Maple Leafs Still Have Lots to Prove

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 24) – Let’s see… where were did we leave off?

Oh yes, it was May 13th and the Maple Leafs were on their merry way to a second-round playoff clash with New York Rangers – dismantling the Bruins in the third period of Game 7 at TD Garden in Boston.

Melodramatically, you all know what happened next.

So, now, here we are – more than three months later – with training camp and a full 82-game National Hockey League season motoring toward us. Has the sting subsided, Toronto fan? Was the most prodigious third-period collapse (or best-ever comeback, as I choose to see it) in Stanley Cup history merely a quirk? Or, a less-than-subtle indication the Leafs were in over their head; fate refusing to allow what would have been a colossal playoff upset? Given that Boston went undefeated in regulation over its next 13 matches (10-0-3); annihilated Pittsburgh in a four-game Eastern championship, and then took Chicago to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final, I’ll put my money on Door No. 2.

Not that it matters anymore.

CH… CH… CH… CHANGES: PROVIDING LEAFS HANG ONTO PHIL KESSEL, THE NEXT TIME HE AND TYLER SEGUIN SHAKE HANDS IN THE PLAYOFFS WILL BE AFTER A TORONTO-DALLAS STANLEY CUP FINAL. MIKHAIL GRABOVSKI – BEHIND KESSEL IN PHOTO – IS NOW WITH WASHINGTON CAPITALS, AFTER A COMPLIANCE BUY-OUT FROM THE LEAFS.

It came as no surprise when Leafs general manager David Nonis – secured with a five-year contract extension – did a make-over this summer. He, too, would likely have chosen the latter scenario I presented. Leafs were full value for everything that happened during the lockout-shortened 2013 schedule – including their demise. A lesser GM may have been contented with palpable improvement under Randy Carlyle and a first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. Nonis was not – nor should he have been – and that bodes well for the Blue and White.

As a result of finally ending the seven-year playoff famine – more than double the previous franchise record – this is the most difficult time in recent memory for Leaf fans to maintain perspective. Of course, the mere words “Leaf fan” and “perspective” have been mutually exclusive for as long as anyone can remember; perhaps the foremost oxymoron in professional sport (though a Chicago Cubs follower may argue). Accordingly, anticipation will be over the rainbow well before the puck is dropped on opening night – Oct. 1 – at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

But, this season – and circumstance – is altogether different.

First, Leafs are part of a new divisional alignment, with Detroit, Tampa Bay and Florida added to long-time brethren Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo and Boston. The top three teams in each of the four NHL divisions are guaranteed playoff spots. For whatever it’s worth, Leafs would have qualified last season under such a guideline – but barely – top five in the division being Montreal (63 points); Boston (62); Toronto (57); Ottawa (56) and Detroit (56). In their first go-around without the best European hockey player of all time – Nick Lidstrom – Red Wings scuffled to make the playoffs, then nearly advanced to the West final, coughing up a 3-1 series lead to eventual Cup-champion Chicago. This, in many ways, is still the Detroit juggernaut that has been to the Conference final eight times since 1995; winning four Cups. Now, the Maple Leafs will have to contend, from wire to wire, with their pre-expansion cousin.

Of equal import is length of schedule.

Though Leafs were often relentless, last season was a 48-game sprint, not an 82-game marathon. Sorely lacking size up the middle, will the club’s top two centers, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri – both of whom thrived in the condensed schedule – be able to withstand more than six months of pounding and increased travel (NHL clubs now face all 29 opponents, home and away)? Bozak, retained in the summer and expected to flank Phil Kessel once again, is Leafs’ No. 1 pivot, despite a career-best 47 points in a full season. That won’t be close to good enough anymore. Restricted free agent Kadri is still un-signed.

Neither will Toronto have the luxury of “sneaking up” on opponents in 2013-14. Carlyle exacted 80 to 90 percent from his middle-of-the-pack club as Leafs became – for the first time since the Pat Quinn era – nasty to confront. Fighting was perpetual, with Colton Orr and first-year Leaf Frazer McLaren handling most of the upheaval. It was also largely overrated, as neither Orr nor McLaren could perform an alternate task, rendering them unserviceable for the playoffs. But, Leafs could forecheck impressively and crunch opponents along the dasher. This led to wondrous improvement in penalty killing – a discipline that had self-annihilated the club in the post-2005 lockout era.

