At the Christmas break, the Maple Leafs find themselves in a playoff position. They’ve managed to stay in the top 8 in their conference all season, a somewhat unusual occurence in the last 7 or so years. Certainly, they’ve cooled from their 9-3-1 start, going 9-10-3 since. And, LeafsNation has moved from elation to calling for the coach to be fired, to arguing amongst themselves who the starting goalie should be, to what trade needs to be made now. But, emotional rollercoasters aside, what the team should do is… nothing. Not for the time being at least.
Trade freeze notwithstanding, no moves is a bold position to take. By no means should the reader think Toronto is a team without issues, no need to improve. The penalty kill is last in the league at under 75%. Overall team defence requires work, the secondary scoring has at times been non-existent. They have a -3 goal differential on the season. There are some real concerns here. And it’s no secret that the goal this year should be a playoff berth. Most feel the franchise simply cannot afford another miss.
It would not be surprising if a deal was made early in the new year. Burke is never shy about pulling the trigger if he believes it improves his team, and at times those deals occur unexpectedly. There is merit to the arguments that the offense is inconsistent outside of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, that the defencemen as a group have regressed, and that if a deal could be done to significantly improve this team, it should be made, even at the cost of prospects or draft picks.
Folks, it’s deep-breath time. Take a minute and think about Toronto’s situation. The playoffs are the target, but this is a rebuilding team, recently restoked with young talent. Most predicted they’d be in a fight for the final playoff spots in the east. With 35 games played, they’re exactly where they should be, in the battle. So, it’s fair to say something must be working.
Christmas morning saw a tweet that gave way to confirmation of a contract extension for coach Ron Wilson. Reaction through LeafNation is mixed, as some fans and bloggers want him out while others defend the job he’s done of late. Just how much credit the coach deserves, well depends on who you ask. Some feel the record should be better, that the PK suffers under coach Wilson, that he has not handled some players, such as Jonas Gustavsson, very well. An extension is of course no guarantee that Wilson will be the coach when next season starts, only that the Leafs will owe him money regardless of what happens. It’s not difficult to acknowledge though that he coach has done a better job lately. His Leaf record up to Dec. 31, 2010 was 77-92-31. Since, 42-28-11. It seems things are at least headed in the right direction.
Starting goalies? More debate here, and it began some weeks ago when James Reimer returned from injury. Without doubt, Reimer is the number 1, and he’s gone 2-0-1 with a 2.27GAA and .940sv% leading into this break. Gustavsson has cooled off, being 1-2-0 in his last 3, with a GAA over 4. However, he does have a winning record at 9-6-0 and did a lot of the heavy lifting while Reimer was injured. Does Gus deserve more starts? Some say yes. But the bottom line is the goaltending has been pretty solid for a trio (including Ben Scrivens) with a total of 140 NHL games experience. Fans will have their favorites, but at this point, goaltending is really among the least of the Leafs’ worries. For the rest of this season at least, it appears the team has 3 guys they can call on.
So, how about that big trade for an all-star centre or Norris-candidate defender? Not impossible, but not a likely situation, for a number of reasons. Absolutely the team could use more scoring, especially since outside of Kessel and Lupul, guys like Grabovski, Kulemin, Connolly and Armstrong are off their expected numbers. No doubt the defence could be better, as the team allows 3.17 goals/game (24th in the league).But the team is close to capped out, meaning any deal requires numbers to even out. Trading picks and prospects is not going to get that done. Regardless, it makes little sense to start shipping out young players for the relatively short-term reward of making the playoffs.
There are some minor changes that could be made. Remember that Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner are just out of the NCAA. They have played well, but NCAA players do at times fall off in performance due to the longer and more demanding NHL grind. It’s possible they are sent to the AHL for further development. Nazem Kadri seems to have benefit immensely from his demotions to the AHL; he could be ready for regular NHL duties. Joe Colborne has also played well in call ups. Essentially, the Leafs do have some young legs they could employ to spark things. There are also 4 veterans Leafs fans need to keep in mind, whose returns could have the same effect as trades. Matthew Lombardi may be the closest to returning, and may spark some offense. Mike Komisarek had been having his best year with the Leafs when he suffered a broken arm. He could be about 3 weeks away and mayprovide some relief on the blueline. Combination energy guy/middleweight Mike Brown has been bothered by injury, but could also return before February, which could help the PK. And there is no timeline now for Colby Armstrong to return from concussion, though he is considered an important part of the bottom-6 puzzle.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are by no means a lock for the playoffs. It’s apparent this is a team still building towards success. Perhaps Ron Wilson is not the coach who will ultimately lead the team to a Finals berth. The play on the ice does show problems, from relying too heavily on the top line for scoring to defensive coverage that is routinely burned by opposition scoring. Leaf fans are apprehensive that the playoffs could still slip away without improvements. While opinions are valid that one move makes more sense than others, we must recall the Leafs are just about where they are supposed to be in development. But a big trade, well perhaps that’s not the right move at this point. There just doesn’t seem enough upside to a big shakeup simply to get into the postseason and be swept out in 4 or 5 games. There’s some exciting young players staking claim to NHL careers, and so far this year they are winning more often than not. The fans will just need to dig a little deeper and find their patience while watching their franchise rebuild.