Being a Leafs fan is never easy (being a fan born in the early 80s is even worse). Oh, we have had a few shining moments over the past 25 years or so, but for the most part it has been pain, ridicule, frustration and heartbreak.Â Even with the spotty track record over the last four decades Leafs Nation continues to grow and grow around Canada, the United States and even the across the globe (thanks to Mislav!).
Having the biggest fan base in hockey is a blessing and a curse. With the great support also comes at times an unappeasable group of fans.Â Most wanted Ron Wilson fired for not getting enough out of the team, now that he is gone it has turned into Brian Burkeâ€™s fault for not getting enough talent on the team.
In short, Leafs fans are hard to please.
Heading into this season there was a quiet optimism about the team and its prospects for a potential run at a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs.Â Considering his modest success in 2010-11, James Reimer gave hope to millions of playoff starved fans that the Leafs might finally get the consistent goaltending needed to win in todayâ€™s NHL.
There were a couple obvious weaknesses sure, but after another strong second half finish in 2010-11 everything seemed to be heading in the right direction, and in my opinion they still are.Â I know, colour me an optimist (which Iâ€™m not) and a Brian Burke/Ron Wilson apologist (only slightly) but hasnâ€™t the 2011-12 season actually been a year of growth for the franchise?
There is a common misconception when a team is rebuilding that the path to success (or the playoffs) is linear with a near exact timeline.Â As the second youngest team in the game, the Leafs played hard and more than held their own on most nights against superior, more experienced hockey clubs.Â There are going to be bumps along the long road to respectability.
The team was 28-19 heading into February, and while I wonâ€™t make excuses for the on-ice failure we dealt with, a toxic combination that would slay any hockey team â€“ cold shooters and abysmal goaltending.
But isnâ€™t a 31-32-8 record fair for a team as young as Toronto?Â The team a lot of Leafs fans would love for us to emulate in terms of â€œtank nation,â€ the Edmonton Oilers, with all their great young firepower, are an awful 27-36-7 and look no closer to icing a competitive team than Toronto.Â Brian Burke has taken a ton of heat recently and I agree that his off-ice performance has been borderline embarrassing but in terms of building a successful hockey club, I still have faith.
Phil Kessel is about to wrap up another outstanding goal scoring season (goal scoring, what he is paid to do) and as my esteemed colleague Garrett Bauman recently pointed out, Kessel is among a handful of elite players to have posted four 30-goal campaigns since the lockout.
Jake Gardiner is a player that other teams are starting to pay attention to every single night (seriously, did you see that goal Thursday night?) and looks like a potential cornerstone defenseman in the mould of Bryan Berrard/Mathieu Schneider.
Joffrey Lupul was having himself a renaissance season prior to getting injured playing alongside Phil Kessel.Â In 66 games Lupul has scored 25 goals and has 67 points â€“ with 8 goals coming on the power play.
Clarke MacArthur is having another quietly effective season with 19 goals and 39 points in 64 games, not as solid as last year but who knew Nikolai Kulemin would turn into a pumpkin this season?
Dion Phaneuf has been steady and has chipped in with 9 goals and 40 pts all while taking on the huge responsibilities that come with being the captain in one of the toughest sports markets in the world.
Matt Frattin, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Korbinian Holzer, Jesse Blacker and others at the AHL level are showing solid improvement and itâ€™s been a while since the Leafs had such a stocked cupboard of young prospects â€“ whether you believe in all of them or not.
Tyler Biggs and Stuart Percy are two more exciting names that might enter the pro ranks next season and will be developed slowly as the Leafs show more patience with their young draft picks under Brian Burke than past regimes.Â The Leafs will also have a good chance at landing a few more top prospects with their recent slide, allowing us to add some more top rated young talent to the system.
The Leafs will have a new focus under Randy Carlyle and there will be no excuses for Brian Burke going forward if the team fails to show improvement.Â It is also clear that goaltending is still a major weakness, especially on such a young team, that will have to be addressed in the upcoming offseason.Â The team will likely be remade more in the â€œtruculentâ€ Burke model, which means some more size and bite.
So in a season where many fans feel all hope is lost, I think given the Leafs iced the second youngest team in the league our development path is right where it should be and the team even played above their heads for a good portion of the season.Â That shouldnâ€™t be looked upon as a negative, but as a sign that we arenâ€™t that far from being a playoff contender.
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