If you had asked me a month ago whether the Leafs should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline I would have said sellers. But since then a lot has changed and now I believe they have the potential to put together a playoff run not unlike the Oilers last season. Why the change you ask? Well, let me explain.
First off, let me start by saying that I believe that any kind of playoff success absolutely requires top tier goaltending. Last year Cam Ward had a .920 save % and Roloso was at .927. Both excellent numbers. In 2003-04 Tampa won the cup with Khabibulin at .933 save % and Calgary was the western conference representative with Kipprusoff at .928. In 2002-03 we saw Brodeur at .934 and Giguere at .945 in the finals. Up until mid-January I didn’t think Raycroft was good enough to win the Stanley Cup. He just couldn’t put together more than a game or two of quality goaltending in a row. But in his last 7 games he has posted a .934 save percentage and gave up more than 2 goals in just one game (5 goals in an 8-2 loss to Pittsburgh). That is the kind of goaltending Raycroft produced in his rookie year and that is the kind of goaltending it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
So, if this play by Raycroft become the norm and not just an anomoly then one has to ask if the rest of the Leafs have what it takes to be Stanley Cup contenders. Well, the Leafs have a lot of good things going for them.
First, the Leafs, depsite what many have predicted, are a good offensive team. They currently sit 6th in the NHL in goals per game and that is with Wellwood and Tucker, two of their better offensive players, having missed 18 and 14 games respectively.
Second, the Leafs have a lot of depth. Depth is important in the playoffs because often the NHL playoffs become a war of attrition. Injuries take their toll on teams, but the Leafs have a lot of depth. There aren’t many teams in the NHL with their 5th/6th defensemen being as good as Gill/White. For that matter there are only a handful of teams with their top pairing being as good as Kaberle/McCabe or Kaberle/Kubina as has recently been the case. In the east Buffalo and Ottawa would be the only comparables. Offensively the Leafs have 13 players with 8 or more goals. To put that into perspective, no other team has more than 10. What is important about depth is that teams cannot focus on a single line or a small number of players. It also means that you can withstand injuries much better. That bodes well for the Leafs come playoff time.
Finally, the Leafs have a lot of players with playoff experience and success. Sundin, McCabe, Kaberle, Tucker, Peca and Green all have 50+ playoff games under their belts. Kubina and Devereaux are cup winners while Peca (twice), O’Neill, and Battaglia have also been in the Stanley Cup finals. The Leafs also have a coach that has successfully taken a team to the Stanley Cup finals. All of that playoff experience and success bode well for the Leafs.
Too many people believe that having a lot of top end talent is what wins but that is not the case. If it was, Ottawa wouldn’t have had all the playoff failures they have had. Goaltending, depth and experience win in the playoffs. If Raycroft can provide top tier goaltending, as he has done since mid-January, then there is no reason why the Leafs cannot go on a lengthy playoff run. I know many will scoff at that idea, but it is reality. And honestly, are the Leafs any worse of a team this year than the Oilers were last year? I don’t think so.