Monday, March 22, 2010

Dig Up, Stupid: Can the Leafs Escape the Cellar?

leafs basement
Since the lockout the Leafs have made a yearly habit of turning it on over the last few months of the season, which is usually when they’re almost assured to miss the playoffs. Over the past five years the Leafs record is 54-38-8 after February. If they played at the same pace over the course of a full season they would record around 95 points. That’s good enough to secure a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

Unfortunately, these brief moments of success are responsible for a modest climb in the standings, which result in worse draft positions, something dreaded by the former Tank Nation.

This year the Leafs are 9-6-1 since February. They’ve won 3 in a row and 6 of their last 7. They are still in last place in the Eastern Conference, but not by much. Technically, they’re still alive for the playoffs, although, realistically they certainly aren’t. But it’s pretty amazing that a team that’s played as poorly as the Leafs have are only 12 points behind the eighth placed team. Is nobody else winning games in the Eastern Conference?

Their recent success also means they are slowly closing in on some of the other bad teams in the East. They are only four points behind the Lightning, the Hurricanes, and the Islanders; five points behind the Panthers; seven points behind the Rangers; and nine points behind the Thrashers. Gaining the points to surpass the Rangers and Thrashers is doubtful, but the Leafs play both teams twice before the end of the season, so it isn’t totally outlandish.

Another thing that works in the Leafs favour is that most of the teams they need to pass play in the horrible Southeast Division (which by the way must be considered when judging just how good the Capitals are). It’s likely that most of these teams will beat each other and no one will really gain too much ground during the stretch. If one gains a lot of points it will probably be at the expense of another, thus making it likely the Leafs can pass someone. Listed below are the opponents for the non-playoff teams in the East.

Leafs – Panthers (H), Thrashers (A), Rangers (H), Pens (A), Thrashers (H), Sabres (H), Bruins (H), Flyers (H), Rangers (A), Habs (A)

Lightning – Hurricanes (H), Bruins (A), Sabres (A), Blue Jackets (A), Pens (A), Rangers (H), Hurricanes (H), Sens (H), Panthers (H), Panthers (A)

Islanders – Rangers (A), Flames (H), Blue Jackets (A), Rangers (H), Flyers (H), Sens (H), Habs (H), Pens (A), Devils (A), Pens (H)

Hurricanes – Lightning (A), Caps (H), Thrashers (H), Thrashers (A), Habs (A), Sens (A), Devils (H), Lightning (A), Habs (H), Bruins (A)

Panthers – Leafs (A), Habs (A), Sens (A), Preds (H), Sabres (A), Bruins (A), Rangers (H), Sens (H), Devils (H), Lightning (A), Lightning (H)

Rangers – Islanders (H), Devils (A), Leafs (A), Islanders (A), Lightning (A), Panthers (A), Sabres (A), Leafs (H), Flyers (H), Flyers (A),

Thrashers – Bruins (H), Leafs (H), Hurricanes (A), Hurricanes (H), Leafs (A), Caps (A), Pens (A), Devils (H), Caps (A), Pens (H)

A few things jump out about those schedules. First, the Islanders have the toughest by far. They play six games against playoff teams and two against teams playing for their playoff lives. If any team is to tank down the stretch it’s definitely the Islanders. Second, the Rangers face a brutal six game road trip before facing the Leafs at home. Analysts always say the hardest game to win is the first one back at home after a lengthy road trip. I like the sounds of that for the Leafs. Other than that everyone just plays each other. The Leafs just need to play well and hope there are a few teams that falter down the stretch. The Rangers and Thrashers are out of reach, so let’s just hope they do any sort of beatings needed.

Does any of this really matter? Gaining ground over the next few weeks won’t provide any material benefit for the Leafs. They don’t own their first round pick as a result of the Phil Kessel deal, so whether they win or lose the remaining games has no physical consequence. However, escaping the basement of the East will reduce the odds of the Bruins drafting a superstar and, more importantly, will placate the psyche of Leafs Nation.

Since the Bruins are in the same division as the Leafs it benefits the Leafs to make sure a worse pick falls to the Bruins. Being terrorized six games a year by someone the Bruins drafted with a Leafs pick doesn’t sound enjoyable to me. It’s bad enough seeing Tuukka Rask turn into the best goalie in the league.

The Leafs need to win enough games before the end of the year to remove their former pick from the draft lottery. If it’s a lottery pick it will certainly win the draw and become the first overall pick. I’m positive. That’s going to be hard to take considering Leafs fans have wanted the team to tank out for a better draft pick for at least the past two years. It would be cruel if the year it actually happens is the same year they don’t actually own a first round pick.

Seeing this happen would also look bad for Brian Burke. Burke maintains he would make the Phil Kessel trade again if he had the chance, but losing the first overall pick would be a disaster. Kessel is certainly looking great as a Leaf and I fully support the trade. He’s in his early 20s and looks like a 30-40 goal scorer. That’s pretty good. (There’s an interesting piece over at Maple Leafs Hot Stove that compares Kessel to other young forwards which looks pretty good on Kessel.) Whether he’s going to be better than two first round picks and a second is hard to say because at this point we don’t know who those picks will be. But the trade will certainly look much better and feel much better if the Bruins draft someone at the sixth spot rather than the first.

Whatever, we’re due for a bust in the top-3 picks, right?


Bo Bonzo said...

Tuukka Rask as the best goalie in the league?

Let's not kid ourselves.... it's Miller-Time

Savannah said...

He hates on Miller and will never say he's the best in the league..

Matt Horner said...

It would be interesting to see how they compare if Rask was allowed to play a full season (you know, if the Bruins didn't have to play Thomas because of his contract). Check out these stats.

Miller - 61 GP, 36 W, 2.20 GAA, .929%, 5 SO
Rask - 36 GP, 17 W, 2.08 GAA, .928%, 3 SO

But, ya, Miller is great. I just wanted to throw an unprovoked backhand jab at him.

Ted Rigby said...

Thankfully the Leafs never play well under any increment of pressure, even that of simply defiling a draft pick. Not to be pessimistic, but the team's been so horribly streaky that even the recent wins aren't giving me that usual false hope.

Also, Ryan Miller is just a poor man's Dominik Hasek.

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