Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY SPORTS
Well, winning a second game on the road was a start, yes, and whether we want to consider it a “statement” win or not over a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in coming up to 11 years or not, points are points — on the second-last evening of November or the first night of April.
Toronto was an ugly 1-5-4 away from the Air Canada Centre (where the bounces, the execution, and the response to their play have been quite enthusiastic and friendly). After a couple seasons where it wasn’t terribly fun to go to see the Maple Leafs play live (combine the hit to your bank account for tickets and concessions AND the listless apathy of fans and players alike, at times), but things are maybe more rapidly changing than anyone could have foreseen, even with the knowledge Auston Matthews would begin his NHL career here.
So last night’s 4-2 win over Edmonton, their first road triumph since November 3rd in Buffalo (against a Sabres team without Jack Eichel and Zach Bogosian), can certainly lead to a successful Western Canadian road swing where the results have been quite barren and ugly in many recent previous years — the Canucks, for example, are 7-1 in their past 8 home games against the Leafs and have outscored Toronto 33-15 in those contests.
But what I said in the early fall about the Maple Leafs is something I still believe. This will be a much more threatening team to steal points from more talented and experienced teams in February and March than it will be able to do in November and December, and I think that is still to bear itself out that way.
Toronto ends the month of November having played four teams I think we can agree have elite talent and experience (Kings, Penguins, Canadiens, Capitals). Two games at home, two on the road, and they grabbed two of a possible eight points, scoring only six goals in four games. That’s about how we may have expected things to go all season long against the better teams.
But how they’re playing as opposed to the results they are getting is convincing me that despite my best attempts at logic, this very young and raw team may be playing games from, say, March 15th onward, that really end up mattering in terms of trying to claim a playoff spot.
Now, really, how hard is that in the Eastern Conference, a skeptic will ask, and that’s reasonable and fair. There have been many seasons this century where a wart-covered Leafs squad, full of aging veterans, bad contracts, and never-ready-for-primetime players made life interesting in March and April. There were the obvious close shaves with the #8 seed they fell short of in 2006 and 2007. They did that in 2011 in late February and the month of March with two separate streaks of going 6-0-3, and later, 6-1-0, only to land eight points shy of the #8 Rangers.
The tug of war will be obvious when we hit the Trade Deadline and the last 12-15 games of the regular season. Part of the fan base will revert to the hardline emotionless sensibility of hoping for another potential Top 5 pick to add to the youthful riches the past three losing seasons have stacked up, and another part will hope for a late surge (without trading youth for experience, mind you) at said deadline to top up the already-existing assets. To me, I’ve never gotten “preachy” and said one is a good fan, and the other is not. I understand there’s a system that exists that allows rebuilding your core and if you don’t take proper advantage of it, your adversaries (like the Islanders, like the Sabres, like the Lightning way back when) will absolutely do it for you. That and the concept that fans in Toronto would never accept a rebuild here were utterly lost on an executive like Brian Burke over his tenure here, which is why there was such a considerable mess to clean up upon his departure. Fans don’t have to like bad hockey and the proverbial “pain” Mike Babcock promised was coming, nor should they. But if they’re the least bit cognizant with recent league history, they’ll accept the bad hockey if it comes with a consistently followed blueprint to good hockey, and there are maybe more signs of that than we thought we’d see in the first two months of the season, even if the points aren’t many more than even the bravest and most optimistic soul predicted.
All that said, look around the Eastern Conference, there are some consensus playoff teams struggling greatly to find their way (Islanders), there are some teams in good standing to be playoff contenders that seem illusory (Senators), and there are a few teams that aren’t quite sure what they are and there’s turmoil or internal push/pull of what to be and it’s limiting their potential (Panthers, Red Wings, Bruins).
Of those five teams I referenced, it’s fairly obvious that they, and the Devils, and the impressive Blue Jackets, plus the Maple Leafs are battling for a precious few spots.
We probably all would agree that there are four obvious playoff teams who won’t have any turbulence (barring multiple catastrophes on the injury front): Montreal, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, and Washington.
That leaves four playoff spots for twelve teams. I am quite sure Tampa will survive the Stamkos injury, but not necessarily because they did so when he shattered his leg very early in the 2013-14 season (they somehow endured their way to a 101 point season in the Atlantic, before becoming the first round’s only sweep — at the hands of Montreal). It may end up being more touch and go than that particular season, given they have struggled with consistency and their own health apart from Stamkos — lots of missed games for Jonathan Drouin, Anton Stralman, and Ryan Callahan so far.
So, I still have Tampa in. I believed Buffalo last season would be more improved than they were, and given what’s transpired this season on the injury front and the ever-present Evander Kane issues, I can’t buy that stock (underpriced as it is) again. Even with Jack Eichel’s return, missing Bogosian, Kulikov, Ennis, and the disastrous signing that Robin Lehner has been is all too much for me. It won’t happen this season for the Sabres, and I think their fans know this.
I don’t like Carolina or New Jersey to be playoff teams. The latter could be because I don’t want to watch “Devils playoff hockey” because I don’t think it will be any more interesting than “Devils regular season hockey”, which is a shame. I’d love to see Cory Schneider be in the playoffs, he’s racking up prime years of performance (like Luongo’s first Florida run of things) with no postseason activity whatsoever.
Florida, Detroit, and Philadelphia all have their deficiencies. Florida’s a possession mess and no matter what you think of advanced statistics, the data strongly suggests some real backwards steps with the Panthers this season. Maybe the Gallant firing (unpopular as it was) pushes the team to play a certain way that they weren’t, but it also could be costly and disillusioning long enough to hurt their postseason chances.
Philadelphia’s had a rough go of goaltending for a long time, and this season isn’t any different either. The Couturier injury hasn’t been as costly as anyone thought (early returns, however) and having a breakout offensive season from Wayne Simmonds, and kids ready to absorb huge minutes like Konecny and Provorov have been helpful beyond words.
I’ve seen enough of Detroit to know they are absolutely in need of fresh philosophies, but in fairness, are finally paying the only price one can pay for never drafting in the Top 15, and also trading R1-R3 picks away to continue the facade of being a Cup contender. Though they have had fantastic goaltending (still a league Top 10 in even-strength save percentage), is it sustainable if they can stay healthy? I’ve never seen them this season as a playoff team, and they certainly aren’t built well for success should they get there, but hope is alive there, as it is in Columbus, Boston, New Jersey, Philly, and, yes, maybe even Toronto.
So, if it seems to be the same Eastern Conference hodgepodge it often is, you’re not wrong. The difference being is that Maple Leafs’ fans may get games of importance from Game 70 onward that they didn’t necessarily expect, and unlike several teams I’ve listed above, there is a far brighter future over the immediate horizon beyond this season. Buffalo currently, and the Islanders over the last decade are providing proof that there’s no obvious curve of improvement just because your organization takes the foot off the gas and decides to plan more for the future than for the present, but Toronto fans just maybe, may get the best of both worlds if they can turn some of these one-goal games (3 wins, 7 losses, and they led in 5 of the 7 defeats) in a more favourable direction.