You've read about the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, you've read about the Leafs' current predicament, and you've read about Howard Berger getting "pwned" by Ron Wilson. Let’s take a gander into the Leafs' crystal ball and see what awaits the club next season, shall we?
Let's make this clear; the Leafs will not make the playoffs this season. You can subtract, divide, multiply, or do whatever complicated math equation you want, they will not make the post-season. We could argue about whether they should tank or not, but let's discuss something a little more positive - and will also allow us to focus our hate on Habs and Sens fans (those bastards)… instead of each other.
In what appears to be a yearly routine, the Leafs are on a late-season surge, proving to be a heap of trouble for contending teams. While Tank Nation is cringing at the thought of moving down in draft positioning, these games are serving as great experience for the Leafs' many youngsters. Here's an interesting stat: Toronto leads the league with 323 games played by rookies. Mikhail Grabovski, Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin, John Mitchell and Jonas Frogren are all players who are playing their first complete seasons in the NHL.
It wasn't long ago when the Leafs were criticized for building their team around veterans- halting any development for their young players. Fast forward a few years later and the Leafs lead the league (the league!) in games played by rookies. As Bob Dylan once said, "The times they are a-changing."
But the ultimate question is whether or not this change in philosophy will result in a 14th Stanley Cup. Let's be honest, the Leafs' prospect cupboard is not superb by any means, but it has instilled a solid foundation that will allow them to build a strong team for the future. And that, ladies and gentleman, is a start. I am not suggesting that reaching 8th place in the Conference will suffice for the Leafs' last 40 years of mediocrity (although it may seem that way when it happens), but if they manage to reach that level next season, with the young team they currently have, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.
So, pertaining to the topic, can the Leafs make the playoffs next year? It is a question that is asked every year, and while Leafs fans are privy to their team’s inconsistent efforts, next year could very well be THE year. Not THE year in terms of a Stanley Cup, but for the playoffs. That may seem like a nonsensical goal, but it is a crucial first step for the Leafs and their quest to reclaim the Cup. For the first time in years, reaching 8th place will actually prove beneficial for the club, rather than some useless goal that will only prolong the Leafs' mediocrity.
But the Leafs aren't out of the woods yet. Building a foundation of promising young players is a step in the right direction, but the Leafs must not only continue to strengthen their prospect pool, but also begin to build around their future core.
Going into the off-season, Brian Burke has plenty of options to bolster his club for next season. Not only will the Entry Draft allow him to import more young players into the Leafs' prospect pool, but it will grant him a chance to trade defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. It is unlikely that he will trade both defensemen, but unloading one of them is certainly a possibility. Kaberle's value could potentially get the Leafs a 1st round draft choice, and a prospect. Kubina's value may be a little lower, but his 14 goals will also make him a hot commodity on June 26. I'm also a believer in replacing Tomas Kaberle with Anton Stralman. The Leafs, as proven, can survive without #15 on the blue-line. While Anton Stralman hasn't been spectacular, he's providing some decent offensive skills on the back-end. His development as a defenseman in the NHL is evident, and allowing him to flourish as one of the Leafs' go-to guys - atleast on the powerplay - could generate some encouraging results next season.
Another date that will be circled on Burke's calendar is July 1. He has expressed interest in signing collegiate hockey players, so you can expect the Leafs to be in the Matt Gilroy sweepstakes. Then there are the NHL free agents. While there are a number of players available this summer, I can't help but do a one-handed fist pump at the thought of Mike Cammarelli in a Leafs uniform. He may lack size, but he’s the kind of scoring forward the Leafs could build around.
The Leafs will basically have the same team next season, as Grabovski is the only core player who is a Restricted Free Agent this summer - he will likely be resigned. So, with the Leafs currently sitting 7 points out of 8th place in the Eastern Conference, is attaining the post-season really an unrealistic goal for next season?
Not only have the Leafs' players gained valuable experience this season, but what if Burke does unload Kaberle and/or Kubina this summer? And what about the free-agency period? The Leafs, with their current roster intact, could make the playoffs next season. Add in some outside help from a free agent or two (*coughCammelleri*cough), as well as the assets from trading one of our top defenseman, and the Leafs could end up competing post-April.
What will ultimately make the difference next season, in my opinion, is the coaching of Ron Wilson. I mean no disrespect to Pat Quinn and Paul Maurice, but Wilson's "play hard or go home" attitude will go a long way with this young club. No matter what the predicament, Wilson does not accept anything less than trying your absolute best. The Leafs have been inconsistent this season, but as mentioned, they have played a vast amount of rookies. As the experience mounts, the consistency will come…and when that happens, the Leafs will officially be a team to be reckoned with.
I believe 2009/10 will be a pivotal season for the Leafs. Their young players will begin to establish their roles in the NHL, and the puzzle that is the Toronto Maple Leafs will start to slowly come together.
And since this blog is lengthy already, I'd like to note that Luke Schenn will be our future captain. He will raise Lord Stanley one day... mark my words.