Where Art Thou, Leafs Superstar?

Another season will begin for the Leafs, as they try desperately to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005. But this year is different- they’re expected to make the playoffs, according to GM Brian Burke unlike just about every season before.

Problem is I’m just not sure that they’re ready to make that next big step. Sure, they can make the playoffs. They could have made it last year and the year before that and so on. I’m just not sold that they’re a playoff team. If you were to split the East in half they’d probably still be in the bottom seven rather than the top eight.

Here’s why…

The Leafs don’t quite have the player who can put them over the edge quite yet. Kessel’s good. But he’s a bad All-Star at best (he was taken last in the All-Star draft) and a one-trick pony at worst. He’s definitely not a superstar player and unless he has the right player to feed him the puck, he never will be. (Mats Sundin never needed anyone to set him up.)

Dion Phaneuf, Clarke MacArthur and James Reimer all had decent seasons in 2010-11. But they are not great players. One season is not enough to tell a player’s worth. Only over several seasons with consistent results can you say how good somebody really is. Unlike the Sedin twins who are most always good.

The closest thing to a great player on the Leafs team- besides Kessel, who led the Leafs in points last season-would be Luke Schenn. Over three years, he’s only gotten better to the point where he’s now one of the best shut-down-defensemen in the league.

Phaneuf was good in Calgary. He’s not anymore. Yes, I know that he had a good third half of the season last year, but honestly? Twenty-five games are not 82 games. And even 82 games is just one full season, not enough to judge a player.

Reimer’s still unproven and the sophomore slump is nearly evident. In all fairness, he is unlikely to repeat based on the pressure, his age and past goalies like him who excelled in their rookie seasons only to fluke in year two.

MacArthur was the Leafs’ dark horse last year and he may be a superstar one day, but he’s not even even an All-Star yet.

When you take a look at the upper-tier teams in the East, they all have one thing in common: a superstar player. Pittsburgh has Crosby and Malkin, Washington has  Ovechkin, Carolina has Staal, Tampa Bay has Stamkos, Boston has Chara and Thomas. It’s no coincidence that the Penguins and Bruins are the most-recent Eastern Conference Cup-winners; both teams boast two superstars, while the Leafs have none.

Sure, they have an abundance of good players. But they don’t have that player. Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, John-Michael Liles. Nothing wrong with them. But even all of their combined efforts aren’t enough to put the Leafs over the edge.

The Leafs are still missing an anchor or a captain. Phaneuf has the physical C but not the mental C. There was something about Mats Sundin, Wendel Clark and Darryl Sittler that Phaneuf has yet to show- the class, the dedication and heart, and the stuff that heroes are made of.

Burke said he was going to get that player in the off-season when Brad Richards was hot on the market. He didn’t get him, though. Richards was not only a 77-point scorer last year but something that the Leafs didn’t have- a solid veteran presence who also just so happened to be a former Stanley Cup winner.

Instead, he acquired Tim Connolly- a mediocre first-line center- to make up for it.  Tyler Bozak, the center that Leaf fans were hating on, scored just 10 points less than Connolly’s 42 and was nearly eight full percentage points better at the face-off dot, something which a first-liner surely must excel at. I’m just saying, he might not be as good as prescribed.

Zach Parise will be an unrestricted free agent next year. So will Alexander Semin, Shane Doan and Brad Stuart. And if the Kings don’t resign Drew Doughty, there’s some potential there for Burke to nab a franchise-changer.

The Leafs are in need of a truly special player. With all their years as Eastern Conference doormats, surely they have to have found a superstar player somewhere, just like the Penguins did in Crosby and the Lightning in Stamkos. (Both first overall sections.)

For the first time this year, being bad wouldn’t be so bad for the Leafs. Over the last two seasons, the Leafs had no first-round draft pick (because of the Kessel deal) but barring another silly trade, they’ll have a shot a top prospect. As long as they don’t make the playoffs, they may be able to find that payer in the rookie draft.

Moreover, a playoff –berthing year won’t help the Leafs out at all. Most likely they’d get eliminated early on, for they aren’t yet a legitimate Cup contender. A short playoff run wouldn’t be worth mortgaging the future for.

It’s really too bad that the Leafs had to squander their valuable first-round draft picks to acquire Kessel. Tyler Seguin would have been that player the Leafs are seeking. Dougie Hamilton might have been as well. And to think that they could have gotten Mike Cammalleri for a cheaper price and at no long-term cost.

The 20-goal scorers are there (the entire second line), the physical torment is there (take your pick in either Colton Orr, Mike Brown or new-guy Philippe Dupuis) and so is the abundance of above-average defenders (with Phaneuf, Schenn and Liles).

But the Leafs just aren’t quite there yet. While depth isn’t an issue, skill is.

They’re still that player away.


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