Over the past few years, a lot of words have been used in reference to the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Very few of those words were positive and many of them shouldn’t be said in front of children.  ”Respect” was never one of those words.  But right now, it seems appropriate.

Despite the fact that they’re not yet mathematically eliminated, it’s basically certain that the Leafs won’t qualify for the playoffs this year.  That means that the Leafs’ last postseason appearance remains the 2004 playoffs, before the lockout changed the nature of the NHL.  Normally a recent past like that wouldn’t be cause for optimism, but in the case of this Leafs team it may be.

A desperate playoff push that comes a little too late and falls a little too short isn’t new in Toronto so it’s entirely possible that the Leafs’ recent success is an aberration.  However, as Scott Morrison mentioned on CBC Sports, “this is a young team that has been much improved since January, not just the all-star break. They have played and won pressure games and have been winning on the road as well.”

Again, the Leafs aren’t going to make the playoffs, but the fact that they managed to hang on and be competitive during some of the most high-pressure games of the year certainly says something about the team.  It’s a lot more difficult to win games that actually mean something than it is to win once you’re already statistically eliminated.  The difference is pressure.  The Leafs have played under pressure for a long time and they haven’t cracked.  Not only does that say something about their character, but it also provides a valuable learning  experience.  If you can learn to fight through adversity and deal with mounting pressure, you will be a better team.  Right now the Leafs are a better team than they have been over the last five or six seasons.

Think about it this way, if someone had told you in December that the Leafs would still be in the playoff hunt with three games left and that they would have not one, but two first-round picks in next year’s draft, you would have them put away for a long time.  That would be the only solution to their certifiable insanity.

But that’s where we are right now.

The draft pick situation is another key factor in the Leafs becoming respectable once again.  Brian Burke has been frequently criticized for trading two first-round picks and a second-round pick to Boston for Phil Kessel, and rightfully so.  The deal didn’t look great at the time and it continues to look worse as time goes on.  You won’t find very many people who will honestly say the Leafs won that trade.

However, since that point Brian Burke has a rather impressive resume with the Leafs.  He fetched a good price for Tomas Kaberle and Kris Versteeg and rebuilt the Leafs’ draft pick stash that he himself dismantled.  The Kessel trade was a misguided attempt to rush the team’s development and show the fans that the Leafs were going to be competitive right away.  It was the wrong move.  However, what Burke has done since then is actually build a hockey team through whatever ways he could.

And that’s where we are right now.  The Leafs have a couple strong talents in Kessel and Phaneuf, but the rest of the team is still growing.  The current Leafs are a mixture of inexperienced players, hardworking grinders and overachievers.  These are the kind of players who work hard every shift and give their all every night.  Yes, some of them may regress next season and some may never play this well again, but the key to this team will be patience.  Burke has to avoid the allure of making a big splash in the trade market and continue to actually build a team.  Every player won’t work out, but if enough of this team develops correctly, the Leafs are pointed in the right direction.

This team is not going to win the Stanley Cup, but for the first time in a while it looks like a foundation is being built in Toronto, and that – combined with their effort down the stretch – is enough of a reason to give the Leafs some respect.