Tomas Kaberle loves to pass the puck, but there is no way to pass the buck on this question.
How different would life be today for the Maple Leafs if they had this kind of young team in the autumn and the veterans applied the effort they are showing now, long after their playoff fate had been settled and the trade deadline’s passing eased fears of survivors?
“You win one game in the first 10 and you don’t give yourself much of a chance,” Kaberle said prior to attempting a sixth win in eight games Thursday against the New Jersey Devils. “We didn’t have a good start and that was pretty much the season. We had trouble with this all year. We couldn’t get two or three wins in a row.”
This late-season spurt is getting to be a frustrating exercise for diehard fans. Including this 7-6-1 run since Feb. 1, the Leafs are now 69-50-16 in the final two-plus months of the season since the NHL lockout.
Looking around the weak markets of the Eastern Conference, where once untouchable teams such as Boston and the Rangers seem to be dying slow deaths, yet are 10 points ahead, it’s enough to give general manager Brian Burke fits.
Granted, the current roster, second youngest in the NHL, is apples to oranges in contrast to the veterans the Leafs trotted out in October. In goal, Vesa Toskala was not up to the task, neither in his own play or mentoring rookie Jonas Gustvasson. Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Garnet Exelby all had adjustment problems and no one had yet heard of Carl Gunnarsson.
Up front, Phil Kessel was rehabbing shoulder surgery while reading how Burke overpaid for him with three high draft picks (the Leafs are 23-27-8 with his 26 goals) and the rest of today’s first line was either down with the Marlies (Tyler Bozak) or not dressing regularly (Nikolai Kulemin).
Burke’s thunderclap quotes to send big contracts to the farm and play the kids were grand in theory, but impractical timing-wise with so many veterans here. But he lost patience by Feb. 28 and shipped out six Leafs, then two more at the deadline.
There are still 12 more games for the Bozak’s line, as well as Luca Caputi, Viktor Stalberg, Gunnarsson and Gustavsson to work on their act. Can they carry it into next season, add Nazem Kadri and take flight? Or is this just a tease before another four months of hell for the coaching staff next autumn?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” centre Rickard Wallin said. “But we have to finish this one as strong as we can. We want to give the franchise something to build on next year. We’ve come on to that road a bit already.”
Players such as Wallin, Wayne Primeau and even Kaberle are subject to off-season review about their place in the next phase of the Leafs. And though a sixth win in eight games is a possibility on Thursday, Wilson is trying to temper any perception that players such as Gustavsson, Bozak and John Mitchell have safe NHL jobs.
“We jump to conclusions here,” Wilson said. “Part of (recent success) is we’re playing better as a team. We’re glad some of these young players are starting to show results, but they have a long way to go.”
For example, the Leafs’ breakout broke down a lot since late in Saturday’s win over Edmonton. But those long-awaited comforting words “he stole us a win,” with regards to Gustavsson’s fine effort against the Senators, echoed through the room the past couple of days.
“There’s a lot of sloppiness going on throughout the league,” Wilson said. “The other team is trying to win every bit as much as you. But that’s what the goaltender is there for. (Gustvasson) made no mistakes (Tuesday in Ottawa) and it bailed a few guys out, especially the giveaways. In the third period, I don’t think we had any. That’s a sign of good things to come when you shut another team down after they had the momentum.”
Now, if the Leafs could only turn back time to October the way they turned back the Sens.