Ever since the first post-lockout season, when the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the first time in the new millennium (which of course signaled the apocalypse), the Leafs have seemingly made an annual tradition of sucking for the first five months of the regular season before starting to play like a bona-fide National Hockey League team.
The first few times, they almost made it. In 2005-2006, they lost out by two points to the Tampa Bay Lightning for that eighth seed (it's also interesting to note that the Ottawa Senators were the number-one seeds in the Eastern Conference, and, had the Leafs made it, they would have most definitely made it to at least the second round as a result).
The next year, in their final game of the regular season, the New York Islanders managed to hold off the New Jersey Devils in a shootout to earn the last playoff spot. If the Devils had won, the Leafs would have clinched. Funny enough, in that game, it looked as if the Devils would pull it out, tying it with one second left in the game, thereby erasing a 2-0-third-period deficit. But that's just the way the Hockey Gods have come to toy with the Leafs… and Leafs fans. It's great laughs for everyone else, if it's any consolation.
In any case, while there is no way in hell that the Leafs will make the playoffs this year, if you look at their record over the past 10 games or so, it looks like a rehash of each of the past few seasons. Right now, they are 8-2, with six overtime or shootout victories, in that stretch. The teams they have managed to knock off? The New Jersey Devils among a whole slew of playoff contenders who arguably should be even harder to play this time of year, due to the desperate situations they find themselves in.
I was one of the few who believed that the Leafs had what it took to at least seriously compete for a playoff spot this year (don't tell my Habs-fan brethren). If you look at the team, they have a solid defensive corps, and, you know what they say, defense wins championships. Currently, they even have the slight offensive flair to back it up care of Phil Kessel and company. They also have the goaltending of Jonas Gustavsson, who, with a 4-0 record, a 1.46 goals against average, and a .948 save percentage in the recent past, is finally putting up numbers like the monster Toronto thought it was getting when he got signed last summer.
Now, I think it's too early to tell whether or not the Leafs have a solid-enough foundation to make the playoffs next year. In fact, based on the way they have played for most of this season, I'd say they're still a few years away. I'd also say that, almost by default because of that fact, they will go through the same suck-to-rock cycle again and again. It's a foregone conclusion.
Truth be told, aside from Kessel, it is hard to say if any of the other top-six Maple Leafs forwards are actually capable of playing their role into the long term or they're just putting up quasi-decent offensive numbers because of the amount of ice time they're getting that they wouldn't be getting elsewhere. Case in point would be Mikhail Grabovski, who, before being traded to the Leafs, was so far down the Montreal Canadiens's depth chart that all he could manage as a career high was 9 points in 24 games in 2007-2008. This season, he has 33 points in 52 games. Over an 82-game season, 33 points is translated into 52 points, which isn't that bad… for a second liner. But on the team's depth chart right now, he is their number-one center, unless you count Tyler Bozak, who tends to play with Kessel. Bozak's 22 points in 30 games translates into 60 points per full year. It's all a matter of perception, really, because, admittedly, Bozak is in his first year. But, he's also 24 years old. Can he improve enough in the years ahead to make himself into a legitimate top liner? Or do the Maple Leafs's hopes rest on Grabovski? How's that for putting it into perspective?
On defense, they've got few worries, with the calming presence of veteran Tomas Kaberle, shot-blocking-superstar Mike Komisarek, the underrated Francois Beauchemin, potential-franchise-player Dion Phaneuf, the highly touted Luke Schenn, and, of course, Jeff Finger's $3,500,000 contract set to expire just three years from now (oh, wait, three years is a long time… damn!).
And Gustavsson? Unfortunately, despite his stellar play of late, the jury is still out on whether or not he's got the wherewithal to last an entire campaign as a number one. Still, he has shown progress, and that's something.
If you're taking all these factors into account, general manager Brian Burke has done a lot for this franchise in a short period of time, but he still has a lot more to do (A LOT!). I'm not even going to get into the Kessel deal with the Boston Bruins, because if the Leafs are able to run the table, or close to it, over their remaining seven games, it's not even going to be an issue anymore… and, besides, Kessel hasn't exactly been a bust. Anyone who wants to crucify Burke for that deal ought to think long and hard about why, because there aren't many justifiable reasons.
Burke does have the team on the right track, but, until the team gets there, just like the Hockey Gods with them, they'll continue toying with Leafs fans.