How things have changed…

As we approach the end of the 2011-12 NHL regular season there will be a lot of analysis and looking back at the past seasons for the Leafs and then looking forward to the off season and beyond but before I get into that, I wanted to reflect how Leaf fans were feeling just one short year ago.

A good starting point for that reflection would be Michael Langlois’ “10 reasons why Leaf fans can feel either encouraged or discouraged” post.  Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for optimism Michael pointed out and how we might feel about them now because I think this time last year more Leaf fans were optimistic than pessimistic.

1. The team, as currently configured, has become a team that is hard to play against.  There are very few teams that are ‘out of reach’ for the Leafs, especially in the East where there is so much parity and talent-thin rosters everywhere.

Tough to play against?  Hardly.  Few teams that are ‘out of reach’ for the Leafs?  Hardly.  The Leafs have a dreadful record against good teams and there are few teams that they can actually expect to beat on a regular basis.

2. For the first time in 20 years, the Leafs have a young goalie who has emerged, with the mental make-up to handle the adversity that he will no doubt face next season and beyond.

Umm, yeah, maybe not.

3. A young defense corps with four emerging players all 26 and under—Schenn, Phaneuf, Aulie and Gunnarsson, with gardiner perhaps waiting in the wings before too long.  There is an almost ideal mix of skating skill, toughness and puck-moving ability.

Well, Gardiner has developed nicely, but Schenn has regressed (from a not very good starting point), and Aulie has been traded away.  And while we can talk about their skating skill, toughness, and puck moving ability, one thing the majority of them have lacked thus far is defensive ability.  Despite the youth, it is pretty difficult to suggest the defense has progressed at all, despite adding Liles and Franson to the mix.

6.  Nazem Kadri appears poised to take that next step, whether as a front-line center or, as Wilson has projected, a winger.  As importantly, he is no longer seemingly the “only” young guy who is in a position to take steps forward as early as next season.  The team is now filled with youngsters, so if one guy steps back or falters, there are others standing by to jump in and compete

Well, Kadri hasn’t taken that next step and it doesn’t appear management has even enough confidence in him to give him a reasonable opportunity to do so.  The team “filled with youngsters” is now the team “filled with youngsters failing to deliver.”  Aulie didn’t show enough to management and got traded.  Kadri hasn’t shown he can take the next step.  Colborne has had an up and down year…with the Marlies.  The only guy who has really taken his opportunity and ran with it is Gardiner.  More and more now we are starting to divert our attention to the next wave of prospects, Blacker, Holzer, McKegg, newly acquired Carter Ashton, etc.

7.  The team should be in a good position, cap-wise, heading into free agency this coming summer.

We don’t know how much the salary cap will rise next year but the Leafs have nearly $58M in cap space committed with Kulemin, Frattin, and Franson to sign as RFA’s.  Cap space will depend on Burke’s ability to trade away some salary or his willingness to dump salary in the AHL.  There isn’t a lot of free cap space available to fill holes in the lineup, and there are plenty of holes to fill.

8.  The re-built Leafs are now one of the youngest (second-youngest, is it?) teams in the NHL.

Their players are a year older now, and very few of them have progressed any.  Plus, it is a bit of a myth that the Leafs are young.  Mostly they are lacking of old players.  The majority of their roster is between age 25 and 30, the prime of their careers.  It’s difficult to suggest that Phaneuf, Lupul, MacArthur, Grabovski, Connolly, Lombardi, Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Komisarek, Crabb, Brown, Steckel, or Liles will improve with age.  More likely the majority of them will regress over the next couple seasons.  Even Kessel is probably approaching his peak and after 4 seasons of being in the League Schenn isn’t showing any signs of improvement.  Any improvement from this team is likely to be coming from external sources (trades, free agent signings, new prospects coming up) and not from natural progression.

To me the most disappointing thing about this season is while a year has gone by very little progress has occurred with the Leafs in any area.  The team is still searching for a goalie (or two), the team is still playing poor team defense, the team still lacks a true shut down defenseman, the team still lacks a #1 center, the team still lacks a dependable checking line, the team still lacks size up front, the team still doesn’t know what they have in Kadri and Colborne (they gave up on Aulie), and we have even less cap space to work with this  upcoming off season (not that any key free agents will view the Leafs as a desirable destination anyway).  In all honestly, I am finding very few reasons for optimism heading into the off season and looking forward to the 2012-13 season.  To me, you do what you can this off season to rid yourself of as many useless players as possible (if at all possible), try and find a reliable goalie, add a few role players to provide some size, experience and defensive reliability, and next season you use it as a true building season by inserting Colborne, Kadri, Ashton, Frattin, Holzer, maybe the guy we draft with a top 5 pick, and maybe others into the lineup and see what they can do.  At least we’ll have guys in the lineup that have a realistic hope of progressing and being around in 3-5 years when the Leafs might actually contend again.  Then we can get serious about free agents in the 2013 off season when the contracts of Connolly, Lombardi, MacArthur, and Armstrong come off the books.

Just to end on a positive note, let me point out three positives that occurred this season:

1.  Jake Gardiner.  He looks really good.  It’s still early in his career, but all signs point to him having a very promising future as a puck moving defenseman.

2.  Joffrey Lupul.  I know a lot of Leaf fans are pointing to Kessel, but the real key to the Leafs offense in my mind is Lupul.  He has overcome his previous health issues and is back, despite his late season injury.

3.  Mikhail Grabovski has shown that his 2010-11 season was no fluke and he is one of the few Leafs that actually seems to care about winning.  I don’t think he is a top line center, but he plays a hard and determined 2-way game (despite his size) and it’s only unfortunate unfortunate more Leafs don’t follow his lead.