There is no way to hide it or dress it up – the Leafs’ record going into the All-Star break was absolutely appalling. Tied for the fewest points (43) and accumulating the least wins in the league (17), it’s almost impossible to see things getting worse.
There are many reasons the season has unfolded the way it has. Slow starts have plagued the team all season, reaching a new level of embarrassment two weeks ago against the Canadiens when the Maple Leafs were out-shot 11-0 to start the game. James Reimer has been hurt for a substantial portion of the season, which conveniently coincided with a period of time when Jonathan Bernier forgot how to play hockey. Injuries to key players, lack of scoring, lack of depth, and bluntly, lack of talent have all contributed to the worst league position at the All-Star break in twenty years.
And yet, despite the disappointment, the frustration, and the anger, I still find myself gravitating towards some of the positive things I’ve seen during these first 48 games. Maybe its a coping mechanism I’ve developed over years of being a Leafs fan, but hey, we all find our ways to deal with tragedy.
So, to all fellow Leaf fans who may feel hopelessness and despair creeping up on them again, just remember these five things:
1. We Have Morgan Rielly
Those who know me would probably have bet their life savings that this young stud would be on the top of my list. He is arguably the best player right now to come out of the 2012 draft, and has been given a new role this season with responsibility well beyond his years. At just 21 years of age, Rielly has taken over the top defensive pairing with Matt Hunwick, leading all Maple Leaf skaters in total ice time going into the All-Star break.
Mike Babcock has consistently shown that regardless of age, experience, or pedigree, the most capable players will play, and Rielly is no exception. He’s gone up against top lines across the NHL, and despite some growing pains, has established himself as capable first pair defender. He currently leads Leafs defencemen with 5 goals, is tied with captain Dion Phaneuf for most points by a defenceman with 22, and for those of you who appreciate the world of advanced analytics, Rielly leads all Leaf blueliners in point shares.
What is even more encouraging is that he is still developing. Many argue that he will eventually grow into one of the NHL’s elite defencemen, as he has already demonstrated a unique ability to take over a game.
2. Leo Komarov Is Having A Career Year
I was ecstatic when I found out that Uncle Leo was coming back last season. He is a gritty, hard-working forward who throws his weight around and never takes a shift off. I thought for sure he’d settle into a role on the checking line, and add some depth to the penalty kill. And for the most part, he did.
This year I expected more of the same, but I have never been so happy to be so wrong. Leo absolutely exploded out of the gate, and has led the team in scoring for most of the season. This increased production has led to more ice time, and and the opportunity to play against higher caliber opponents.
The best part is, he hasn’t had to abandon his style of play to achieve this success. Going to the net hard, fighting for space in the hash marks, and being strong on the puck during the cycle are all things he’s done well in the past. In general, his overall hockey sense and puck movement appears to have improved this season, and I like to think he’s responded well to the new system.
Although he’s cooled off a little since the beginning of the season, Komarov still leads the team in goals (16) and points (31). The improvement has been incredible, considering it took Leo 62 games last season to tally just 8 goals and 26 points.
As a side note, Komarov leads the Leafs in hits by a large margin. What’s not to love?
3. The Toronto Marlies Are Dominating The AHL
While the Leafs occupy the basement of the NHL, the Toronto Marlies enjoy first place in the AHL, with an incredible 20 point lead in their division. While I understand that it is dangerous to get into the mindset that success at the AHL level will automatically translate into the NHL, the way in which the Marlies have dominated this season is quite compelling. Only 8 losses so far, and a goal differential of +72. I would even argue that if William Nylander hadn’t been injured during the World Junior Tournament, and missed substantial playing time, the Marlies would boast 3 of the top 5 scorers in the league.
I had the opportunity to see the Marlies play on Boxing Day this year. Despite missing key players such as Nylander and Kapanen (overseas at the World Juniors), they absolutely handled the St. John’s Ice Caps in every aspect of the game. The team has depth, power, speed, and skill, and the future certainly appears bright with these lads in the picture.
4. The Leafs Have The Ability To Rise To The Occasion
Let me be perfectly clear – I am in no way trying to absolve or dismiss some of the abysmal performances witnessed so far this season. There is absolutely nothing positive to be gleaned from the 7-0 shellacking at the hands of the Sharks early in January. And for the sake of being honest, their uninspired performance in a 1-0 shoot-out loss to the Hurricanes two weeks ago had me almost as frustrated.
However, even though the Leafs have struggled (to put it politely) to find ways to win, one thing that has struck me is who the wins have come against. Before the All-Star break, the Leafs had played 9 games against the top five teams in the NHL (The Capitals, Blackhawks, Stars, Blues, and Kings respectively). Over those games, they managed a record of 5-3-1. Obviously that record is far from exceptional, and the sample size is incredibly small, but what this says to me is that you can never completely count the Leafs out. In fact, I consider one of their strongest performances to be a 5-0 victory over the Kings mid December – a game in which I admittedly prepared for the worst.
Yes, there is going to be hardship. This team is not built to reach or compete in the playoffs, and going into the break, the Leafs still had not registered a win against a divisional opponent.
But the Leafs have had their moments, pulling out a few gems here and there to remind us better times are on the way. Perhaps it’s the perpetual optimist in me, but I still wake up on game day believing the Leafs have a chance to win.
5. This Is All Part Of The Plan
I know you’ve heard this before, and not just this year. You could argue that the Leafs have been in a constant state of rebuild for almost a decade.
What’s different this year is that no one in the front office or coaching staff is avoiding or deflecting questions regarding where the team is. One of the very first things Mike Babcock said after arriving in Toronto is that pain was coming – and he’s been true to his word. It’s going to be a slow, agonizing process of drafting players, developing talent, making beneficial trades, and establishing a system of play the team can buy into wholeheartedly.
My biggest criticism of the previous rebuild efforts was the lack of honesty and willingness to admit how far the team still had to go. As fans we were continuously told that the team was “just a few pieces away”, and who can forget Ron Wilson almost guaranteeing the Leafs would make the post-season and compete for the Stanley Cup.
Thankfully, things have changed.
There is an entire laundry list of reasons to be optimistic about the new form the rebuild has taken on, but for me what stands out most is the new leadership. Brendan Shanahan brought Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello into the mix, and it’s hard to imagine a more potent trinity in all of hockey. None of these men are content to just collect their paychecks and field a mediocre hockey club. They came here because they recognize that this is an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a rebuild, and they’re not going to stop until this team is a perennial contender with sustainable success.
So there you have it. Yes, a part of me will always be disappointed knowing the Leafs are so far out of the mix this year, but this is all part of the process. Rather than let it get me down, I plan to watch the remaining 30 something games with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. After all, for all the frustration we endure as Leaf fans during the season, it’s impossible to deny that when July and August come around, we sure do miss our boys in blue.