Tonight the Leafs face Carolina in The Most Important Game of the Year XXI and you have to ask yourself how they are doing it.
Down 14 points at the All-Star break, the six-point deficit facing the Leafs still looks pretty good. Still, with three-point games floating around like a virus, their chances seem increasingly remote.
Give them this: the club has shown remarkable resolve in cutting the deficit, especially when you consider the numbers.
The Leafs aren’t close to being a playoff team anywhere but in the standings.
They are 24th in goals for and against.
They have the 19th best home record and the 25th best road record.
They are 24th in wins, 16th in penalties, 24th on the power play, 26th in penalty killing. They sit 24th overall in the standings.
This is a team that has played above its statistical level at 30-30-10 or maybe to it when you throw out overtime and shootout decisions and find a team with 24 wins in 54 games.
Clearly, someone has forgotten to tell the Leafs all these things. Just as clearly, they are uncommonly worthy. If the Maple Leafs split their remaining games they will finish with 82 points, one shy of their best total in four years. It is not heady stuff, but it’s an indicator pointing north.
You need not be a hockey savant to appraise the Maple Leafs which makes me just the right man for the job.
In James Reimer
, they have a promising goalie, just 22, who seems to have run out of gas but who has the skills and the mind-set to be a number one guy. Consider his slender body of work. Reimer surrendered four or more goals seven times in 26 games. That’s just over 26 per cent. By comparison, Ryan Miller, far busier than Reimer, was hit for four or more in 31 per cent of his games.Dion Phaneuf
has been a completely different player since he was paired with Keith Aulie. The second pairing of Luke Schenn
and Carl Gunnarsson
is equally formidable. The big issue on the third pairing is finding someone to play with Mike Komisarek
. Someday that should be Jake Gardiner
, now of the Marlies.
Up front, the Leafs have an excellent second line in Mikhail Grabovski
, Clarke MacArthur
and the team’s best two-way player Nikolai Kulemin
. Phil Kessel
is an elite gunner without a comparable pivot. Colby Armstrong
has suffered a tough-luck year with injuries but his presence would enhance most any third line.
GM Brian Burke has always considered forward the easiest position to manouevre. That’s good because he has holes to fill. Six Maple Leafs have expiring contracts: Tim Brent, Tyler Bozak
and Fredrik Sjostrom have spent all season with the Leafs. Joey Crabb
, Darryl Boyce and Christian Hanson are working on the final days of their contracts.
Burke has more than $24 million to spend with 12 players already under contract and while Brad Richards looms as the only front-line free agent forward, the ample cap room is a potent attraction for GMs fighting cap problems.
With Kadri playing on the big team, the Leafs retain some blue chip prospects in Gardiner, towering centre Joe Colborne
and presumably University of North Dakota gunner Matt Frattin
, a member of the top-rated University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux. Frattin leads the NCAA with 33 goals.
So here is what you have: a game but statistically unimpressive team competing not just against worthy opponents but its own serious shortcomings.
You also have a core of resolve and a host of available remedies.
I would advise you to stay tuned.