Nine-point Leafs checklist

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson makes a sprawling save against the Islanders at Nassau...

Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson makes a sprawling save against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Jan. 24, 2012. (MIKE SEGAR/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:49 PM ET

TORONTO - So accustomed have Maple Leafs fans become to lack of success in April, the spin actually may have sounded soothing.

If weíve heard it once from Toronto general manager Brian Burke, weíve heard it a dozen times: Since last seasonís all-star break, the Leafs have been one of the most productive teams in the National Hockey League.

In the next two months and change, weíre going to find out if that optimism means anything beyond familiar words of consolation.

The improvements ó and, at this point, they appear real and legitimate ó will mean little if the team misses the playoffs for the fourth consecutive spring under Burke and coach Ron Wilson and the seventh overall.

The real season starts on Tuesday in Pittsburgh where the Leafs begin a home-and-home with the Penguins. And over their 33 remaining games, the NHLís youngest roster will have ample opportunity to provide evidence that the hockey rebuild around here is finally tangible.

It also promises to take fans for a wild ride as the many questions will be answered on the ice and in the Eastern Conference standings.

Are they good enough to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since the lockout?

Are they deep enough and physically stout enough to withstand the fight of a real playoff race?

And, if not, can Burke and his platoon of front-office staff add the necessary pieces to make it happen?

A year ago, the Leafs were poised to launch an 18-9-6 run in their final 33 games, a stretch that featured the emergence of goaltender James Reimer (remember him?) and what appeared to be some solid team-building among the young group.

They wonít necessarily have to duplicate that production over the next 10 weeks, though theyíll likely need to come close to land inside the top eight and give Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment the green light to sell outrageously priced playoff tickets.

Tired of the familiar script from seasons past, many Leafs supporters were anxious to dismiss last yearís post all-star break success as the usual no-pressure push that ultimately ends in the familiar outside-looking-in spot come mid April. Iím more inclined to view that latest tease as one of the teamís more productive periods in years, an opportunity for growth in a number of key areas.

By last yearís trade deadline, the purge of the old regime was essentially complete. The success that followed brought confidence into training camp, an attitude that was reinforced with a strong start.

Captain Dion Phaneuf, to cite one example, has grown into his role, a leadership process that may have started on the tentative side, but would appear to be anything but now. Itís tough to gauge the true temperature of the locker room, but outside appearances suggest that this group is solid and united.

Winning back-to-back games against the New York Islanders in their two most recent games was a massive result for the Leafs, sending them into the break on a positive note while ripping the heart out of whatever playoff aspirations the Isles had.

With Winnipeg, Ottawa and New Jersey all stumbling into the break, those four points are even more precious. The Leafs are in a three-way tie for seventh with the Devils and Florida Panthers at 55 points apiece, but are ranked ninth because each of those other two teams have a game in hand. The Jets haves slipped to five points behind and the Leafs have played one fewer game.

Ten weeks, 33 games and plenty of questions remain. If the Leafs end up on top of enough of the following areas, we like their chances.

1. Reliable goaltending

Whether it comes from Jonas Gustavsson ó who will continue to get the call as long as he has the hot hand ó or in the end of a season of frustration and disappointment for Reimer, itís a necessity. It was Reimerís play that arguably was most responsible for last yearís strong finish and how gutting would it be if the Leafs fall just short of the post-season because of poor performance from a position that was believed to be the one genuine area of strength prior to this season.

2. Secondary scoring

Wilson gets irritated whenever this criticism arises, but there certainly was relief when Matthew Lombardi, and then Clarke MacArthur, had two-goal nights in the home-and-home with the Isles. The tighter checking on Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel has been apparent for a month now and, just as in football, if an offence becomes too one-dimensional itís much easier to stop. If the MacArthur-Nik Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski line can produce at the rate it did last season, speedy Lombardi can continue to progress and the defence can keep contributing, the Leafsí output will be fine.

3. Doing the math

Recent history suggests between 92-95 points will nail down eighth in the East. If that holds true, the Leafs will need a minimum of 37 points over their final 33 games, a reasonable total and well within this teamís reach. While that output may be just a step above mediocre, it will require them to continue to avoid the lengthy losing streaks that conspired against them early in the 2010-11 campaign.

4. Make it a single

Three-point games are a frustrating reality in todayís NHL, but more so for the teams doing the chasing. The Leafs have been strong enough salvaging overtime points and only once this season have gone more than three games without claiming at least one.

5. Get & stay healthy

There is little doubt that the Leafs are a much better team moving the puck out of their own end when defenceman John-Michael Liles is in the lineup, and that they play with more of an edge when Colby Armstrong is around. Both are due to return from concussions soon, which will add to the depth and if they can remain in the lineup and give management options. Which leads us to ...

6. The Burke effect

To its credit, the entire Leafs front-office crew has been transparent in acknowledging that the roster is in need of some beefing up. Itís clear from league sources and various reports that Burke is actively shopping, as he should be. It must irk the feisty GM to see his forwards get pushed around on too many nights and the physical presence in front of the opposition goaltenders is lacking. From the broken record department, the Leafs are still crying out for a big-time centre.

7. Lupul living large

What hasnít been said about Lupul, who is getting a lot of love on all-star weekend for the career-season he is having so far? The signs were there late last year suggesting that, if he had the chance to come into training camp in good shape, he could be a force. He is clearly playing with confidence and the chemistry he has with Kessel has helped mask whatever shortcomings exist at centre.

8. Hang with big boys

If the Leafs are going to grab the seventh or eighth spot, for example ó and anything much higher is overly optimistic, isnít it? ó look who the potential first-round opponents would be. The Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins (No. 2 seed) have destroyed the Leafs in three meetings and the Rangers (No. 1) pushed them around pretty good at the ACC earlier this month. Another Burke credo has been that he doesnít want to finally get his team to the post-season and exit meekly. Playoff teams need playoff-style players and Burke is on the lookout.

9. Forty for Phil

Heís not going to carry the Leafs to the playoffs on his own, of course, but the combination of Kessel reaching 40 goals and this team not making it seems unlikely. Like the team itself, Kessel has avoided long slumps, a clear indication of his maturation into one of the NHLís most dangerous offensive players.


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