Remember back in 2004, when the Maple Leafs were Stanley Cup contenders? In those days the playoffs were an expectation. Now, playoff plans seem more like a far-fetched hoax.
Since then, the Leafs have gone six years and counting without a playoff appearance. The only other team that has equaled that drought doesn’t play in hockey’s biggest market. Instead, they sit on beaches in Florida, much like the residents, who aren’t exactly selling out the BankAtlantic Center in the Sunrise suburb.
Here, hockey’s a religion.
Imagine the Yankees not making the postseason for six consecutive year… that’s the heat Toronto is facing.
After what General Manager Brian Burke called a failed season last year, the Leafs will have to rely on a motivated yet ill-experienced team to find a hole in the system and make Lord Stanley’s playoffs.
But not all hope is lost.
There were plenty of positives which came out of last year. In fact, most news out of Leafs camp was good news.
Sniper Phil Kessel scored 32 goals and 64 points. Captain Dion Phaneuf became the top-tier rearguard they expected to see in the second half of the year. Luke Schenn emerged as an elite defenseman, racking up a league-best 256 hits. Three surprise forwards – Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur – all scored more than 20 goals, while playing on the same line. And how can you forget James Reimer, an American Hockey League goaltender who took the city of Toronto off its feet with a run that nearly qualified the team for the postseason.
The Leafs rode Reimer to a 20-10-5 record when he took over as an injury replacement on January 1, finishing with a .921 save percentage and 2.60 goals-against average.
But the bottom line was that Burke failed to do what he set out to do. No matter how valiant the Leafs 18-7-7 post-all-star break run was, they missed the playoffs in yet another season.
During this year’s off-season, Burke was in business as usual. The former cup-winner with the Ducks made some solid roster moves to give the Leafs the edge they need to have a shot.
Burke acquired veteran blueliner John-Michael Liles, a former 46-point-producer, who should help add to an awful power play. Liles will take over Tomas Kaberle’s spot on defense, as the quarterback on the man-advantage and will likely be paired with Luke Schenn on the second-line.
Another key addition was that of Tim Connolly, who looks to be this year’s number-one center. If Connolly can stay healthy, the former Sabre will be a tremendous boost to the top six forwards, especially as a set-up man for Kessel, the team’s top scoring threat.
Amongst the other moves, the Leafs traded for two bottom tier players in forwards Matthew Lombardi and defenseman Cody Franson, signed defensive-forward Philippe Dupuis and re-signed goaltender Reimer for three years.
Also, the return of tough guys Colton Orr and Colby Armstrong will create a barrage of physicality on the third-line, joining fellow tough guy Mike Brown.
Don’t count out Joe Colborne and Nazem Kadri. The Leafs two best prospects, who will vie to make the Leafs opening night roster in October, bring raw talent and hope to a rebuilding team.
Speaking of prospects, the Leafs are the second youngest team in the league at just over 26. the off-season is especially for this young group of kids to learn and grow together before they reach their true potential.
So will Toronto finally make the playoffs in 2012, ending a long drought of post-season golfing?
Sure, they don’t have a superstar player like a Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin or a Niklas Lidstrom. They don’t even have a legitimate number-one center – as Connolly scored 43 points last year.
But with a revamped roster and some returnees the Leafs are certainly ready to try.
If there’s one thing the Leafs were never lacking it was their heart and determination, just ask former-Leaf Tim Brent who could make living taking slap shots.
Now, the pieces are in place – they just need to get it done.