That's a Wrap...For Now...
The Leafs ended the season looking more like the Leafs of old than the team that threatened to make the playoffs after a brutal first half. Losing too many games in months ending in 'r', as Burke put it recently, the near-superhuman effort that characterized what was very much a sustained team-wide compete level for just about all of 2011 wasn't enough to overcome the points deficit created before the new year.
Clearly, it was tough to match that effort after learning that the playoffs were out of reach: "We had such a high intensity level for every game...when it's over it's tough to dig in that extra and get it done" pending RFA Clarke MacArthur said after the 4-1 loss to a very loose Montreal team looking to leave without any casualties as they head into the post season.
James Reimer looked very human in his last two outings, although he was forced to make a number of big saves on Leaf turnovers resulting from sloppiness and lack of intensity and focus. Clearly, he's the starter of the future for this club, but there are queastion maks in goal after that. J.S. Giguere may want to take a backup role if he can get healthy and bounce back from the off-season surgery that he'll undergo to repair a nagging groin. There's no way he'll make more than a million if he gets the chance, with Burke focusing his financial wherewithal into re-sgning Schenn, Reimer and a few of the more deservng RFA's. And then there's the issue of Gustavsson, who was strangely never given the opportunity to re-emerge, despite beng healthier than Giguere after his heart ablation procedure was deemed a success. Burke claims that they haven't given up on the Monster, so maybe a solid off-season can lead to better things to come for a goalie that was expected to challenge for the starter gig.
On a positive, the new guys played like they belonged in the bigs, showing a ton of enthusiasm and energy, despite the defeat. Joe Colborne set up Kessel's team-leading 32nd goal of the campagin, and he demostrated a willingness to pay the price in the paint all night with the kind of pushback that should momentarily silence any detractors. Developing into a Sundin 'lite' type of playmaking centre is very much within reach for Jumbo Jr. who learned moments before puck-drop that he would be taking the opening draw. Whether or not there is more is entirely on him but he protects the puck well with his big solid frame, makes smart, safe plays, and he doesn't avoid contact. He'll be a player that demonstrates the toughness necessary to withstand punishment to make a difference on the scoreboard, as opposed to being the kind that initiates physical play, but that is perfectly OK. He's most effective on the ice, not in the box.
The surprise of the night for this writer was the intensity and 'pop' demonstrated by Matt Frattin, who not only tied Kessel in shots for 2nd, with 5 (Phaneuf led with 6), but also showed an abilty to hit, outwork his opponents, and establish his presence out there on a line with Bozak and Kadri. This young man may prove to be NHL-ready sooner than later if he can reproduce the effort in a sustained and meaningful way in the fall. He appears to be equal parts skill and snarl, making him an ideal energy line guy with 2nd line upside.
Clearly, much remains to be done in Toronto, but you have to be encouraged by the progress. The deep end of the talent pool is deeper than ever, with a number of youngsters showing the eagerness to do what their predecessors would not. There is absolutely no air of entitlement to this team anymore. It is a leaner, more focused and cohesive group than anything we have seen in recent years, and the dead-weight has been buried.
Brian Burke, his coaching staff, and his team will be expected to not just challenge for post season in the coming year, but to make the playoffs in fairly convincing fashion. Prognostications, on-pace projections and the like have been used by management to illustrate the trend toward success over the last two season, but there is nothing that will quell the ire of Leaf Nation if the season to come does not extend past 82 games.
Whatever Burke has in mind with those first rounders, it better mean the difference over the off-season. If it isn't a top centre, it had best be a top 6 winger. On that note, it has become semi-clear that the delay in signing RFA Clarke MacArthur may mean that he is a bargaining chip that could be packaged along with other assets in order to acquire an elite forward. If a 1C wasn't in the cards, but a Zach Parise was, knowing the expectation for next year is post-season hockey, it wouldn't surprise or offend any sane hockey fan if Burke chose to go this route and look perhaps to Grabovski, Colborne and perhaps Bozak to do the heavy lifting down the middle.
As the Leafs raised their sticks at centre ice to salute their longsuffering supporters, the mutual respect and appreciation between player and patron for a season almost redeemed was apparent. No waffles were thrown, and no boos were uttered. The understanding is there by both groups, being that the future must not reflect the past. Failure will not be tolerated again, not in the dressing room, not in the front office, and not by the fans. They need to show us that they have really turned the corner this time, without the ifs and buts, irrespective of extenuating circumstance. Burke gets that...he insists that all others in the organization get it as well, and his season post-mortem presser to come will certainly reflect the sentiment...
Thanks for following...see you over the spring and summer with updates on trades, draft news, and signings...special congratulations to lovely Leaf broadcaster Monika, who accepted a marriage proposal during the 2nd intermission of last night's game...