By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 25) — It may be prudent for Brendan Shanahan to try and detonate the Maple Leafs, but not for the reason most contend.
The prevailing sentiment among hockey followers in this city — with the locals enduring their worst slump in nearly a quarter–century — is that a massive sell–off by Shanahan and David Nonis before the Mar. 2 trade deadline will accelerate the club’s free–fall, thus improving its percentage–odds of drafting either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. It sounds like a good idea but has virtually no merit. The Leafs — though dropping like a stone since Dec. 18 — were constructed last off–season not to enter the McDavid–Eichel sweepstakes but to vie for a bottom playoff rung in the Eastern Conference. Nonis added depth up front. On many nights, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer provide better–than–average goaltending and the club has enough firepower, when healthy, to stand alongside most in the National Hockey League. Soon after the All–Star break, such key figures as Joffrey Lupul, Peter Holland and Leo Komarov will return to bolster the line–up. The notion, therefore, of a prosperous stretch for the Maple Leafs is hardly absurd.
While no one should reasonably expect another 10–1–1 romp (as between Nov. 20 and Dec. 16), who knows what this wacky collection might accomplish? Fifteen games remain before the NHL trade embargo kicks in. With the club returning to health, even a modest .500 clip during that span will effectively remove it from the McDavid–Eichel conversation. Then comes “garbage time” in the final month, where the Maple Leafs have flourished in the post–2005 lockout era. Imagine the loosey–goosey boys in blue — even with a couple of significant trade deletions — slipping past playoff–bound opponents and into neutral territory in the NHL. We’ve seen it before and we could see it again.
SURE, THE LEAFS ARE AWFUL RIGHT NOW. BUT, REMEMBER, THE TEAM WAS GOOD ENOUGH TO EMBARK ON A 10–1–1 HOT STREAK WHICH INCLUDED A HOME–ICE TRIUMPH, DEC. 14, OVER THE DEFENDING–CHAMPION LOS ANGELES KINGS. GRAIG ABEL GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Moreover, it is essential to keep a lid on trade–deadline anticipation. To wit: It is nearly impossible, in the salary cap era, to “blow up” a team laden with burdensome contracts — of which the Leafs own their share. Competent reconstruction is a process that evolves over several years. It is careful and meticulous; not reactionary and desperate. In the mind’s eye, perhaps the Leafs will ultimately trade Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and every other name in the “blow–it–up” mill. But, it sure isn’t going to happen before Mar. 2 and it likely won’t be possible over the span of one or two summers. Any balanced observer will understand the Leafs destroyed their prospect of drafting McDavid or Eichel last off–season by adding the likes of Komarov, Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnick and Roman Polak. It was done solely to try and boost the club into the Stanley Cup tournament for the first time since 2003–04 in a full, 82–game schedule. That objective has failed. But, the Maple Leafs aren’t nearly dreadful enough to plummet in the manner their followers now appear to crave.
In fact, the week–long All–Star hiatus for everyone but Kessel is likely to spawn a reverse effect. The Toronto players — having earned a measly six of 34 available points since Dec. 18 — absolutely needed to get away from the white noise enveloping this city. Don’t be surprised if they come back refreshed and energized for Wednesday night’s schedule resumption at New Jersey. Perhaps more than any player on the team, you’ve got to think Bernier is poised for a strong second half in order to maximize his earning potential. The Maple Leafs goalie, and meal ticket, is a restricted free agent in July and will aim to double his $3.4–million salary (in Toronto or elsewhere). Performing to standard is imperative.
Kessel, somewhat remarkably, has but two goals during the Maple Leafs 4–13–0 plummet that began 38 nights ago in Raleigh, N.C. Which means we can expect, before long, an eruption of 10 or 12 goals in a 15–game span; such has been Fast Phil’s unmistakable career pattern. With Lupul and Holland about to return, coach Peter Horachek will be tempted to re–unite the No. 1 forward line of Kessel, van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak — a unit that may have been the NHL’s best when the Leafs were romping to a 14–3–3 record from Jan. 12 to Mar. 13 of last season. It’s inevitable the club will begin to score again. Probably sooner than later.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS LIMPED INTO THE ALL–STAR BREAK BY LOSING 4-3 TO THE SENATORS IN OTTAWA LAST WEDNESDAY NIGHT. ANDRE RINGUETTE GETTY IMAGES/NHL.COM
Please note, however, that I am not painting a Utopian picture here.
Situated ten points out of playoff territory in the Eastern Conference, the Leafs are too far beyond contention — even with 34 games left. The season–killing streak the club must avoid is happening — for the fifth time in as many 82–game seasons (dating to the 0–7–1 disaster that began 2009–10). Beyond something miraculous, no team can make the playoffs in the three–point–game era by losing 14 of 17 matches… all in regulation time. That’s what Leafs are in the midst of at the All–Star break. Still, they sit a full 16 points ahead of 30th–place Buffalo in the NHL overall standings; the Sabres currently on a tidy 11–game losing streak. Even faring as poorly as they are, there’s no chance Leafs are horrendous enough to drop into McDavid–Eichel territory. That wasn’t the plan last summer; nor will it materialize this winter and spring.
Instead, the club will likely regain enough equilibrium to finish somewhere in the 80 to 85–point range and well beyond statistical probability for any of the top five or six draft positions. Building the team will involve a thoughtful tear–down and reconstruction; not the stick–of–dynamite method fans (and some reporters) are flippantly promoting.
Never allow oneself to be fooled. It will lead only to disappointment.
WEATHER WATCH: It will be interesting to see if the Leafs are able to resume their schedule at New Jersey on Wednesday. The northeastern seaboard of the United States — including Manhattan and the city of Newark — is expecting up to three feet of snow Monday afternoon into Tuesday, with hurricane-force winds. The Leafs are scheduled to fly to Newark on Tuesday afternoon. Could be a problem.
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