Well, that’s the end of that. Leafs’ fans now get to watch sixteen other teams pound themselves to a pulp for the sixth year in a row. Even though, prior to the season’s start, I picked the Leafs to finish eleventh in the East, I’m surprised they ultimately missed the playoffs. They played the last two months of the season with as much heart, gusto and confidence as any team in the league. And their first half wasn’t that bad. Not as bad as, say, the Oilers’ was. But, in a league rife with parody, a team has to play great hockey from beginning to end. The Leafs just didn’t do that.
So now we’re staring at six months of pontificating. Six months of wondering whether or not James Reimer can turn in a .921 save percentage performance over an entire season. Six months of wondering whether Phil Kessel can actually become a consistent goal scorer in this league. Six months of wondering whether Mikhail Grabovski can acquire the status of “elite player.” And six months of wondering whether or not Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn can elevate their games even more.
For me, the best thing about watching the Leafs this season was the infectious energy of their youth. Players like Darryl Boyce (unluckiest face in the NHL), Tim Brent, Luke Schenn, Keith Aulie and Joey Crabb may never light it up on the scoring side, but their energy provides some of the best entertainment in hockey. On the other hand, kids like Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne may very well light it up – very soon.
And, aside from his brilliant rookie play, James Reimer’s “Aw shucks” post-game interviews are, frankly, hilarious. It’ll be interesting to see how he treats this off-season – whether or not he follows Ron Wilson’s “no statues” edict. And, entering the 2001-12 NHL season will be a completely different mindset for Reimer. Headlining a training camp as an NHL team’s de facto number one netminder is not a light load. Especially if that team is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wouldn’t it be exciting if Reimer went on to a Hall of Fame career and led the Leafs to glory? Stranger things have happened, right Ken Dryden?
I suppose that maybe the biggest question facing the Leafs this off-season is, “Can the power play be improved?” I don’t think it has to be the league’s best. But it can’t be the laughing stock either – which it is right now. Frankly, I think a successful power play can be vastly overrated…but the confidence it provides its participants cannot.
And, let’s face it, that’s why the Leafs succeeded in the latter part of this season. They oozed confidence. James Reimer gave them that. Dion Phaneuf’s rejuvenated play gave them that. And, now, the biggest question of all: How do they keep that confidence right where it is until next October?