Leafs soared from 28th in the NHL to second overall with an 87.9% kill rate – just one-tenth off the pace (Ottawa led with 88.0%). In the seven prior years, Toronto’s PK had ranked 24th, 27th, 29th, 30th, 30th, 28th and 28th. Look no further to comprehend the record playoff drought.

Also to determine: Is it practical to draw comparisons to last season, with the exchange of six regularly deployed individuals? Maple Leafs obtained Jonathan Bernier, David Clarkson and David Bolland while relinquishing Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin. This did not disturb the club’s nucleus – Bozak, Kadri, Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Dion Phaneuf – but it could tip the scale. The lone alarming change – in my view – involved Grabovski, who was repelled with a golden handshake primarily because the coach didn’t like him (as it turns out, the sentiment was mutual). Given a lack of quality and depth at the key center-ice spot, I have grave misgiving about dumping an experienced, talented player over acrid feelings.

On the flip side, Maple Leafs are fairly well-stocked with elite personnel. For two seasons, Kessel and Lupul (when healthy) have been among the top-dozen performers in the NHL. Kadri showed signs of developing into a 70-point pivot, though I would absolutely caution him against railroading Nonis. The Toronto GM has not a sentimental bone in his professional body and the Leafs’ No. 1 draft pick in 2009 could easily land in a rival NHL uniform if contract negotiations become untenable.

Before his stunning demise last January, ex-manager Brian Burke pulled off a splendid move in acquiring van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia (straight up for Luke Schenn). The feisty left-winger showed a unique willingness to encamp in front of the opposition net; no Leaf since Dave (Tiger) Williams in the late-70’s had been so inclined. It resulted in a valuable output of 18 goals, and prompted Carlyle to deploy van Riemsdyk – without reservation – in almost every circumstance.

Bozak, at times, performed exceptionally well, though he will not convince me of a Top 2 center-ice ranking – on any club – without doing so, persistently, from October to April.

       

KNOWING AN AUDIENCE AFTER MORE THAN 65 YEARS, THE HOCKEY NEWS HAS GONE LEAFS-HEAVY THIS OFF-SEASON.

Though mistake-prone, the Toronto blue-line is extraordinarily well positioned. With a break here and there, Leafs could – by 2015-16 – have an enviable, young cast of Jake Gardiner, Cody Franson, Morgan Rielly, Matthew Finn, Stuart Percy, Petter Granberg and Jesse Blacker. Inevitably, not all will develop, but Rielly and Finn are terrific prospects; Gardiner and Franson incumbents that took enormous strides late last season. Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson provide veteran reliability and could quickly become relevant trade fodder – Phaneuf with just one season remaining on his inflated, $6.5-million pact.

Among all Leaf names, however, one is poised to stand apart.

Jonathan Bernier.

Rarely in more than three decades covering the Blue and White have I been flooded with such praise for an acquisition. Just two days ago, a Western Conference executive, whose name would be instantly recognizable in hockey anywhere on Earth, told me: “I think David [Nonis] made the best trade of the summer and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dean [Lombardi] recognizes it as well. There’s no way Los Angeles could have kept [Bernier] any longer. He’s way too talented to sit on the bench [behind Jonathan Quick]. Of course, he has to prove himself a No. 1 goalie in a prime hockey market, but I’ll be surprised if James Reimer – who I also really like – plays more than 20 or 25 games this season.”

These remarks were consistent with others I’ve been privy to since Nonis dealt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a second-round pick to L.A. on June 23. Among Bernier’s staunchest allies are ex-goalies Ron Hextall and Bill Ranford. Hextall was vice-president and assistant GM of the Kings for seven years before leaving – July 15 – to assume the same role with Philadelphia. Ranford is currently L.A.’s goaltending coach. Neither would likely bet a nickel against Bernier developing into a front-line NHL stopper. Now, of course, words must translate to action.

Forecasting where Leafs might rank is typically pointless. The prediction game is always fun… and just as futile.

Look at Montreal – a glorified AHL team two seasons ago that suddenly jelled into a post-lockout force only to embarrass itself in the playoffs. No person would have envisioned such a bizarre swing.

After nearly a decade of desolation, Leafs were clearly due for a step forward, which they took – impressively – last season. That, and three bucks, will get you a ride on the Toronto subway. The approaching campaign presents an altogether different set of challenges for the Blue and White, who will encounter expectation for the first time since Quinn’s final season behind the bench (2005-06).

All we can tell you for certain is this: Should Bernier fulfill the promise so many anticipate, Leafs will comfortably return to the playoffs.

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