|Brian Burke's Maple Leafs are two points out of a playoff spot after 20 games. (QMI Agency/Alex Urosevic)
TORONTO - At the 20-game mark of the Maple Leafs' schedule, we'll adjust our hindsight to 20-20.
If you were Brian Burke and were told you'd reach the quarter pole two points out of a playoff spot (before Tuesday) amid a summer of public pessimism, would you have taken it? Warts and all?
Would you forgive the sporadic scoring, an eight-game losing streak, the conference-low penalty killing and lack of impact newcomers? Or that new captain Dion Phaneuf was booed and Burke had to give him and coach Ron Wilson a public vote of confidence well before U.S. Thanksgiving?
Taking those setbacks into account, plus long-term injuries to Phaneuf, energy winger Colby Armstrong and most recently, veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, you're really looking at a record of 8-9-3 through rose-coloured glasses.
A 4-0 start stunned Leafs Nation and while general manager Burke was cautious, no doubt bean counters at Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment Ltd., started fantasizing about big tailgate playoff parties. The Leafs weren't that good, but neither were they bad enough to erect a scaffold for Wilson in Maple Leaf Square.
So far the Leafs are right where most pundits picked them, on the fringe of the playoff race, with many factors yet to be determined, such as Marlie developments, the NHL trade deadline, health and chemistry. The story so far:
Blueline in the red
The strongest Leaf defence in years was how the brass advertised them. At one time, the worry was how they’d keep so much talent happy.
But the expected rise from the young newcomers didn't materialize (only now is Keith Aulie getting comfortable), while the minus-6 Phaneuf and the error-prone Mike Komisarek didn't start strong. The defence has a combined three goals.
Hole in the middle
Until Mikhail Grabovski started filling the net, it was looking pretty thin at centre. Tyler Bozak protected his No. 1 line spot as long as Phil Kessel was hot but Bozak had one goal in 11 games up to Monday, with trade speculation starting to swirl. Grabovski and his more consistent winger Nikolai Kulemin are finally on the same page, but Grabovski went up to Nov. 6 without a goal.
Nazem Kadri is here, but he never grabbed the bull by the horns for a centre’s job as hoped. He’s making a mark on left wing, after a disdain for defence through camp bought him a ticket to Ricoh Coliseum.
Woes on O
Up to getting four goals against Dallas, the Leafs were not much better than the Islanders and Devils. They had just 12 goals in the eight-game slide. Until a three-game home winning streak, they looked very tentative at the ACC with plenty of shots blocked and the disgruntled patrons let ‘em know.
Still to fix: More than 230 giveaways already ... The league’s second worst penalty kill ... No road wins in five weeks ... Kris Versteeg stuck on third line.
The Atlanta Thrashers walked away from an arbitration ruling with Clarke MacArthur, the Leafs scooped him and now he’s top scorer at a near point-a-game pace. He’s also a good complement to the Russian speaking Kulemin and Grabovski.
Luke uses force
After he took a step back in ‘09-10, Luke Schenn has asserted himself as much this year as Phaneuf and veterans such as Francois Beauchemin. His panic threshold is almost nil, he hits like a truck, he’s blocking shots effectively and has a bonus five assists and is plus-five.
Unknown in the Eastern Conference, this is one truculent project that Brian Burke can be proud of. He has equal parts speed and strength and takes some of the policeman's duties off of linemate Colton Orr. Not his fault the Leafs were doing so poorly on the penalty kill.
Nice touches: Jonas Gustavsson holding the fort during Giguere’s injury ... Unheralded Tim Brent’s work as a checker ... Phil Kessel’s nine goals ... Dallas Eakins getting the Marlies in gear.