference, as his passing ability gives the power play a few options. Moving the puck down low or feeding it to the point for a booming Phaneuf shot has been working for the Leafs this year so far.
As I’ve previously mentioned, a top-ranked power play is essential for a team to go far in the playoffs. They aren’t quite there yet, but they seem to be on the cusp.
8. Ability To Win When It Counts
Winning against the Rangers and Penguins last week show that this team is beginning to turn the corner and is ready to consistently play at a high level.
At the end of a four-game road trip, the Leafs waltzed into New York for the home opener and took the fight to a Rangers team that not only has an excellent goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist but has also added Brad Richards.
Jonas Gustavsson did well in that game after some very bad starts, and expanded on that success two days later when the Leafs defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first place team in the Eastern Conference.
There also always seems to be an increased level of tension and pressure involved with Saturday night games. Last year, the Leafs had a record of 7-16 on Saturdays. This year they are 4-0. Being able to win on a big stage like Hockey Night in Canada speaks volumes about a team’s poise. Can this continue?
7. Phil Kessel’s Soft Hands
The headline for this slide sounds like it should be in an Ivory commercial, but it fits because Phil Kessel has been the most dangerous player in the NHL so far this year.
With 20 points in 12 games, Kessel is the leader in NHL scoring with a four-point lead over his competitors. This kind of production is the reason why Kessel was named Player of the Month for October.
Curious about the last time this happened? It was 1993.
So long as the Kessel show keeps rolling, who knows how far the Leafs can go?
6. James Reimer, Homegrown Talent
Since we’re already on the subject, when was the last time a goalie drafted by the Leafs came up from the farm team, took control of the starting position and had significant success?
You guessed it — Felix Potvin, the same player who was named Player of the Month in October 1993.
If Potvin was able to carry the Leafs to the Eastern Conference final for two years straight, imagine what could happen with a goalie that actually knows how to cover up the five hole?
Reimer has some health issues right now that need to be sorted out, but he is clearly the guy that needs to be in net in order for the Leafs to go far.
5. We've Gotten Used to Disappointment
It has been 44 years since the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup. Many Leafs fans weren’t even born back then. Even some parents of Leafs fans weren’t born back then either.
Fans of the Maple Leafs franchise have become used to disappointment.
Here’s a crazy thought: since we all think that the Leafs aren’t going far this year, wouldn’t it be just like the Leafs to “disappoint” us again and win it all?
Yes. Yes it would.
4. The Blue and White Disease Is Fading
Leafs GM Brian Burke describes the “blue and white disease” as a condition where Leaf players become complacent and content with mediocrity since they are “paid handsomely, in the media and league spotlight and lionized in the public as a demigod.”
He has tried to get rid of players that fit this description, with only Carl Gunnarsson and Nikolai Kulemin remaining from the John Ferguson, Jr. years.
The team is beginning to gel together and playing the way that Burke first envisioned when he joined the team.
The only blue and white disease that remains is the one the fans have from not winning a Stanley Cup since 1967. Perhaps that’ll fade away soon as well.
3. The Emerging Leadership of Dion Phaneuf
If you were unsure of it before, you certainly can’t be now — Dion Phaneuf is a true leader and deserves to be the captain of the Leafs.
Appropriately described by Sportnet’s Michael Grange as “the frown of the franchise,” Phaneuf can now be counted upon on a regular basis to score the big goal, throw the big hit or fight the big fight. He isn’t a nice guy, but he definitely takes care of business.
In a Stanley Cup run, leadership is vital to success. Phaneuf’s play so far this year shows that he has the necessary leadership skills.
Having such an ornery and high-octane captain has worked in the Leafs' favor, as the team comes ready to play every game.
Will Phaneuf become the first Leaf captain since George Armstrong to lift Lord Stanley’s mug?
2. The Young Core Is Entering Its Prime
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL, with an average age of 26.4 years.
Young players like Kessel, Grabovski, Kulemin, Phaneuf and Reimer are starting to finally bloom into the players that scouts envisioned them to be when they were initially drafted.
It seems that the rebuilding process by Brian Burke is working, and faster than most of us have anticipated.
Have these players reached their ceiling in terms of their development, or can they go even further? Given the success this year, that’s a scary and delightful thought.
1. Ability To Keep Games Competitive
When the Leafs started to fall behind in games last year, fans knew exactly what to do: swear, kick things, turn off the TV and walk away.
This year has been different.
Here are some quick stats that help to reinforce this point. First, the Leafs have only lost one game thus far by more than two goals. Second, they haven’t lost two games in a row yet. Third, they have not yet been held scoreless.
These are some strong indicators that this Leafs team is on the verge of something big.