In each of the three previous seasons, the now tiresome routine of a late-season run hasn’t been enough to get the Leafs within double digits of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
At best, the rebuild under general manager Brian Burke is moving slower than anticipated. At worst, despite the recent run, there’s little optimism for a big leap forward in the immediate future.
If you would have laid odds when Burke was hired that the Leafs would spend the first three springs under his watch out of the playoffs, the price would have been astronomical.
Year 1 was the hall pass.
Year 2 was the house-cleaning.
And now Year 3, the emergence of a hard-working team that has been fun to watch but still lacking the top-end talent to be an automatic playoff contender.
Nobody takes losing harder than the big Irishman, but what if his team craps out for a fourth consecutive season 12 months from now?
Clearly, the natives are already getting restless as illustrated by the outrage this past week over coach Ron Wilson’s decision to rest goaltender James Reimer in Florida and give veteran J-S Giguere the start.
Perhaps a flashpoint for the pent-up anger, it was an irrational reaction to a coach’s decision that may have been worthy of debate, but wasn’t nearly so cut and dried. Fans aren’t ready to burn up the Air Canada Centre as they might be in Montreal if the Habs missed more than two playoff seasons in a row, but the frustration here is building.
Not to diminish the wild ride of the past few weeks, either — it has, after all, given the downtrodden fan base something to celebrate — but to suggest the Leafs have turned a corner is premature. Until the prospects turn into proven pros or free agency yields a home-run acquisition, the reality is that there is plenty of work still to be done.
In the short term, the math allows that the Leafs are still alive but in need of an epic finish to sneak into eighth for the first time since the lockout. With both the Leafs and eighth-place Buffalo winning large on Saturday, the Sabres are still up by four (78-74) and hold two games in hand.
To get to 88 points - which claimed the final spot a year ago — the Leafs needed to go 7-2 over their nine remaining games. They may even need to run the table, however, given that the past five seasons the average for eighth-place was 91.8 points.
It is fair to say, as well, that the best explanation for the late run has been hard work by the youthful squad, the members of which will surely benefit from the opportunity and exposure of being in a “race.”
Overall, however, the Leafs are a team that struggles too hard to score, having been shut out 11 times this season and scoring more goals than just six other NHL teams.
So, how did the franchise get to this point and, more importantly, what are the prospects going forward?
In Burke’s first summer, he was determined to make a splash and, by midway through his first full season, equally committed to cleaning house of players he felt were either expendable or not the right fit.
You can nitpick at every trade and move, but at the time Burke acquired both Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, it looked like he was getting a good start on his build-from-the-net-out mantra.
Who could have predicted that Beauchemin wouldn’t be as strong as he was in Anaheim or that Komisarek would struggle as mightily as he has here?
The evaluation of the Phil Kessel deal is considerably more complicated and one that will remain a sore point with some, likely until the team becomes legitimately competitive. The price of two first-round picks and a second-rounder was steep, but as Burke adamantly maintains, it’s difficult to find proven natural goal-scorers even with high draft picks.
The complexity of the transaction is that for Kessel to be at full value, he needs a proven linemate — a centre specifically — beside him. In that regard, while not a disaster, his first two seasons as a Leaf have been a waste. Is Kessel a 40-goal scorer? Put him on an elite team with a producing power play and you would find out in a hurry.
Burke has been anything but inactive since taking over, but the trade market in the cap era has likely yielded fewer options than he would have liked or expected.
That said, insisting (on the advice of assistant Dave Nonis) that Keith Aulie be included in the Dion Phaneuf deal is already looking like an extremely wise move. And while Captain Phaneuf is still a work in progress, it’s hard not to score a big ‘W’ on that deal.
If Colby Armstrong can ever stay healthy and if Clarke MacArthur can be re-signed at a reasonable rate, Burke has two forwards that can be a useful fit going forward.
All 30 teams in the NHL love to laud their prospects, but for the first time in a while there seems to be some depth in the Toronto organization. Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Jake Gardiner — to name three of the higher-profile candidates — each will add to the competition at training camp next fall.
The difficulty here, however, is that while each were first-round picks (Kadri by the Leafs, Colborne by the Bruins and Gardiner by the Ducks) all three may take some time. In his most recent promotion to the big club, Kadri has shown he still has work to do, though on Saturday, in his 20th NHL game, he finally netted his first NHL goal.
Before he suffered a head injury with the Marlies, Colborne was showing promise and Gardiner just joined the AHL club this week after being signed to an entry-level contract.
Burke has plenty of work to do for sure. He needs to find a way to acquire a star centre and/or the prototypical big forward he covets and that won’t be easy given the lack of options out there. Pressure will mount for Burke to make not just a splash, but get a big-time producer either around the draft or the July 1 free agency period.
Some were taken aback by Burke’s statement around the trade deadline that he wasn’t going to mortgage the future just to make the playoffs this spring. While it may have looked as if the GM was bailing by getting rid of veterans Beauchemin, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kaberle, he got solid value back in terms of picks and prospects.
The problem is that the value could still take years to be quantified and patience is starting to wear thin, if not with Burke and his management team, with the franchise’s eternally loyal fan base.
Prior to the current terrible run, the Leafs had made the post-season for six consecutive seasons, including a couple of appearances in the conference final. The chase for the eighth and final playoff spot has had its invigorating and entertaining moments.
If not stunning, how sorry that for a sixth consecutive season it has come to this?