Okay! This is crazy. So many Leafs fans that I know and from what I've been reading across the internet and twitter are really upset at the fact that the Leafs never made that big splash this offseason and now are claiming to be pretty much done, save some minor signings before the season starts. Well I can definitely sympathize, and as a Leafs fan I can't say I didn't have my hopes set on Steve Stamkos as well (not so much Brad Richards but I wouldn't have complained). But I am going to tell you that I think the Leafs will be a playoff team this year and here's why...
First off I like the depth we have now. Ya, "depth" can sometimes be a buzz word that's used to describe mediocre teams, granted. But I look at some teams that have been succesful without having much star power in the line up, I consider the Nashville Predators mold, or the Buffalo Sabres (Pre-Pegulla) who were able to throw out 3 lines of balanced attack up front, solid defense and got timely goaltending and were able to be competitive teams. I am not claiming that the Leafs are cup contenders but they are looking like a playoff team.
Take a look at this line up, as it stands right now:
Joffrey Lupul - Tim Connolly - Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur - Mikhail Grabovski - Nikolai Kulemin
Nazem Kadri - Tyler Bozak - Colby Armstrong
Mike Brown - Phillipe Dupuis - Jay Rosehill
Dion Phaneuf - Cody Franson
John Michael Liles - Luke Schenn
Keith Aulie - Carl Gunnarsson/Mike Komisarek
*IR Wildcards - Matthew Lombardi, Colton Orr
+ Joe Colborne, Matt Lashoff, Luca Caputi all have a good shot to make it along with a couple surprise underdogs at camp
Now, what I like about this line up is this - even with Brad Richards or Steve Stamkos in for Tim Connolly this is not a Stanley Cup contending team. More likely to make the playoffs? Absolutely, but still not a contender. So we didn't get "that guy" this summer. This is not a huge concern for me. What I really like about this line up is that management has left room on the roster for Kadri to get a significant role if he is able to play well enough to take it. If not, that role could be occupied by Colborne or another Leafs prospect. There is room for good young players to develop and get some playing time. If you listened to the comments made by Dave Nonis on July 1st, he said that the Leafs made some offers to 4 or 5 UFA's but they were not going to go out and sign a bunch of guys to long term deals at inflated rates and take ice time away from the young core they've put together. I have to agree with this because the team is so young and these guys need more time to gel, and to develop. Remember that there is no quick fix....
I'm gonna take you all back to about, 10-11 years ago, there was a time in Leaf Nation when Leafs fans were pissed off because we were a guaranteed playoff team each year but had no chance to compete for a cup against the likes of New Jersey, Detroit, Dallas, Colorado. Many Leafs fans were pissed off at the quick fix efforts put forth by Pat Quinn and his predecessors who traded away the following players:
Fred Modin, at the time a 30 goal man in Tampa,
Mike Johnson, the leading scorer of the Coyotes (60+ pts)
Steve Sullivan, 30 goal man with Chicago
Alym MacCauley, some Selke consideration and wore the 'A' in San Jose
Jason Smith, solid stay home d-man and captain for Edmonton
Brad Boyes, hot shot up and comer in the Sharks system
The list goes on to a lesser extent and I may be forgetting a couple other big ones, but the general concensus at this time is that if we had waited another year or two this group could have become a really good team, but we dealt them all away to make way for aging vets like Owen Nolan and Dmitri Khristich. Now Burke and co. are holding onto the young guns like Kadri, Kulemin (rumored in the Mike Richards would-be trade) and Leafs fans are not happy that we didn't bring in "that guy". Well I'm gonna tell you all that this is a good thing.
This is going to be a young line up again and were gonna see what kinds of strides they can take this season. I know a lot of people will say "its the same team that missed the playoffs last year". And if everyone was roughly 27-30 last year, then I would agree, this team will miss again. But all the key guys are here are 26 and under except for a couple, like Grabovski and Armstrong who are still both under 30. So keeping that in mind, I am of the mind that the majority of the players in this line up will only be better this season, and the additions of Connolly, Liles, Franson, and Lombardi, although not pocessing the sex appeal of Steven Stamkos are all quality NHL'ers which only make the team deeper and stronger. Really the biggest wild card here is James Reimer, and if he can even play close to the level that he played at last season with a certain amount of consistency (because its a lot to ask that he plays that good all year, we can expect some ups and downs or else he's winning the Vezina) then the Leafs should be a playoff team.
Again, if you take one point away from this blog, let it be that there are no quick fixes, let this group have another year together, then re-evaluate and improve on it some more next offseason. Then repeat that process and improve again in the following offseason. I expect the core players from this group to be Cup conteders within 3 years. Patience. I like this team, and so should you.