Why the Toronto Maple Leafs Should Be Optimistic After 1st Quarter of 2014-15

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterNovember 24, 2014

TORONTO , ON - NOVEMBER 22: The Toronto Maple Leafs salute the fans after beating the Detroit Red Wings during NHL game action November 22, 2014 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
Graig Abel/Getty Images

The previous nine days for the Maple Leafs are likely ones few people in Toronto will ever forget.

There were highs (wins against Tampa Bay and Detroit), lows (beatings by Buffalo and Nashville), lower lows (a fan tossing a jersey on the ice), the lowest of lows (people on Twitter harassing April Reimer, wife of goaltender James Reimer) and stupidity (the Leafs' choice not to salute fans after a win and Phil Kessel's blowing off a reporter after losing to the Sabres).

Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail wrote a scathing piece, using phrases like "while the team pops seams" and "scorched the earth" while asking for team president Brendan Shanahan to get out in front of this disastrous team.

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star said in the wake of the blowout losses to the Sabres and Predators that Shanahan was facing "the first crisis of his career" as Leafs president.

Those two pieces seem to encapsulate the feelings of Leafs fans as a whole: Pessimism and dread abound as every Leafs season lately plays out like a sadder version of the movie Groundhog Day. It's funny when Bill Murray is jumping off buildings or dropping toasters in the tub; it's not as funny when MLSE is doing it.

That's why, as one of the most positive people you will ever meet, I'm here to offer hope to Leafs fans hope.

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You've got questions. I've got answers.

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his second period goal against the Buffalo Sabres with teammates while visiting fans react along the boards on November 15, 2014 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New
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Aren't the Leafs bad? Or at the very least, mediocre?

The Leafs are not bad. They had a bad week. Everyone has a bad week. Like Riggs and Murtaugh in every Lethal Weapon movie. Just because they are getting shot and punched by criminals when we see them during those times in their lives doesn't mean everything else isn't better. Murtaugh has a really nice house, and Riggs has a cool setup on the beach. They're OK.

Are they mediocre? Maybe. Personally, I think they are a few feet above mediocre, which is all that's required of a team to make the playoffs in a league where 16 of 30 teams get to play during the second season.

Do I think the Leafs are one of the top 16 teams in the NHL? Ha. But do I think they could be one of the top eight teams in the East? You bet.

Dave, you idiot, they lost 6-2 to the Sabres and 9-2 to the Predators. Do mediocre teams do that?

Sure. All the time. Last season, the Sabres beat the Bruins and Sharks twice and even beat the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Kings. We tend to overreact to teams losing to historically bad ones, but even historically bad teams pick up a few wins here and there during the season. It's nothing to lose your mind about.

As for losing 9-2, that's never fun. But the Rangers lost 9-2 to the Sharks early last season and went to the Stanley Cup final. 

The NHL's regular season is a six-month slog in which every team will suffer different levels of embarrassment. The Leafs got theirs in back-to-back games.

But can you really blame people in Toronto for losing their minds after those two losses?

I get it. But before those two losses, the Leafs were 6-3-1 in their previous 10 games and 9-6-2 overall. The latter record isn't great, but it's hardly something that should lead to panic. What I found weird was that the panic continued after the Leafs looked great in beating Tampa to move to 10-8-2. 

After the win against the Red Wings, the Leafs are on pace for 94 points, which is one more than the Red Wings had last year when they were the final wild-card team in the East.

All I'm saying is the "sky is falling" attitude during the first quarter of the season was a little much, and still is, even for Toronto.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 27: Head Coach Randy Carlyle and Brendan Shanahan, President of the Toronto Maple Leafs speak prior to the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at the Wells Fargo Center on June 27, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Leafs stopped saluting the fans. Isn't that a sign of mental weakness and poor leadership? Shouldn't Shanahan have addressed that?

I know it's goofy, but yeah, I do think that could be a sign of mental weakness and poor leadership. But it also could be a sign of nothing, of a team reaching a breaking point after a seven-goal loss that winds up being the best thing for the team.

Teams are routinely brought together by adversity, be it real-life tragedies (Martin St. Louis' mom passing away during last year's playoffs) or perceived tragedies (a team being booed during a 9-2 home loss). The Leafs have won two straight since Saluteghazi, so who are we to say it hasn't helped?

And what is Shanahan supposed to do? Rip his players to the media? Go on the radio and say, "What a bunch of immature babies. I can't believe I have to deal with this now."

Teams defend players after vicious, predatory head hits. The last thing Shanahan is going to do is air out his guys in the media because they didn't wave at people they probably didn't notice in the first place.

So you're saying the Leafs are a playoff team this season?

Hang on. Let's not go crazy.

So what are you saying then?

I'm saying this year's Leafs team is better than last year's Leafs team and might be a playoff team.

Do your bosses let you write drunk all the time?

Listen, I can defend this position. Let me pound this beer and show you some numbers.

Last season's team was bad from start to finish. I never for a moment believed it to be a playoff team. When the Leafs were in third place in the East, I confidently predicted they'd still miss the playoffs (the comments on that post are the stuff of legend). I seemed to be in the minority when few in Toronto wanted to accept the idea that the Leafs were an atrocious team getting by on luck.

