Okay, Leaf fans. I’m a half full kind of guy and at the risk of looking very silly come March, I am going to proffer a prediction.
The Maple Leafs can make the post-season next season.
I will take it one step further. Based on last season, they should make the playoffs.
You think me perhaps a bit naive, no?
Well what if I told you they didn’t have to change a thing from last year.
It’s true. While the focus in training camp will be on young centremen Nazem Kadri
and Tyler Bozak
, all eyes should really be on the Leafs’ net and blueline.
That’s where this thing will be decided.
Some numbers. While the Leafs finished the season with a grotesque 3.21 Goals Against Average, runner up for the worst total in the league, the club surrendered a far more modest 2.68 goals against average after the Jan. 30 deals for defenceman Dion Phaneuf
and J.S. goalie Giguere.
How good is a 2.68 goals against average? Well, the Leafs garnered 13 wins in the 23 games they played after the trade. They won only 17 in the other 59.
Last year, the Nashville Predators used 2.70 goals against average to finish seventh and accrue 100 points in the tough Western Conference. The Preds scored 11 more goals than last year’s Leafs but thrived because they surrendered 32 fewer markers this time.
In other words, the Leafs need not worry about reinventing the wheel. To compete for the postseason, the team must replicate what it did last year when Giguere arrived and Vesa Toskala was shuffled towards the door. Gustavsson was obviously more comfortable than he was with Toskala, who eschewed instruction from goalie coach Francois Allaire. Removed from a rookie season that included the usual turmoil and two surgeries, Gustavsson figures to improve.
Once he was re-united with his old goalie coach, Giguere rolled out two shutouts in his first two games in blue. A competitor who can successfully walk the fine line between tutor and rival, Giguere is one of the game’s good guys and a perfect complement for the circumspect Swede.
Phaneuf, meanwhile, boosts the talent level of a blue line corps that will return Tomas Kaberle, highly motivated no doubt by the team’s efforts to trade him, Mike Komisarek
, Luke Schenn
, Carl Gunnarsson
and last year’s ice time minutes leader Francois Beauchemin. The Leafs are deep enough on the blueline and in goal to reasonably assume a move to the middle of the pack in goals against.
Don’t worry too much about goals. The addition of Kris Versteeg and to a lesser extends Colby Armstrong
as well as the return of Phil Kessel
for a full season should goose the club’s ability to score.
Don’t get me wrong, breaking a run of five straight seasons out of the playoffs won’t be as easy as falling out of bed. The club is still bereft of a true number one centre as well as a productive face-off artist. Those lacks will continue to impede the Leafs’ ability to kill and capitalize on penalties.
But as August gives way to September and training camp, there is reason for genuine optimism. All the Maple Leaf really need do is replicate what they managed in the final stretch of the regular season and Spring should take on a fervor unseen in these parts.