Can the Maple Leafs continue their current hot streak and make a run at the playoffs this year?
Though they have gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, analysis of the three recent trades point to a Leaf team that is looking to the future and giving up on the current season.
That is not an entirely bad thing though as the only downside to tanking for the remainder of the year is in giving Boston another lottery pick.
As it currently stands, the Leafs have 57 points and are tied for the final lottery position with Florida and Colorado. They need to finish sixth from the bottom or better to avoid the worst-case scenario.
Regardless, the Leafs have to concern themselves with their own problems and not worry about where Boston sits in the draft, and the Leafs have major concerns all over the ice, from the net on out.
Both of this year’s starting goaltenders are out of the lineup indefinitely. Jonas Gustavsson is out after having minor heart surgery and Jean-Sebastion Giguere is sidelined again with a reoccurring groin injury.
No dates have been set for either of their returns.
That puts rookie sensation James Reimer in the difficult position of being the Leafs number one goalie for the remainder of the season. Reimer has arguably played better than the other two since his call-up and has been a bright spot in an otherwise dull Leafs season.
Should we expect Reimer to play every game from now on and still expect him to maintain the solid level of play that he has demonstrated so far?
That is an unfair request and a lot to ask of the young rookie, but the Leafs have no other choice.
Ben Scrivens has been called up to backup Reimer and will undoubtedly get a chance to start at some point, if for no other reason than to give Reimer a break.
Neither of these two goalies have proven they can compete on a daily basis in the NHL.
Reimer has done well so far, but he has only started a total of 13 games, while Scrivens has yet to play at all.
The question remains, what will the Leafs do for goaltending next year?
Giguere will most likely not return and Gustavsson has lost his position in the depth chart.
Right now, it looks like Reimer will be the Leafs starting goalie, but if he falters, Brian Burke will need to acquire another quality net minder via trade or free agent signing in the summer.
As for the defense, gone are Francois Beauchemin and Thomas Kaberle. In are Keith Aulie and Brett Lebda. That’s 60 points combined in 120 games out of the lineup, replaced with just one point in 43 games. No matter how you slice it, that it a big hit for the Leafs to overcome.
While Keith Aulie looks to be an up and coming defender, his point production is non-existent so far and Lebda looks to be axed from the team at the first possible opportunity. Simply put, there is no one who can replace Kaberle’s 38 points or even Beauchemin’s 12.
Newly acquired Jake Gardiner is the Leafs best defensive prospect but is still in his junior year at the University of Wisconsin and won’t be making any impact at the big club for at least two more years. The only other option is to land a puck moving defensive free agent in the off-season.
Joni Pitkanen (26 yrs / $4.0 million / 26 points), Kevin Bieksa (29 yrs / $3.75 million / 19 points), James Wisniewski (26 yrs / $3.25 million / 37 points), Christian Ehrhoff (27 yrs / $3.1 million / 36 points), Ian White (26 yrs / $3.0 million / 17 points) and Trevor Daley (27 yrs / $2.3 million / 22 points) are all in the last year of their contracts and could help Toronto’s blue line immediately.
The question is: will they still be available and will any of them want to sign with the Maple Leafs.
The woes of the forwards are well documented.
The Leafs are a player or two away from actually competing night in and night out. Everyone knows the Leafs desperately need a number one centre and a scoring winger to go along with Phil Kessel.
Joffrey Lupul has been a decent addition, but he is not the savior of this team by any stretch of the imagination.
Coming off of a horrific two-year span of injuries and infections, Lupul will get plenty of ice-time and conditioning with the Leafs. I don’t expect him to be completely game-fit until next year, so anything he does this year with the team is a bonus. Lupul, like every other recent acquisition is a player for the future.
Joe Colborne is in his second year playing in the AHL and did very well in his debut with the Marlies. But he is another player who needs seasoning in the minors for another year or two.
We have all heard Brad Richards mentioned as a player who might be acquired by the Leafs next summer, but there are other centres available as well.
Tim Connolly (29 yrs / $4.5 million / 8 goals / 26 points) and Brooks Laich (27 yrs / 2.07 million / 12 goals / 32 points) can play centre and could help the Leafs.
Outside of Richards however, there isn't really anyone else who could come in and have enough production to be considered a number one centre for the Leafs.
Overall, this year looks dead and buried short of some miraculous signing(s) before the trade deadline.
Even still, with Burke’s recent moves, it is apparent that the Leafs are looking years ahead and not right in front of them.
Next year will still be a growing year, but it should be better than this year. If Burke continues on his current course, I am optimistic that the Leafs will become a quality playoff team within two years and a cup contender within four.