Friday, April 1, 2011

Yearly Question: Are These Leafs For Real?

james reimer praise god
The post-lockout Leafs have developed a bad habit of burying themselves during the first part of the season, necessitating a late season surge to compensate for their early futility. In the first two seasons after the lockout this meant that the Leafs missed the playoffs by three points and one point respectively.

This season the Leafs continually staved off elimination. Every time they lost a game that seemingly ended their chances they rallied off multiple wins to keep hope alive. That’s all that remains that this point: hope. I can live with that. The Leafs have to win every game from here on out. They face Ottawa, Washington, New Jersey, and Montreal. Of course the Leafs went through multiple death spirals this season, so they not only have to win their remaining games, but they need two of New York, Buffalo, and Carolina to go into a death spiral of their own.

Regardless of whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs I am hopeful for next season. Unfortunately, I have felt this way every single year except for 2007-2008 (surprisingly the season they finished on the best run besides this season) because they were clearly blowing up the team at that point. And every single year the Leafs made no real improvements and in some cases actually finished worse the next season.

However, this year is different. I can feel it. Here is why you should believe.

05-06 06-07 07-08 08-09 09-10 10-11
February 2-4-0 5-4-3 8-4-1 6-3-4 2-3-0 8-2-4
March 7-6-1 8-4-2 8-5-0 6-6-1 9-5-2 8-5-1
April 7-1-2 2-2-0 0-2-1 3-3-0 2-2-1 ?
Proj. Total Over 82 Games 95.6 pts 95.6 pts 96.1 pts 89.7 pts 82 pts 108.4 pts
Final Standing 9th Place in East 9th Place in East 12th Place in East 12th Place in East 15th Place in East ?
Pts Needed for Playoffs 92 92 94 93 88 ?
Defining Characteristic McKaberle Raycroft plays 100 games JFJ gets the boot Burke Dion Phaneuf Trade Reimer Saves Season
Result Next Season 9th Place in East 12th Place in East 12th Place in East 15th Place in East ? ?

As you can see by the table above the Leafs’ late season surge has often proven itself a mirage. Last year I was hopeful that it was no longer a cruel hoax considering the team jettisoned most of their veterans in the Dion Phaneuf/J.S. Giguere trades and relied on a bevy of youth to play well down the stretch. I thought with a full season of Phaneuf and Kessel, plus no Toskala the Leafs would finally take a positive step forward in their re-build.

I guess the Leafs eventually took their positive step forward, but it wasn’t until they entrusted their goaltending to James Reimer, and traded Francois Beauchemin, Kris Versteeg, and Tomas Kaberle that it actually happened. That wasn't until four months of the season passed. Dandy time to start playing well.

So why is this Leafs squad different? I don’t begrudge you if you refrain from believing the post-February hype, I too have felt this cruel burn before, but this team is fundamentally different from all the other years.

First, and most importantly, the Leafs finally appear to have their goaltending situation solidified (at least the number one spot). James Reimer has provided the Leafs with the type of goaltending they haven’t received since Ed Belfour’s first two seasons in Toronto. Reimer is 7th in the league with a .922 SV%, accompanied by a respectable 2.55 GAA. What’s more significant is the way the Leafs play in front of the young netminder. The Leafs seem to match Reimer’s cool demeanor in the net and no longer seem flustered by losing a lead or giving up an early goal. Earlier in the season these situations spelled disaster for the Leafs and the games often quickly escaped Toronto.

Reimer is only 23-year-old and has been successful at every level he’s played. At the beginning of the season Reimer seemed like the forgotten man in the Leafs’ search for a capable NHL goaltender. Giguere and Gustavsson would handle the NHL duties, while the Leafs signed Jussi Rynnas to split time with Reimer in the AHL. Furthermore, Ben Scrivens started in the ECHL, meaning Reimer had pressure to perform from every level of the organization. But with Giguere injured and the Monster incapable Reimer has turned himself into a number one goalie. 

It’s not a sure thing that Reimer will carry this level of play into next season, but for the first time in the post-lockout era the Leafs actually have a solid shot at a goaltender. Before the Leafs gambled that ‘if Andrew Raycroft can bounce back from his horrific sophomore year’ or ‘ if Vesa Toskala is ready to be more than a backup’ or ‘if J.S. Giguere has something left’ that they'd be competitive. Of course, betting on a goalie with less than a year's experience is always uncertain, but at least the Leafs are counting on a young player who has only experienced success.

Offensively, the Leafs have three potential 30-goal scorers on the roster. Grabovski, Kessel, and Kulemin have 29, 29, and 28 goals respectively and the oldest of the group is Grabovski at 27. Additionally, Clarke MacArthur has been tremendous since signing with the Leafs in the off-season, crushing his previous career highs in both goals and points. He’s the only core member of the Leafs forwards that Burke will need to re-sign, but it seems likely that the two sides can work out a deal that will work for both player and team (probably something around $2.5-3 for 2-3 years).

