Don't bet on Maple Leafs making playoff run

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke (back), with Luke Schenn, address the media as training...

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke (back), with Luke Schenn, address the media as training camp opens in Toronto on Friday. (MICHAEL PEAKE/QMI Agency)

STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:36 PM ET

TORONTO - It is always about sweat and smiles and wide eyed optimism on the first day of Maple Leafs training camp.

Reality will come soon enough.

But it was said Friday by coach Ron Wilson, by general manager Brian Burke by captain Dion Phaneuf, by just about everybody asked about anything and everything: This is a playoff team waiting to happen.

And the wait has been far too long.

The questions were repeated over and over on opening day, the focus on how the Leafs will be better, why the Leafs will be better, when the Leafs will be better. The Leafs supply the optimism: We’ll take care of the reality for now.

Be-Leaf: Wilson wants the Leafs to be more offensive minded, and involve his defencemen more in the rush. “We want to add a few wrinkles to what we already do,” said Wilson. “John-Michael Liles has a history of being an offensive minded defenceman and Cody (Franson) has offensive side to his game.”

Reality: Wilson has favoured the offensive approach to hockey in his three years with the Leafs, much to his dismay. The Leafs allowed 251 goals against last season, 33 more goals than they managed to score. The 6th, 7th and 8th place teams in the Eastern Conference allowed 198, 209 and 229 goals against and each scored more goals for than they allowed against. While it’s nice that Wilson favours an offensive approach, nice to watch, the Leafs have no hope of making the playoffs if they don’t reduce their goals against by 30. No team made the playoffs last year by allowing more goals than it scored. The statistics aren’t a mystery: Of the 14 teams that missed the playoffs last season, 13 allowed more goals than they scored themselves.

Be-Leaf: The additions of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi should make the Leafs better.

Reality: For different reasons, the teams Connolly and Lombardi were employed by last season chose not to employ them this season. Connolly will make the Leafs better than they were because he is essentially replacing no one as the Leafs No. 1 centre. That doesn’t mean he will make them a whole lot better. He should help the Leafs special teams, both on power play and penalty killing, which is significant on its own, but in the past, when he’s been considered a front line player to build around, he’s never fulfilled the role. Lombardi is a different story entirely: Nashville all but gave him away because it needed to clear his $3.5 million salary and the Leafs were willing to gamble on a concussed player. When healthy, he’s been a serviceable NHL player with terrific speed. Again, the addition of a better player, but not someone to get overly excited about.

Be-Leaf: Leafs stole Cody Franson from Nashville.

Reality: It depends on your definition of steal. Franson is young and huge with a large slap shot. That’s the good news. But he played sixth defenceman minutes in Nashville, even though he was on the second power play. Kevin Klein, rookie Jonathan Blum and Shane O’Brien were played ahead of him in the regular season, and in the Predators strong playoff run. And coach Barry Trotz never used him to kill penalties, which considering his 6-foot-5 size, and the NHL’s love affair with large penalty killing defencemen, is something to wonder about.

Be-Leaf: Liles will make the Leafs power play better.

Reality: Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. Last season, Liles had 18 points on a reasonably decent Colorado power play. Tomas Kaberle, the puck mover whom he essentially is replacing, scored 25 points on lousy power plays in Toronto then Boston. Kaberle’s strength was vision, puck-moving, and play-making. Where Liles may, in fact, make the big impression is at even strength. Last year he tied for ninth among NHL defenceman with even-strength scoring, just two points behind Shea Weber and four points behind Keith Yandle. That’s heady territory for a defenceman gifted to the Leafs by the cost cutting Avalanche.

Be-Leaf: Making the playoffs, in Wilson’s words, “is doable.” And that, more than anything else, is what this Maple Leafs season is about.

Reality: The Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since prior to the NHL’s locked-out season. And frankly, forget all the Brian Burke blather about 1967, missing out every spring is what has become embarrassing here in hockey country. It has gone on too long. And mediocrity has been accepted and at times almost celebrated. Qualifying for the playoffs is no longer a foregone conclusion in the NHL. The Eastern Conference has all kinds of depth and the Leafs, nine points out of a playoff spot last year, will have to find a way to be better than Montreal and the Rangers and Carolina and New Jersey, and reinvigorated Winnipeg, and quietly emerging Islanders team. Being eighth now is an accomplishment. And no sure thing.


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