Brian Burke was bullish about the Maple Leafs’ playoff hopes at a press conference earlier today, and one quote in particular stood out to me:
“We think there’s a couple of catchable teams. I’m not going to name them. No reason to start with bulletin board material before the season even begins, but we think there are catchable teams.
Which teams might he be talking about?
Let’s start with a look at the Eastern conference standings and goal differential from last season.
This gives us a better idea of the magnitude of the Leafs’ problems. The National Post article linked above talks about an eight-point gap between the Leafs and the playoffs, which is accurate but not comprehensive. A slightly different take is that the Leafs have to make up 40 goals from last season – not impossible, certainly, given the gap between the goaltending they got for most of last season and the goaltending they got from James Reimer.
Obviously, we can eliminate some teams from consideration. For starters, the clubs not in the playoffs last season don’t matter for this exercise; the Leafs want to be in the playoffs. We can also eliminate the really high-end teams in all likelihood: Boston, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Philadelphia changed significantly over the off-season, so we’ll leave them on the list for now. That gives us five clubs: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Montreal, Buffalo and New York.
The New York Rangers would not be my target of choice. Their goal differential last season suggests that they deserved a better standings finish, most of their best players remain, and they’ve added Brad Richards (as well as Tim Erixon).
The Buffalo Sabres would not be my choice either. In the balance, I think they’ve improved in the off-season. Last year’s performance wasn’t based on standout work from individuals that is unlikely to be repeated, so there’s little reason to believe they’ll regress.
Philadelphia might be catchable; they’re a wildcard at this juncture and I do think they are worse, but they also have a huge head-start on Toronto. I’d eliminate them as well.
That leaves Toronto with two likely targets if they wish to reclaim a playoff berth: Tampa Bay and Montreal. I like Tampa Bay, from the management on down, but they lost some useful players and their goaltending is at least somewhat questionable given Dwayne Roloson’s age. Their excellent playoff run obscures the fact that for much of last season they were an okay but not exceptional team. Montreal also seemed to tread water over the summer, so we may presume they are an attainable target.
I’m not writing off these teams – the Leafs have lots of work to do to overtake them. But if I were betting on a Leafs’ playoff appearance, I’d guess it comes at the expense of either the Lightning or the Canadiens, and those are the clubs I’d be looking at.