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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Patience is a Virtue

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After 33 games, the Leafs are who we thought they were. They are in a dog fight for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting tied with Ottawa (Ottawa!) for 7th place with 36 points. That puts them one point behind New Jersey for 6th, but only one point ahead of Washington, Buffalo, and Winnipeg. It’s a log jam that will likely continue for the rest of the season.

Toronto’s fast start fooled fans into thinking the rebuild was a little ahead of schedule, but a mediocre November (7-6-1) and an awful start to December (2-4-2) has dropped the Leafs from their once lofty perch among the Eastern Conference √©lite.

The drop in the standings has coincided with some truly disastrous defensive play which leads to the age-old question in Toronto: does the defense look bad because the goaltending is bad, or does the goaltending look bad because the defense is so bad. That’s some real chicken or the egg stuff.

The Leafs were actually able to survive an injury to James Reimer and stay afloat in the Eastern Conference, an amazing fact considering Jonas Gustavsson at one point looked like he was on his way out of the NHL. Reimer has since recovered, but has not surprisingly taken a while to round back into the solid form many fans expect. If he can play at an NHL average level (.910-.915 SV%), the Leafs will have a legitimate shot at making the playoffs.

But the real weakness of this team, like of so many doomed teams before it, is the penalty killing. At this point the putrid play of the Leafs with a man in the box is laughable. There is nothing more to be written. Toronto took tentative steps to correcting their long-running problem, climbing as high as 27th in the league before falling right back down to their customary 30th overall spot. Something needs to change, either personnel or tactics.

Speaking of tactics… The preliminary discussions about extending Ron Wilson in October have predictably turned into cries to fire the coach in December. Realistically, Wilson is here until the end of the season barring any major death spiral. If the Leafs make the playoffs, he gets an extension. If the Leafs fail to make the playoffs for a sixth straight season, Wilson can start his media career with TSN because there’s no way he’s coming back to Toronto for any other reason.

However, all is not lost. Patience, Leafs fans. This team is slowly coming together.

Sure it would be nice for the Leafs to become a dominant juggernaut over night, but this isn’t NHL 12, it doesn’t work that way.

People point to Chicago and Pittsburgh and how they turned their teams around through the draft, but everyone conveniently forgets that it took them excruciatingly long to do so. The only difference was that neither fan base really cared about their team during the down years, so nobody took notice when Chicago missed the playoffs five seasons in a row, and nine of their last ten before making the Conference Final in 2009. Likewise, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs four seasons in a row and Penguins fans don’t remember anything happening between Jaromir Jagr leaving and Sidney Crosby arriving.

Both Chicago and Pittsburgh were also aided by great luck during the draft. Sure, they held onto their lottery picks, but Pittsburgh had Sidney Crosby fall into their laps and even scored a player like Evegni Malkin without the first overall pick. Sometimes the league goes decades without players like that, and Pittsburgh scored both in consecutive years. Similarly, Chicago was only able to grab Patrick Kane because they won a draft lottery.

Sure, the draft is certainly a safer route to success, but for every Pittsburgh or Chicago, there is a Columbus or Florida. It’s safer, but it isn’t guaranteed.

The Leafs didn’t have the luxury of lottery picks – they were either slightly too good, or they traded them – but Brian Burke has transformed the Leafs through his own unique method, which is finally starting to pay dividends. Toronto has already improved by eight points from this time last season, which is the 5th biggest jump of any team in the league, surpassed by only New Jersey, Chicago, Florida, and Minnesota.

They are the youngest team in the league and for the first time in decades they actually have an enviable stable of prospects to either replace some of the current Leafs, or make up a package that Brian Burke can use to acquire an impact player at some point in the near future.

Previously, there was no way Luke Schenn would ever be traded because there was literally nothing else besides him, but now that there’s an actual group of young, talented players, the possibility isn’t as remote as it once was.

The Leafs aren’t on the cusp of a Stanley Cup. They don’t simply need one more piece to put them over the top. But they are on the right track, and for the first time in years have a realistic shot at the playoffs. And with the misery Leafs Nation has suffered through all these years, it’s a start.

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