After the Toronto Maple Leafs raced out to the worst start in franchise history, they quickly became the laughing stock of the NHL. They were the bud ends of many jokes and even us Stayclassy guys had some fun at their expense.
As of Monday morning, the Leafs have gone 8-3-1 in their last twelve games and many die-hard Leafs fans are suggesting that Toronto are on the verge of tearing up the league. Hmm, really? I’m not sure if I’m buying that just yet. Over the past week or so, I’ve even heard discussion that Toronto have a good chance to finish in the top 4 in the Eastern Conference come playoff time. Huh? Wasn’t this the same team that, approximately a month ago, were said to have less than 2% chance of making the playoffs? Regardless, I’m going to dissect Toronto’s season to date and attempt to provide an accurate assessment where the Leafs are right now and where they’ll likely finish at the end of the year.
When Brian Burke revamped the Leafs and injected the team with a heavy dose of truculence and belligerence, we all knew that the 2009-2010 edition of the Maple Leafs would be a very different looking team. Toronto started the year a league-worst 1-7-1, and it’s safe to say that’s not what anybody expected. In fact, Toronto lost their first 8 games in a row, including 7 straight without registering a single point. Despite the brutal hockey the Leafs played, it’s probably fair to say that they weren’t as bad as they looked. Clearly, there was a lack of chemistry on the ice and in the dressing room. Players like Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn were trying to do too much and it ended up costing Toronto big-time, as 6 of those first 8 losses saw the Leafs give up 4 goals or more.
The losses continued to pile up for Toronto, but the good news was that at least they were getting some points. Toronto lost each of their next 4 games in overtime and it looked as though they were making some progress. The YTD record now stood at 1-7-5 – yep, still last place and Leafs fans were becoming increasingly frustrated with the team.
Hope was on the way, as Phil Kessel made his long-awaited and highly anticipated debut. To call him the Leafs saviour might be a little much, but then again, things definitely changed once he got into the lineup. Toronto’s lineup finally had one of the game’s elite, game-breaking players. His presence on the ice drew the attention of the opposing team’s top defenders, which in turn, freed up some time and space for Toronto’s other forwards. Toronto showed some jump in their stride and began the Phil Kessel era 2-0-1, essentially doubling their total number of points for this season. If I recall correctly, Brian Burke was officially labeled a genius for the Kessel trade around this time, although this remains to be seen.
Toronto began another cold streak as the Kessel buzz wore off. Their next eight games netted them only 5 points, which was equal to the number of regulation losses they endured in that same time. Consequently, they fell further away from that elusive playoff spot that Burke said they’d challenge for. Many of these losses featured extremely questionable goaltending from the duo of Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala. Then something happened – yes, another OT loss. This loss was against the New York Islanders., but really, Toronto deserved to win the game. They outshot the Islanders 61-21 and if not for the brilliance of Dwayne Roloson, probably could’ve won the game by 10 goals. This loss seemed to spark something in Toronto. It was almost like the forwards suddenly realized what they needed to do to score goals and the goaltenders rapidly learned how to stop pucks.
That brings us to Toronto’s latest 10 games, where they’ve gone 7-3 and have restored their fans faith that yes, Toronto are not quite as bad as we thought they were. They were scoring more goals than they were allowing and for the first time all season, were getting some timely goaltending from both goalies. The Leafs moved up to 28th in the NHL in this time.
All of this begs the question, where does Toronto stand now? Well, 32 games into the season, they’re tied for 13th place in the Eastern Conference with Philadelphia (Flyers have 2 games in hand), but only 4 points out of 8th place. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are 5 teams between Toronto and 8th place Montreal. You get the sense that for the Maple Leafs to leap-frog all of these teams, they’re going to have to win 70% of their remaining games this season. They also need to find a way to win at home – they have the second lowest number of home wins in the league (5 – only Florida has less with 4), as well as the second lowest point total at home. Not good.
The main problems the Leafs need to avoid are the prolonged scoring droughts and losing streaks that have plagued them so far this year. They have this strange affinity to go down by a couple of goals early in the game and they seem to wait until the last 10 minutes of a game before they wake up and attempt to equalize the game. Sometimes this works, but most of the time it doesn’t.
With so many teams ahead of them, I’d be quite surprised to see the Leafs wind up in 7th or 8th place come April, let-alone the 4th place finish I heard talk of earlier this week. Let’s be honest, Toronto are not a 4th place team. They’re not anywhere close to the standard of teams like Washington, Pittsburgh or New Jersey and it’s just foolish to think that they are. I’m not even convinced they’re an 8th place team, especially when I look at the standings and see teams like the Rangers, Lightning and Flyers all ahead of them, none of these three teams are currently in the top eight in the Eastern Conference. I don’t believe the Leafs couldn’t beat any one of those three teams in a best-of-7 series either.
At the end of the season, Toronto are very likely to finish in that same 11th or 12th place spot that they’ve hovered around for the past few years. Toronto are a team on the rise, there’s no doubt about that, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to become a legitimate playoff contender. Winning 7 of 10 games doesn’t make you a 4th place team or an 8th place team. The harsh reality is that Toronto are exactly where we expected them to be, and perhaps more importantly, they are going to stay there for the balance of the year.
Your Reporter in the Field,