Media and fans alike are beginning to make predictions as to where teams will finish in the league standings this upcoming season. The Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference in many of those predictions yet again.
Despite the fact that the team finished 13th in the Eastern Conference last season, many fans continue to wonder why so many experts have the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs in their early predictions. The main contributing factor to their wonder is the fact that the Leafs got off to a hot start to the 2011-2012 campaign. So hot, in fact, that they even sat first in the NHL early on. Simply put, though, a strong half-season isn’t going to get you anywhere if you can’t follow it up down the stretch.
That, the Leafs’ inability to remain consistent over the course of an 82-game schedule, was certainly the most glaring issue we saw from the team last season. Their fall of the Eastern Conference basement was quite rapid, which isn’t the slightest bit surprising considering that they dropped 10 of 14 games in the month of February and lost 15 of 17 games from February 7 to March 13, which they were never able to rebound from.
Not surprisingly, that stretch of games is about when the Leafs’ two main leaders on offence, Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, went relatively silent on the goal sheet. Not only did Lupul struggle to find the back of the net during that time span, but he also had his season cut short on March 6 in a game against the Boston Bruins.
Consistency is key to any team that qualifies for the post-season. That doesn’t mean maintaining solid play throughout the entire season; each team has its ups and downs. What it means is that there can’t be any sort of collapse, and we saw many of them during the Leafs’ 2011-2012 campaign.
One of those collapses occurred in net before the team began their decline in the standings.
After a very strong start to the season, goalie James Reimer was never fully able to regain his form after suffering a neck injury on October 22 against the Montreal Canadiens. Neither Ben Scrivens nor Jonas Gustavsson were able to hold down the fort at any point in the season. With that, the Leafs were left with a crisis in net.
Now, a neck injury and not one year later, Reimer is once again being relied upon to carry the Leafs to the playoffs. Why? Because so far, Leafs general manager Brian Burke has decided to remain relatively silent this off-season. Not that it matters much anyway since there aren’t many goaltending options out there. One goalie that is rumoured to be available is Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings, who the Leafs reportedly made an offer for. Even he, though, wouldn’t be a very wise addition for various reasons.
Even outside of the crease, the same problems still exist for the Maple Leafs. Most notably, there is still a rather extreme lack of stability on the back-end.
Dion Phaneuf headlines the group, with John-Michael Liles coming up in second. Although both of these players may bring a nice amount of experience to the defence, neither have seen a lot of success at the NHL level. Also, both of them have proven to be rather shaky defensively at times, which could be due to the fact that neither have played with a very reliable defence partner since joining the Maple Leafs.
With Luke Schenn having departed to the Philadelphia Flyers there is a hole on the Leafs’ blue line. Many say that can and should be filled by one of the up-and-coming Toronto Marlies defenders (see: Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer), but we won’t know just how reliable any of them are until they play in a good chunk of an NHL season. This, like the Leafs’ current goaltending situation, carries a lot of risk, similar to the Leafs’ forward group.
Sure the Leafs managed to find a top-six scoring winger, but will James van Riemsdyk be enough up front? That question is even taking the fact that coach Randy Carlyle plans to try him out down the middle, potentially alleviating the Leafs’ need for a number one centre, into consideration.
The problem with van Riemsdyk is that there is still a lot of work to be done in his development. His best season came in 2010-2011 when he managed 21 goals and 40 points in 70 games. He has since struggled with injury; van Riemsdyk played in just 43 games last season.
Other questions up front surround Joffrey Lupul’s ability to repeat his success from last season, if Phil Kessel will manage 40 goals for the first time in his career, if Nikolai Kulemin will rebound after a tough offensive season and whether or not Mikhail Grabovski will be able to live up to his five-year contract over a full campaign.
You would be correct if you said each team enters a new season with many questions surrounding them, but the Leafs are in a different situation than the majority of the teams in the league. That is, even if the answers to the above questions and more are positive, will it be enough to push them to regular season success and into the playoffs? If your answer to that question is yes, here’s the big one: What moves have the team made so far this summer that would suggest they’ve improved enough to get there?
There are plenty of unknowns regarding the Leafs, but one thing that is known is that their playoff hopes still don’t look to bright.
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Lukas, a student at the University of Ottawa, covers the Toronto Maple Leafs on a part-time basis for The Hockey Writers. Contact Lukas at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @LukasHardonk.