Could the Toronto Maple Leafs Be Turning the Corner?

Mark MakuchCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2008

With 32 games played in the '08-09 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in 11th place in the conference, with a mediocre .500 record.

Even with that middle-of-the-road record, it's fair to say that they have surpassed expectations this season, which had many predicting, or perhaps hoping, for a last-place finish.

They are clearly not the 700-series BMWs of the Sharks or Red Wings, but neither are they the Pintos that the Islanders and Lightning seem to be.

At this point, the Leafs are only four points removed from the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference, and nine up on last-place Tampa.  And here, Burke must choose to go in one of two directions—further dismantling and rebuilding, or working with the existing roster.

If Burke is going to further dismantle and rebuild, he may attempt to move the likes of Antropov, Kaberle, Blake (if possible, given contractual issues), and Toskala—if Pogge shows promise—for picks.

After them, there is not much else to trade, really. Such moves would certainly pull the Leafs down in the standings, and with not that far to fall, could get them in the hunt for John Tavares.

At the same time, there are indications that the Leafs may be about to turn the corner. They won three in a row for the first time this season leading up to the recent Boston loss, and on Saturday night, essentially dominated high-flyers Crosby, Malkin, and the rest of the Penguins.

Their past six wins have included victories over teams above them in the standings—Buffalo, New Jersey, and Philadelphia.

After a dismal 4-6-3 November, the Buds have managed a 5-4 record in December with five more to play. With four of those games against sub .500 teams, the Leafs have a serious opportunity to generate some momentum and move up a place or two in the standings.

How the Leafs fare over the rest of 2008 will likely determine the direction Burke goes in. A string of victories will show that this team is learning how to win consistently. For that they could be rewarded by staying intact a while longer.

If they can't notch at least three wins, Burke will know that this team is still far from realizing its potential, and may start dealing sooner than later.

The truth is the Leafs are still a very young team that is learning how to play at a consistently high level. The wonder of this season is that they have shown that they can play at that high level at all, let alone several times already.

Not many thought that would be possible, given the offseason roster overhaul. Their job now is to do it repeatedly, night in, night out.

The Leafs haven't turned the corner yet, but the next five games will tell whether they are in need of ongoing tune-ups or more serious, immediate body work.