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.

Comments (9)

  1. The Leafs won the Kessel trade.

  2. Seguin’s not as good as Kessel was in his first year in the league playing on a better Bruins team let alone right now.
    Kessel’s notched his 3rd straight 30 goal season, second with the buds, while playing with inferior talent (right? They’re all awful so it must be super impressive).
    Kessel’s one of 11 players to notch at least 3 straight 30 goals seasons before they were 24 in the last 17 years.
    Jared Knight’s not even as good as Kadri was last year for the London Knights (no relation) and the 1st rounder in a draft that is being increasingly acknowledged as weak is 11th overall.
    Last year the Bruins blew a 3-0 lead in part because they couldn’t score enough.
    Hard to see how the Bruins have won the deal. They may in the long run but so far?

    Aside from that, good post.

  3. It was a good deal for both sides, not a lot of players can say they’ve scored 30 goals 3 years in a row before their 24th birthday. Sequin will likely amount to a very good player but Kessel is already a very good player and has shown that he can score without a secondary first liner to play alongside him. Plus, Kessel has seen his effort level and defensive play grow in leaps and bounds ever since the small rift between him and Wilson was resolved.

    Right now the Leafs are winning the deal. Maybe 5 years down the road it is a different story, but the future is not a certainty.

  4. they should still get no respect, they’ve had a good 2nd half of this year.. whoopdie doo. Any team can have a have good games throughout the year. They’ve missed the playoffs again and people should realize that they are basically a joke yet they continue to sell out games all the time. People got to get lives.

  5. This Leafs team has the feel of St. Louis a few years ago. Lots of young, unhearalded talent hungry to prove themselves. If they can stick with the rebuild,and avoid shortcuts, the future is looking bright.

  6. I’m a die hard habs fan, and I’ll give ‘em respect. They play a hard game, night in and night out – doesn’t hurt to go from a .895 to a .922 goalie (Giguere/Reimer) either. So hat’s off to Optimus Reim (love it) and his hard-working buds.

  7. Corey – On behalf of Leafs fans, might I suggest that while we’re getting lives that you learn to write.

  8. Well, even though this won’t be the closest miss of the drought – that’d be the year they lost out on the playoffs because Jersey decided to rest Brodeur in the final game of the season – this team IS better.

    Would I rather have Seguin and this first instead of Kessel? Yes. Seguin has the potential to be a top-20 player, which I don’t think Kessel will develop into even if he’s ever actually given linemates. But given that he’s now a proven 30-goal scorer with a reasonable cap hit, the return isn’t godawful, when measured against Seguin’s potential.

    The big concern I’ve got with this team going forward would be whether Reimer is going to be the actual goalie of the future, or if he’s one of those rookie fireball goalies who are great for one season and then flame out once the rest of the league gets enough film on them. Because if he is, then the Leafs are back to having some of the worst goaltending in the NHL.

  9. [...] we turn to the Leafs, a team that finally had its slim playoff hopes buried on Tuesday, but gained league-wide respect along the way. Toronto’s season started with a swift injection of false hope in the form of four-straight [...]

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