I probably should have done my Leafs post-mortem back when it might have been timely – say, for example, when the season ended. The heart just wasn’t in it, though. Had they managed to pull it off and make the playoffs, that would have been epic. As it was, every team they were chasing caught fire at the same time the Leafs did, and what should have been a reasonable expectation of at least minimal help didn’t happen. Now, I’m looking at the team and I’m really not that sure where they stand. Even to do as well as they did, an awful lot had to go right. Is is reasonable to think they can play that well for 82 games in 2011-12?
I certainly see a significant difference between this season’s late surge and the others we’ve seen over the years. This time, it was all the key components doing precisely what we hoped they would. Add to this promising debuts from a number of young players and it actually looks like there may be a succession plan in place, particularly at forward.
Ron Wilson said that this team was 2-3 players away from competing for a Stanley Cup. That’s quite a statement, though I agree with it. The unfortunate thing is that I think these are the three players:
Looking for players of that calibre is not inconsistent with the Burke philosophy of building depth from the top down – adding a player to the top end of the roster and thus strengthening the entire lineup by forcing everyone else down a peg. I just don’t know where those players come from. They aren’t out there as free agents. The thing that gives me hope is that other than the Kessel deal, I haven’t properly forecast a Burke trade yet, so clearly he sees a lot that I don’t. This is a good thing. Can he get that player without stripping all the depth the team will need to get anywhere? I have no idea.
At forward, the Leafs reasonably have five of a solid top six. The old saw about “the Leafs have no top six forwards” was always nonsense. They had top six forwards. They lacked top three forwards. Now, if you keep the Grabbo line intact as a number two, Kessel is a legit top-line talent and you can probably make do with Lupul on the other side. The key is that centre. Kadri showed flashes and Bozak should bounce back with some offense but unless I missed something, neither is of that calibre (at least not yet). If they could both be on the third line, then there’s some decent offense spread throughout the lineup, assuming that number one C position gets filled without trading a bunch of these guys away.
On the blue line, Phaneuf played a lot better down the stretch, finally generating more of his own offense rather than trying to blast home Kaberle’s feeds from the point. Of the goals he scored, I don’t think a single one actually came from the right point (one came from the right circle). He changed his patterns and it worked. Still, you’d like another 2-way presence on the blue line. Gunnarson and Schenn had their moments, but neither really brings the offense (the awesome Schenn rush aside). The Wookie is great, but his next assist will be his first. If Phaneuf is shut down, who brings the puck out?
(Note – if there isn’t a Salming clone out there, this guy would do. 🙂
They also desperately need someone else to play goal. As much as I like Reimer, this isn’t 1952. Goalies don’t play an entire season’s worth of games anymore. I’m loath to stick someone in there on a long-term deal who would block the progression of a Scrivens or a Rynnas, but history has not been kind to second-year goaltenders and the Monster has looked about as intimidating as Grover. To his credit, he is more intimidating than Elmo.
The hope for Gustavsson is that his minor-league stint went well, and maybe he too has a bounce-back from a bad sophomore season. That appears to be the Leafs’ hope as well, given the announcement that they aren’t after a goalie.
An awful lot of good things happened for the Leafs down the stretch. Basically all of it has to continue if they’re going to progress next year. The Grabbo line has to continue to produce at a good clip. Phaneuf has to look like the well-paid offensive defenseman and team leader he was brought in to be. Lupul has to be a player we actually like. The d needs to keep progressing. Reimer has to show he was legit. Add one good player to the mix and this team is probably in that 6-7-8 group. Add three and the sky’s the limit.
Add none and I’m doing another one of these next year.