At the end of January, the Toronto Maple Leafs stood 19-25-5 with 43 points. Since February 1, the Leafs are 15-7-5 with 35 points, and with 78 points on the season, they’ve already eclipsed their point total of 74 last year, when they finished last in the Eastern Conference during the regular season.
Keying the Leafs’ turnaround has been 23-year-old goaltender James Reimer, who owns a 2.53 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 31 games (29 starts). Reimer has compiled a .919 save percentage in the 23 games he’s played after January.
“Definitely James Reimer has been the biggest reason,” said Chris Johnston, who covers the NHL for The Canadian Press, of the Leafs turnaround. “He got his chance and hasn’t relinquished it.”
Reimer is a part of a young corps of players that the Leafs have assembled that their fans hope will lead the club back to the playoffs as soon as next year, with the playoffs looking quite unlikely for the Leafs this season.
“If he’s as good as he’s been, he can help them become a playoff team,” said Johnston, who, as a word of caution, also cited Steve Mason of Columbus as a goalie who played well as a rookie but has struggled since then to regain that form. “I think he definitely has the potential to be the Leafs’ number one goalie for a long time, but there’s no sure thing when it comes to goaltenders.”
Toronto has other young players that have high ceilings, and the club is allowing those players to develop without much in the way of older veterans blocking their ice time. The Leafs have just one player over the age of 30 (goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere) after the trade of Tomas Kaberle to Boston.
Two of the young forwards with high upside are Nikolai Kulemin and Nazem Kadri. The 24-year old Kulemin has 28 goals and 26 assists in 76 games this year, while the 20-year-old Kadri has two goals and seven assists in 23 games this season, but is thought to have loads of potential.
“That exceeds the expectations a lot of people had for him,” Johnston said of Kulemin’s production. “If he can be a 30-goal scorer consistently, I’m sure the Leafs would be thrilled with that.” Johnston said that Kadri is a player with good hands and high skill level, but also turns the puck over a lot right now.
The young defense corps includes Dion Phaneuf (25 years old), Keith Aulie (21) and Luke Schenn (21). Phaneuf and Aulie both came over from Calgary in a trade last winter. “One-third of the team’s top D were acquired in one trade,” said Johnston.
Schenn, meantime, has four goals and 15 assists in 76 games with the Leafs this year and looks like he could possibly be a part of the Leafs’ top defensive pairing in the future, according to Johnston.
“Luke Schenn’s had a fantastic year,” said Johnston. “He’s been really solid this season. The confidence in his game is going up.”
General manager Brian Burke has drawn widespread criticism for not pursuing a youth movement through the draft since the beginning of his tenure in Toronto, highlighted by a trade before the 2009 season that packaged two first round draft picks (in 2010 and 2011) and a second rounder (2010) to Boston for Phil Kessel. The 2010 first rounder later turned into Tyler Seguin.
But trading Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia for a first and third round draft pick, along with trading Kaberle to Boston, seem to indicate that Leafs’ Burke is more willing to go through a traditional rebuilding project than before. Burke now has two first rounders in this year’s draft after trading Versteeg and Kaberle.
Even though the pressure is high in Canada for teams to win every year, Johnston downplayed the notion that it’s more difficult for Canadian-based teams to go through a traditional rebuild than for teams based in the United States.
“I do think fans would accept a traditional rebuild,” said Johnston, who cited the Edmonton Oilers as a team in Canada going through the traditional rebuild.
Even though Burke seems to be re-committing to the draft, Johnston warned that Burke has said that he wouldn’t mind trading those picks for NHL players right away. Johnston expects Burke to try to deal for a high-end goal-scorer over the summer because even though the Leafs have a lot of depth at the NHL and AHL levels, they lack high-end offensive talent.
So will Toronto be able to translate its late-season success this year into more consistent success throughout the 2011-12 season and make the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season?
“My gut tells me yes, but only by the skin of their teeth,” said Johnston. “I do think they’ll squeak in and be the seven or eight seed in the conference.
“But like I’ve said, it won’t be easy.”