10 key Leafs questions

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:14 AM ET

When once asked if his team had a shot at the post-season, then-Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, incredulous that someone actually might think it could happen, popped off in one of the greatest rants in sports history.

“Playoffs? Playoffs?!” Mora freaked, shaking his head in disbelief.

Don’t look now, Jim, but the ‘P’ word is being used here in Toronto years later.

Despite the fact that the Maple Leafs have not played a post-season game since 2004, there was a buzz in the city on Friday morning after Toronto started the day just four points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Is it legit? Or are we being fooled for a sixth consecutive season, with the team once again providing a late-season tease only to come up short?

With the trade deadline coming up on Monday followed by the final six weeks of the regular season, here are 10 pressing questions that ultimately could decide the Leafs’ fate.

10. CAN ROOKIE GOALIE JAMES REIMER KEEP THIS UP?

In order for the Leafs to continue their strong playoff push, he may have to.

Upon further review, who else is there? Veteran J-S Giguere’s roller-coaster season has been a tale of on-again, off-again hip/groin problems, while Jonas Gustavsson tries to regain his lost confidence as he recovers from a third heart procedure.

Indeed, the fate of the Leafs — at least in the immediate future — seems to be in the young hands of the unflappable Reimer, who already has been given the nod by coach Ron Wilson to start against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday and in Atlanta against the Thrashers on Sunday.

Like the music industry, hockey has seen its share of one-hit wonders among goalkeepers, incuding the likes of Jim (Net Detective) Carey, Steve Penny and Mike Moffat.

Will Reimer become one of these flash in the pans? Only time will tell, but the kid from Manitoba does have one thing going for him: Composure. His eight road wins show that he is not indimidated in there, either.

9. WILL CLARKE MACARTHUR STILL BE A LEAF COME TUESDAY?

General manager Brian Burke and MacArthur’s agent, Don Meehan, continue to discuss an extension for the pending restricted free agent, who scored his career-high 18th goal on Tuesday. It is believed that MacArthur is kicking around the idea of a three-year, $9-million US deal, which would make his annual salary slightly higher than those of linemates Mikhail Grabovski ($2.9 million) and Nikolai Kulemin ($2.35 million).

Burke, of course, would like that number closer to $2 million. That’s how the negotiating game works.

But there are a couple of other factors involved.

First, there are rumblings that Burke might be able to fetch a higher market price than the first- and third-round picks he received from the Philadelphia Flyers for Kris Versteeg. With demand said to be increasing for MacArthur’s services, Burke might get an offer he can’t refuse.

Secondly, remember what happened to Dominic Moore? He was traded to Buffalo after his representatives could not come to terms with the Leafs and has never been as successful since then.

That’s not to say MacArthur couldn’t thrive elsewhere. He’s a skilled player. At the same time, as Dominic Moore found out, the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else.

8. WILL BRIAN BURKE BE ABLE TO LAND BLUE LINE HELP?

Given his track record of making bold moves, the betting here is yes. The blue line definitely is the focus heading into Monday’s trade deadline after Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin were dealt away.

For what it’s worth, the choice here would be John-Michael Liles of the Colorado Avalanche, a player the Leafs have been linked to. He played for Burke and coach Ron Wilson as part of Team USA at the Olympics, he is among the league’s top 10 scoring defencemen with 39 points; and his salary of $4.2 million is almost equal that of Kaberle.

There are warts in his own end that have put him in the doghouse of Avs coach Joe Sacco at times but, then again, Kaberle wasn’t great in his own zone, either. If the reported price of a second-round pick is accurate, the Leafs should do it.

7. WILL THE LEAFS MAKE ANY OTHER MOVES BY MONDAY NIGHT?

Burke doesn’t like waiting until the final few hours of the deadline to pull the trigger on deals, but he’s definitely kicking tires on a number of fronts. Finding scoring punch, preferably at centre, would address a glaring need (Steve Weiss or David Booth of the Panthers?), but the priority remains landing a defenceman.

6. CAN PHIL KESSEL MAINTAIN HIS TORRID SCORING PACE?

History dictates no. One of the most frustrating parts of Phil The Thrill’s game is his inconsistency; dominant for some stretches, invisible for others. While he has racked up six points in the past five games, he also has battled dry spells of seven and five games this season during which he has failed to register even a point. The one positive here: The addition of Joffrey Lupul alongside Kessel and Tyler Bozak seems to have created a line with some on-ice chemistry. With Lupul causing havoc in front of the opposing net, Kessel and Bozak could find themselves with much more room to work with, as was the case Thursday when the two combined for seven points against the Canadiens.

5. CAN THE YOUNG DEFENCE KEEP SHOWING SUCH COMPOSURE?

There is no reason they can’t, although it will be tough under the spotlight of a playoff race. Luke Schenn is the team’s most improved player; Keith Aulie continues to get better with each game; and Dion Phaneuf finally is playing with the edge we all have expected to see for the past year. Having said that, they could use some help, especially on the point of the power play where the Tim Brent experiment has looked ugly at times.

4. DO THE LEAFS HAVE A FAVOURABLE SCHEDULE DOWN THE STRETCH?

Eleven of the Leafs’ final 21 regular season games are on the road, which isn’t such a bad thing considering the team has won four of its past five outings away from the Air Canada Centre. More importantly, nine games come against teams that were not in a playoff spot entering play on Friday, including Eastern Conference foes Atlanta, Buffalo, Florida, New Jersey, Ottawa and the Islanders. If the Leafs don’t take care of business against the league’s so-called weak sisters, their push for a playoff spot will be moot.

3. WILL CINDERELLA STORY MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI RUN OUT OF GAS IN THE NEXT SEVEN WEEKS?

Unless the crying of his newborn keeps him up at night, it’s unlikely. While many of us called for the Leafs to dump the enigmatic centre last summer, he proved us all wrong by rededicating himself to the game, often being one of the last guys off the ice at practice. Linemates Kulemin and MacArthur have seemed to re-energize him too.

2. WILL THE REAL DION PHANEUF PLEASE STAND UP?

It appears he already has started to. While it remains questionable if his point totals will ever rival those he put up his first two years in the league, he has started to perform with the sandpaper and ornery attitude that made him so difficult to play against in Calgary. The key: avoid stupid penalties.

1. WHEN YOU ADD IT ALL UP, ARE THESE LEAFS FOR REAL?

With the likes of Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and the Hurricanes’ Cam Ward stopping pucks for teams the Leafs are chasing in the playoff hunt, this club has plenty of work to do. There is a lot of inexperience on the roster too, not to mention a need for an influx of raw talent. Having said that, players inside the dressing room seem to be having more fun than we’ve seen in years. Whether that’s enough to snatch a post-season berth, well, stay tune

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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