After missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting frustrated. Really frustrated. Not once was that more evident than when fans at the Air Canada Centre began chanting “fire Wilson” on December 2, 2010 during a game against the Edmonton Oilers.
However, the Maple Leafs ended the 2010-2011 regular season with reason to be optimistic about next season. After sitting well back of a playoff spot at the All-Star break, the Maple Leafs stormed back to finish 10th in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot. The Leafs sat three points back of eighth on a number of occasions, but could not come through.
While that doesn’t sound like a great season, it was a much welcomed improvement compared to recent years. That is just one of the reasons why many Maple Leafs fans feel confident going into the 2011 off-season. But do the Maple Leafs have what it takes to make the playoffs next season?
Sniper Phil Kessel had a much better season. With 32 goals and 64 points, the 23-year-old proved once again that he can lead the Leafs’ forward group. Not surprisingly, when Kessel was struggling, so were many of the other Leafs forwards. All he needs to do is find some consistency, and the Leafs will become a decent team on offence.
Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and even Joffrey Lupul all showed that they can be regular top-six forwards next season. However, they will need to prove that in training camp this fall.
Assuming Kessel continues to produce as much as he does and Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur can improve upon their 30, 29 and 21 goal seasons respectively, the Maple Leafs will be a dangerous team to defend against. Throw in some consistency, as well as a healthy and strong season from Lupul, and the Leafs might reach the lethal level. But that is a huge might.
Despite some players showing that they can score a high amount of goals, the Leafs are not guaranteed to become an offensively scary team. Not only will they still be a very young team, but the Maple Leafs did not have very good depth last season.
Kessel, MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin led the team with 64, 62, 58 and 57 points respectively. The next closest player was Tyler Bozak, fifth on the team with just 32 points. After that is Lupul, who scored 31 points in an abbreviated season, followed by defenceman Dion Phaneuf, veteran Colby Armstrong, who played just 50 games, another defenceman in Luke Schenn and third/fourth line checker Tim Brent.
As you can see, the Maple Leafs are not a deep team up front. The same can be said for the back-end, although the Leafs do have a few defencemen who are blossoming into something special.
Keith Aulie and Carl Gunnarsson are both good young defencemen who are still learning the ropes of the NHL. Aulie played very solid paired up with captain Dion Phaneuf, while Gunnarsson coughed up the puck on a few ugly occasions but, all in all, still played considerably well. Both carried big minutes, especially after the departure of Tomas Kaberle.
Schenn also had another good season─many would even call it a career year. The native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan scored a career-high 17 assists and 22 points, while matching his career-high of five goals. He, along with Phaneuf, anchored the Leafs’ defence after the Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin trades.
Speaking of anchoring a specific position, let’s not forget about goalie James Reimer.
After a poor first half of the season, the Maple Leafs were looking for someone to hold down the fort in net. Both Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson had been struggling all season, with Gustavsson struggling so much that he had to be sent down to the AHL on a conditioning stint to help re-build his confidence. Struggling to keep the puck out of their own net, the Maple Leafs called upon rookie goalie James Reimer.
Reimer made his first career start on New Year’s Day, stopping 32 of 33 shots in a road win over the Ottawa Senators. He didn’t look back after that game, as he finished the season with a 20-10-5 record, a 2.60 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. If Reimer matches those statistics, and the Leafs’ chances at the playoffs will rise by at least 20 percent. The only problem is that it’s an if.
Most of what I said is based on the word “if.” We are not going to know if next season is the Maple Leafs’ year to make the playoffs until sometime in March or April of 2012.
Follow Lukas on Twitter @LukasHardonk for more Maple Leafs coverage.