The Grabovski-Kulemin-MacArthur line has been the Leafs’ best all season, but next year they can hopefully settle into a second line role. That’s because the Leafs have money to spend and are still in the market for a number one centre. Tyler Bozak is certainly out matched in this capacity, but has shown a proclivity for killing penalties and could fill in nicely in a third-line role.

The Leafs will go hard after Brad Richards this summer. It seems like the three major suitors will be the Leafs, Rangers, and Kings. The Rangers seem to sign a new $7+ million player every off-season and it never works out for them, yet they continually weasel their way out of their obligations, so it’s a little frustrating that they’ll be in on Richards as well.

Hypothetically, if the Leafs sign Richards they will have a top line of Richards-Kessel-Lupul. That’s pretty good. Kessel has shown an ability to score 30 goals with minimal complimentary talent, so pairing him with Richards – who has scored 219 points in 214 games in Dallas – seems like a perfect match. The third member of this would-be line is Lupul, who has rediscovered his scoring touch since coming over from the Ducks in a trade for Francois Beauchemin.

Lupul has 8 goals and 7 assists for the Leafs in 24 games, which equals 27 goals and 51 points over a full season – right around Lupul’s best seasons in the NHL. Lupul is still just 27-years-old, so he still has some room to develop, although hoping for a true breakout might be asking a little much. But Lupul is a big power-forward and has played with a physical edge that the Leafs lack among their top-6 (aside from Kulemin).

Finally, Nazem Kadri is proving that he belongs in the NHL after his second demotion mid-way through the year. In the 8 games since being recalled the young pivot has 2 goals and 3 assists, while ridding his game of some of the poor habits that plagued him in his initial stay with the Leafs. Kadri is more prone to dump the puck in rather than try to out-deke three opponents at the end of a shift. That’s not to say the youngster has removed all creativity from his game, he’s just more selective when he uses it. He made a great deke to get past a Buffalo defenceman on Tuesday night before setting up a MacArthur goal on a beauty pass and scored a slick shoot-out winner against the Bruins on Thursday. The kid is looking like he belongs in the NHL. If he adds to his slight frame over the summer and comes back strong and determined he could continue to develop into a quality NHLer.

Defensively, the Leafs replaced Beauchemin and Kaberle mid-way through the season, which has reignited Dion Phaneuf. Not only is Dion playing much more physically, but his offensive game is heating up considerably. Since trading Tomas Kaberle on February 18th, the Leafs captain has scored 7 goals and added 9 assists, to accompany a +6 rating. During this time Phaneuf is regularly playing over 25 minutes a night against the opposition's top line. Reporters are also noticing that the young defenceman is growing increasingly comfortable in his role as captain. It's possible that Phaneuf needed the two elder statesman in the room to vacate before he could truly take over this team.

If there are any Calgary Flames fans that shed a tear after reading that paragraph they might want to light themselves on fire because I’m going to talk about Keith Aulie – the other piece of the Dion Phaneuf deal. After Aulie’s second call-up he formed a pair with Phaneuf and has excelled in a shut-down role with the Leafs’ captain. The 21-year-old is a +2 since being recalled from the Marlies and routinely tops 20 minutes a night playing against the opponent’s best players. He's big and strong and was traded for Matt Stajan (thanks, Darryl!).

Rounding out the top-four are Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson. Schenn has taken his game to another level this season, which has surprisingly included his offensive game. He will never be mistaken for Mike Green (because he can play defence, heyo!), but he is starting to improve his shot from the point and has scored 5 goals and 21 points, while leading all defencemen in hits. He’s also the only defenceman to top 200 hits and 150 blocked hots. Gunnarsson can sometimes be lackadaisical in his own end, but is improving his game as well. He's also showing a little more confidence on the power-play and could develop into a solid puck distributor.

Of course Mike Komisarek is the league’s highest paid fifth defenceman and his skills are further eroded when paired with Brett Lebda (for all you Magic the Gathering nerds it’s as if Komisarek receives -100 ability when drawing the Brett Lebda card). Lashoff is an interesting sixth option as he’s still young and a former first round pick, but I can’t reliably conclude anything about him at this point.

The departures of Beauchemin, Kaberle, and Versteeg have finally started a proper portion of the re-build in Toronto, which matches nicely with Burke’s unconventional initial approach. The Leafs now own two first round drafts picks in this summer’s draft, two former first round picks that have yet to complete one full professional season, in addition to their own group of solid prospects.

If the Leafs make the playoffs this year it will be a happy surprise, but there are enough positive being displayed every night that the Leafs future actually looks bright regardless. They’re one of the youngest teams in the league and have the pieces moving forward that should allow them to build off the success of this late season run.

I’m a believer, but I have been for the last 20 years as well as well. But this feels different.

Go Leafs Go.

1 comment:

Bo Dangles said...

Lupul - 8 goals in the last 17 games. Best leaf goal scorer over that stretch. 38 goal pace.

Not too shabby.

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