Sunday, March 6, 2011

Can the Leafs really make the Playoffs?

Since Viktor Kozlov of the Islanders put that puck past Clemmensen (jerk move by the Devils not to play Brodeur) in the shootout on the final  day of the 2006 NHL season, Leafs fans have not come close to seeing the Playoffs. It has been an arduous and frustrating process, which included, overpaying (cough cough Toskala) for players that define mediocrity and horrible signings that consistently left the Leafs with nothing but zero cap space and a dearth of picks.

November 29, 2008, was supposed to be the day of salvation for this franchise. Brian Burke, the constructing manager of the Stanley Cup team in Anaheim, and the consistently good Canucks, signed on to bring this franchise back to the promised land. For the first 25 months of his reign, he tore apart the team he inherited and tried to place players in the lineup that fit his style of play. Although he brought in star-studded talent in Phaneuf and Kessel, this team has been lower in the standings than in any of the previous seasons in the last twenty years. That is until now.

Since the beginning of the New Year, the Leafs have been 16-9-5 and have crawled back from as far as 14 points out of the playoff race, right back into the thick of things. Even with trading some of their bigger named players, in Kaberle (wasn't it sad seeing him in number 12?) the ultimate third line scorer Kris Versteeg, and the "I need to play with a star defence partner to mean anything" Francois Beauchemin, this team has not given up and is actually playing their most inspired hockey of the season.

So the question that remains is, can this team actually taste the playoffs for the first time, since Jeremy Roenick's wicked wrist shot in the semi-finals all those years ago? The way that the team has played lately, (aside from the latest gaffe against the Hawks) indicates that they still have a fighting chance. The final two spots in the Eastern Conference are wide open, as the Rangers are free-falling, and the Canes are not playing the most inspired hockey themselves. The Sabres have been playing a little better of late, coming back and knocking off the Flyers, (something that the Leafs did as well this week in remarkable fashion) and look strong to make the playoffs.

I don't think that the Rangers thought that trading Michal Roszival was going to have such a negative effect on their team performance. But combining that with the poor play of Del Zotto this season, has turned one of their strengths into a weak area for this team's overall play. Since the trade they are 9-14-1 and do not seem to be playing any better recently. (Fine they beat the Sens, but who doesn't).

If the Leafs can continue their play from the last two months, there is no reason to believe that they cannot challenge for the final two spots. With two games the rest of the way against Buffalo, both at home,  and one against Carolina, those games provides a significant opportunity to solidify a position amongst the NHL playoff teams and give this storied franchise a chance to claim what they have been chasing for 44 years.

For more on the NHL schedule breakdown the rest of the way check out the NHL site,

At the same time, Brian Burke has been very smart not to make any personnel decisions that could hurt this team in the future. He understands that the ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and this team is nowhere near achieving that goal right now, and patching it up by trading picks and prospects is something that John Ferguson may have attempted to do. Again, trading for a 22 year old player that scored 35 goals, does not mean that he veered off of his stated agenda, rather it means he feels more confident knowing what he is getting than taking a risk in the draft. Maybe Seguin turns out to be the Milicic of hockey, maybe he doesn't, either way Burke understands the value of a player like Phil, and realizes that they do not grow on trees either.

With the addition of Colborne, Gardiner and a couple of other home grown prospects on the way up, the future has not looked brighter for this team in many seasons, and while it would be nice to make the playoffs, I am pretty sure most intelligent Leafs fans prefer to see this Brian Burke version of the "rebuilding process" that hopefully can build this city a dynasty, to the oft-tried path other GM's have taken and failed miserably in this city.

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