Sigh, it’s been a whirlwind of late for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and to be honest I needed to take a vacation from the blue and white. All apologies to the people that checked this site the past days and found a lack of content. I just needed to detach myself for a bit. While my sabbatical included a hiatus from writing posts and eliminating both highlite shows and sports radio, I did watch every painful moment that the Leafs played. Ever the optimist when it comes to the buds, today’s Morning Smoke will look at five positives for the Leafs going forward:
1. Randy Carlyle – The Leafs new bench boss has seemingly had a minimal impact on the epic spiral that has been the Toronto Maple Leafs. However don’t be misled by the 3-4-1 record that has been his initiation to Leafland. The former Anaheim coach inherited a team that was notorious for making the easy play, and habits like those are hard to break. Not to mention the fact that the Leafs under Ron Wilson needed a compass in the defensive zone. Under Carlyle the Leafs have begun to play the trap. The focus of the Leafs has shifted from trying to outscore the opponents to attempting to grind them into defeat. Unfortunately Carlyle does not have the appropriate pieces on his roster to fully utilize this system. Looking ahead to next season though, the Leafs should be considerably more successful as they look to win games 3-2 instead of 6-5. With the Leafs now focused on shutting down the opposition and limiting prime scoring chances against fans should expect to see some results quickly. Offensively with Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Joffrey Lupul leading the way goal scoring will not be a problem for Carlyle’s boys.
2. Youth – As frustrating as this collapse has been, there is no denying the fact that this Leafs organization is still on the rise. In a couple of weeks/months – depending on how jaded you are with the Leafs – fans can realistically sit back and look at the fact that Brian Burke has assembled a young and improving nucleus led by Phil Kessel (yes I believe Phil is a leader). With the Toronto Marlies poised for a long and successful Calder Cup run, us Leaf fanatics can understand that this young Leaf team is still in a stage of development. However, with Kessel, Jake Gardiner, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, James Reimer, MacArthur, Cody Franson, Nikolai Kulemin, Tyler Bozak, Carter Ashton and Matt Frattin all already playing key roles in the NHL and future stars Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Jerry D’Amigo, Jesse Blacker, Korbinian Holzer and Ben Scrivens all banging down the door waiting for their chance, we just need one more season of patience before we begin to be rewarded.
3. Draft – If the season ended today the Leafs would own the 9th overall selection in the draft. Adding a top ten pick to that stable of youth listed above will only be a boost to the future of the blue and white. However keep in mind that Toronto is only four points removed from holding the 3rd pick this June. Considering that the Leafs will face Eastern Conference powerhouses Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers within the next ten days, it’s quite likely that the Leafs scouts will be preparing for a top five pick at the worst this summer. Another interesting thing to consider is the fact that if Burke likes a player he has the pieces and assets to move up in the draft and get the top level player he desires. Analysts and ‘experts’ always say that every team needs that elite level player that can only be acquired with a top three pick in the draft. Well it finally looks as though the Leafs will get that chance this year. While the playoffs would have been fantastic this year as long as they’re going to miss, miss big.
4. Goaltending – Burke has already admitted that he made a mistake by not adding a veteran goaltender to support the failing duo of Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson this season. Heading into next season it is safe to assume that Burke’s primary goal this summer will be to finally address the issue between the pipes. With Carlyle’s strict attention to the defensive side of the game, Leaf fans can finally rest assured that should all else fail on the ice at least there will be a competent keeper as the last line of defense. With Gustavsson slated to be a UFA this summer Burke must acquire (through trade) a proven and reliable goaltender. Perhaps I am being naive in believing that Burke will get a goalie this summer, but I really don’t see how he enters next season without upgrading that position.
5. Only 10 Games Left – With the failure, disappointment and collapse that has been the 2011-2012 NHL regular season coming to an end, we are finally being put out of our misery. At this time next season I fully believe the wounds that this season have created to be fully healed and scabbed over, so the sooner this season ends the sooner the healing can begin. The boys in blue and white will take to the ice ten more excruciating times and then the off-season of hope and optimism can get started. In the midst of this horrible finish to the season everything about this team feels horrible. However come the summer months we can gain some perspective and realize that Burke’s boys are a few minor tweaks away from achieving the success this fanbase desperately deserves.