Now, perhaps in an attempt to overcompensate for missing the boat last season, Toronto is writing off the Leafs early. A lot of people failed to get a spot on the "Leafs are not very good" bandwagon last season and maybe are hammering that button a little too early after hammering the "Leafs are gritty and clutch" button throughout 2013-14.

Here's a look at some key numbers comparing last year's team to this year's squad.

Toronto Maple Leafs, 2013-14 vs. 2014-15
NHL, stats.hockeyanalyis.com

Are any of those numbers good? Not really. But again, this year's team is…better despite the inferior record.

Has last season irrevocably poisoned people's minds? Because I'd be willing to bet articles about the Leafs at the same time last year were far more positive than the ones we are seeing now.

Don't those numbers scream mediocrity, though? Shouldn't we be enraged by this persistent level of average?

If you want to be enraged or sad or angry or lying in the fetal position waiting for the Reaper to arrive, that's your business. I'm not sure what you expected when the team signed Leo Komarov, Daniel Winnik, David Booth and Mike Santorelli, but you should have expected minor improvement, which is what you've received.

But I'm hear to tell you the slightly improved Leafs are good enough to be a playoff team.

Look at the Eastern Conference. I know it's hard, but look at it. It is the Land of Mediocre.

Three of the past four East representatives in the Stanley Cup final after 82-game seasons were the Flyers (No. 8 seed, 88 points), Devils (6 seed, 102 points) and Rangers (fifth in the standings, 96 points). Sure, they all lost to superior Western opponents, but that's hardly a thing to be sad about in November in Toronto.

And again, as of today, the Leafs are on pace for 94 points.

As a fan, you can't be upset at not being a perennial power in the NHL. There are only four or five of them. The Leafs, at least not for a while, won't be the Bruins, Penguins, Blackhawks or Kings. In the case of the latter three teams, they were unbelievably terrible for years, compiled elite talent with high draft picks, and here they are. That's not an option for the Leafs or almost any other team in the league.

So you're left with mediocrity, or the quest to be a little bit better than mediocre.

And in the East, that's all you need to reach the playoffs and make a run.

So you think the Leafs will reach the Stanley Cup final?

No, you're not listening.

But you said...

I'm saying now is not the time to jump off a cliff. Shanahan has been the de facto GM for about 20 minutes, and while it's perhaps a little difficult to see, the team has been better under his guidance. It may not be a playoff a team, but it has a chance because the East is bad now and things figure to get worse in the near future, which is good for the Leafs too.

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 06:  Goalie Jonathan Bernier #45 of the Toronto Maple Leafs defends the goal against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center on November 6, 2014 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Maple Leafs 4-3 in an overtime shootout.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

I stopped listening but heard "good for the Leafs," so what does that mean?

I'm a firm believer that in the East, if you have an elite goaltender, you can do damage upon reaching the playoffs. That's 80 percent of the battle. Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price are at the top of the food chain, but not far below them in the No. 4 spot is Jonathan Bernier. 

And consider the Bruins and Penguins: The former is aging and has taken a step back this year—albeit from a 116-point team to maybe a 105-point team—and as long as the Penguins are starting Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs, it's a wide-open scene. All you have to do is get there and possess a goaltender who can steal games, and there's hope.

Again: the Leafs are on pace for 94 points and have Bernier, which is French for "All I do is steal games."

Price and Rask are 27 and in their primes, but Lundqvist turns 33 this season. Bernier is 26.

Those are more long-term reasons to be optimistic, but I think they are relevant to your immediate happiness.

Look at this roster. How can you tell me it's good enough to make the playoffs and not a reason for me to throw my jersey on the ice when something goes wrong?

I won't tell you there aren't issues. They are weak down the middle. Tyler Bozak isn't a top-line center. David Clarkson's contract was a criminal waste of cap space. Stephane Robidas looks like he's 100 years old and is signed for two more years. The defense as a whole is putrid and has more giveaways than NHL teams in southern markets.

But it's better than last year. The underlying numbers show it. And last year, the Leafs were a playoff team for about 75 games. With the improvement that's been shown this season, why can't they slip into the postseason and potentially do some damage?

The bottom six is better. They have two 30-goal scorers in Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Joffrey Lupul has only played nine games this season. I have nothing nice to say about the defense, but I had nothing nice to say about the Stars defense last season, and they made the playoffs in the West.

William Nylander could solve the center issues in the near future. Maybe management swings a deal for a No. 1 center next summer or at this season's trade deadline. 

The new regime has been in place for a minute, and things at least look a little better. Where's the faith that can continue this year, next year or the year after that?

Sure, a 10-game losing streak could devastate the Leafs at any time and lead to the inevitable dismissal of Randy Carlyle. But maybe the Leafs are good enough to play a first-round playoff series in April.

All I'm saying is that right now it's way too soon to say one way or the other.

So should I call about playoff tickets or throw my jersey on the ice next game because the team is so bad?

Forget it.

All statistics via NHL.com.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.