The Toronto Maple Leafs have not qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2004, the season before the year long lockout by the NHL. It is precedent setting with each and every passing season. They did provide some optimism after the All-Star break, when they managed to close the gap between themselves and the 8th spot, and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference of the league. The blue and white had trailed by as many as 14 points in early February, and pulled to within 4, but as has been the case since the lockout ended, it was too little too late.
The major difference with the 2010-2011 club, is that they now appear to have enough skill on their roster, and some prospects, to at least have a team that can stay in the middle of the pack of the league. The Leafs certainly don’t have a lot of skill, but at least enough to stay where they were in the final third of the schedule.
James Reimer,( 20-8-5, 2.51 GAA, .923 SV% ) the goaltender who was drafted by previous general manager John Ferguson, now scouting with the San Jose Sharks, has shown that he can keep his team close in games, and make several clutch saves, that may enable his team to steal some games. At the same time, there is no question, that the better teams in the league with snipers on their roster, were scoring on his glove side, and over his shoulders in general. The teams without these type of skilled players were not able to take advantage of what appears to be an area of vulnerability for the Winnipeg, Manitoba native. It remains to be seen if he can improve on that weakness, and how Reimer adjusts to the constant challenges of this type, similar to what young pitchers go through in Major League Baseball.
Phil Kessel ( 80 GP, 30 G, 32 A, –20 ) is a very streaky sniper, with 40-50 goal potential, if he had a consistent front line centre, who seriously lacks on the defensive part of the game. For most NHL teams, he would be considered a first line player, but at the same time, is not considered by scouts or other hockey decision makers, to be a franchise player, a tag that fits Crosby, Ovechkin, Toews, Kane, Doughty, Hall, or Mike Richards. He can’t carry a team on his back, like they do. He is the only Maple Leaf that would be classified as a first line player. Mikhail Grabovski, ( 79 GP, 29 G, 29 A + 15 )Nicolai Kulemin,( 80 GP, 30 G, 27 A, +9, also drafted by John Ferguson ), and Joffrey Lupul, ( 52 GP, 14 G, 16 A, –11 ) when he’s healthy, are legitimate second line forwards. Clark MacArthur, ( 80 GP, 21 G, 41 A, –2 ), is a third liner, with second line potential, when his is producing consistently. Nazem Kadri is a player who scouts still like, and is thought to have second line skills, as he continues to mature.
Luke Schenn ( 80 GP, 5 G, 17 A, –6 ) is a stay at home, number 4 or 5 defenseman on a good team, which the Maple Leafs are not at this stage. So his profile is much higher because of that. Dion Phanuef ( 63 GP, 8 G, 22 A, +0 ) also played much more effectively after the All-Star break, and was able to utilize his shot from the point on the power play, with greater accuracy. He didn’t make as many defensive miscues in the final 6 weeks of the season, as he had earlier on in the year. It is still puzzling as to why the Maple Leafs were in such a hurry to appoint him as captain of the team. There was no need for it. They could have gone with three alternates, until someone emerged, which still may not have happened.
Keith Aulie ( 38 GP, 2 G, 0 A, –1 ) and Carl Gunnarsson ( 66 GP, 4 G, 16 A, –2 ) are also considered to be 4th or 5th defenseman, in terms of how other teams would rank them. After trading Tomas Kaberle to Boston, the Maple Leafs have no one who remaining who is on a par with him, in terms of his overall skill.
Having traded their lottery pick first round choice last year to Boston ( Tyler Seguin ) in the Kessel trade, along with their second round pick from last June, as well as their own first round selection for 2011, Toronto has gambled heavily on the 23 year-old Madison, Wisconsin native. Most scouts expect Seguin to become a star in the league. Toronto has acquired some late first round picks for the June 2011 draft, through transactions with the Flyers and Bruins, but are unlikely to find any franchise players at those points in the pool of talent.
The decision by the ownership of the team, and that directive does allegedly come from the very top of Maple Leaf Sports And Entertainment, to avoid the traditional and proven way to build a consistent championship contender, by bottoming out for a few years and collecting high end first round draft picks, will deny the Maple Leafs the opportunity to consistently challenge for a Stanley Cup. It is a proven strategy, in terms of success, as has been the case with the Penguins, Capitals, Blackhawks, and the most successful team over the last twenty years, the Detroit Red Wings. They have only traded first round picks, when they were close to contending for the Cup. They weren’t willing to sacrifice high end picks, for a quick fix, or another athlete other teams had given up on, while they were still in the rebuilding process.
The fact that not every team does well in the draft, is a reflection of their scouting skills, not a statement about the reliability of the draft itself. Just ask the men who assembled the cup winners in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago.
Separate and apart from the management strategy for constructing the team, the one thing that is certain about next year, is that for Maple Leafs fans, the honeymoon is over. They will no longer be accepting of, and they shouldn’t be, a club that only plays good hockey for one third, or one half of the season. Now that the club has teased their supporters into thinking that they are climbing the ladder in the Eastern Conference, the expectations and demands of the fan base, along with the objective hockey media, will be much, much higher. For the far fallen fan favorites with most Canadian NHL faithful, it will be time to put—up or shut-up.
For those who think that M.L.S.E. will likely fire either Ron Wilson or Brian Burke, as native New Yorkers would say, ‘forget about it’ !!! With the coach’s salary said to be near $1.8 million per season, and the general manager’s, allegedly at $3.25 million a year, there is no way the Teachers Pension Fund will pay out the value of those contracts, and then hire replacements, who would also be quite expensive, if they have any kind of strong background, that would qualify them for those high profile, prestigious positions.
For the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is the start of, to borrow from the sixties surf band, The Beach Boys, another ‘endless summer’.