Toronto Maple Leafs: A mid-season review

Mar 7, 2013 by

Toronto Maple Leafs: A mid-season review

After last night’s 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs sit firmly entrenched in a playoff position at the midway point of the season with a 15-9 record, good enough for 5th in the Eastern Conference.  Most preseason prognosticators predicted the Maple Leafs would struggle mightily and likely vie for a lottery pick rather than a playoff spot, but this years’ team finally seems ready to take the next step in what has been a painfully long progression back to respectability.  The Maple Leafs have simply been an embarrassment in the post-Sundin era; assembling mediocre rosters, year after year, generally comprised of overpaid average players, just good enough to ensure they don’t get one of the top-tier players available in the coming draft.  Also, the front office has far too often been the centre of attention and appeared dysfunctional and often operated without conveying a clear vision.

During this time, only the Maple Leafs would hire an interim general manager like Cliff Fletcher, to sign a head coach (Ron Wilson) to a long-term contract before signing a general manager – normally that process is done in reverse order.  More recently, only the Maple Leafs would fire their current GM Brian Burke on the eve of a lockout shortened season.  Thus adding a layer of unnecessary instability and drama around the team and giving credence to the perception that corporate ownership is far too meddlesome and disconnected from its hockey operations. The strange timing of the dismissal is typical of the way the Maple leafs have operated for most of this century and the results bear the rotten fruit of such poor leadership. Not since the 2003-2004 season have the buds made the playoffs and based on the preseason drama following the team, with the sudden firing of Brian Burke and the controversy surrounding the potential acquisition of Roberto Luongo, there were plenty of reasons to believe that this team would falter.  For long-suffering fans like myself, I too was hoping that this team struggled in order to have an opportunity at drafting one of the top prospects in this year’s draft. Adding another key young player, potentially a franchise type game-changer like Seth Jones or Jonathan Drouin, is far more enticing than having a middling record and a similarly lacklustre prospect.

If ever there was a season for this team to fail it should be in a lockout shortened one and for the die-hard Leafs fan, it’s a lot easier to stomach 48 games of mediocrity than 82; however, when signs of progress emerge we have to re-evaluate how we analyse the state of the Maple Leafs.  A strange thing has developed this year, this team has played solid two-way hockey over the first half of the season and seems to be a vastly improved squad under Randy Carlyle’s tutelage.  Despite all the drama and potential excuses hovering over the Leafs at the beginning of the year, this team is showing gumption, pugnacity, fortitude and all the adjectives commensurate with a Brian Burke led team. Surprisingly, they have emerged into a legitimate playoff contender and credit is warranted from the net minding out.

The goaltending has been neither spectacular nor mediocre, but it has been consistently solid enough to win.  James Reimer might be slightly more accomplished than Ben Scrivens, but both appear to have similar skill sets and can be relied upon interchangeably for the time being.  The defence has improved with the surprising emergence of names no one had anticipated prior to the season with the likes of Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer moving up from the Toronto Marlies and making significant contributions.  The defence is likely to improve even more when Jake Gardiner returns to the lineup after he finishes his rehabilitation stint in the minors after returning too early after suffering a concussion earlier this year.  James Van Riemsdyk has been a great acquisition from Philadelphia and has developed into a top line player, fitting in nicely beside Phil Kessel, thus far scoring 13 goals to lead the team (5th in the league).  Young prospects like Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin are emerging as exciting blue-chip prospects and are making an impact nightly. Underlying these individual performances is an improved commitment to team toughness. Players like Colton Orr and David Mclaren have become imposing figures and brought some much-needed swagger to a young team fighting to build an identity.  Ironically, this newly enforced pugnacity is what Burke promised to bring when he was originally hired over 4 years ago; it seems almost unfair that this team has finally adopted his style in his absence, while achieving a level of success at the same time.

Aside from Mikhail Grabovski not playing up to the expectation of his 5 million+ salary, there is very little to be critical of this year’s team.  For the first time in recent memory, the Maple leafs have some depth in their farm system and in the press box. High-priced veteran defenceman like John-Michael Lilles and Mike Komisarek are consistently healthy scratches, in favour of cheaper and younger alternatives and the team appears better off.  The surplus of players will likely result in a trade or two, but in the interim it’s a good problem for the team to have.  With Joffrey Lupul, Matt Frattin and Jake Gardiner all returning from injury soon and a glut of moveable assets sitting on the sidelines, there is finally some optimism in this smog and pretentious filled Toronto air.  There are still weaknesses that need to be filled if this team wants to emerge as a contender, like adding a true number one centre and a bonafide starting goalie (not named Luongo), but baby-steps are being made and there is promise in leafland at the midway mark of this season. They seem destined to finally make the playoffs, but most importantly there is a sense of hope building which has long been absent.   It will be interesting to see how this team holds up the rest of the way, but they have a sufficient cushion that barring an unforeseen collapse (ahem, like last year), should lead to the first Toronto Maple Leafs playoff game since 2004.  Then again, it is the Leafs… I should probably sacrifice a few goats or wear bright red pants to work or do something absurd tomorrow after publishing this mostly positive depiction of the current state of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Something bad is certain to happen, isn’t it? For Leafs fans, we’ve grown accustomed to disappointment, but maybe, just maybe this years team is finally giving fans reason to be optimistic.


Leave a Reply