Over the past couple of weeks, as the Maple Leafs have rocketed up the standings, I’ve heard it on radio call-in shows, have read it in emails and text messages, and have even had it said to my face: “Don’t bother. They do this every year.”
“This,” of course, being Toronto’s late season sprint towards eighth place — the promised land — in the Eastern Conference, after the rest of the field got off to a head start.
“Don’t bother”? Really? Would you rather the Leafs didn’t, and continued to, you know, stink?
Personally, I can’t see how anyone, if they’re out there, isn’t over the moon about James Reimer, finally annointed Toronto’s number one goalie. The “deeply religious” and unassuming 22-year-old, who looks so goddamn comfortable between the pipes, as if he feels no pressure at all, has me thinking I need to find God. While Alex Ovechkin’s busy posting photos of Phil Kessel on Twitter, Nikolai Kulemin’s out-scoring his Russian comrade. Kulemin continues to improve, year over year. He’ll pot 30 this season, and I see no reason why he can’t be a 40-goal man in the years to come. Speaking of Kessel, chosen last by his peers in the all-star draft, only 13 players in the NHL have scored more goals than #81. Five of those 13 players have 28 goals to Kessel’s 27. It rings true about the all-star game, too: Draft Schmaft.
The list, headed by career years from Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski, goes on. This isn’t a Leafs squad riddled with underachieving veterans and the Andrew Raycrofts and Vesa Toskalas of the world. This is the youngest Maple Leafs team I can recall, attempting to claw back into a race they were told they were out of months ago. This is fun, goddamnit, and I will enjoy every second of it.
In years past, when the Leafs did “this” before, the killjoys of the world complained that all it did was set Toronto back when it came to the draft. A valid point, sure, even though it wrongly assumes the Maple Leafs can draft decent talent outside of a top-10 pick. Considering Boston’s got Toronto’s first-round pick, I’m having a difficult time wondering why there would be any hesitation to step aboard the bandwagon.
The Maple Leafs are rebuilding. They always have been. Trading two firsts, and one second-round pick, for a proven first-round pick, didn’t make it not a rebuild. Nor did signing a couple of veteran defencemen in free agency, even though Mike Komisarek has turned out to be nothing short of the worst. But: Assets have been recouped. First-round draft picks, and prospects drafted in the first round. All of a sudden, Ron Wilson’s not so bad behind the bench. And Brian Burke’s work in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline was top-notch, or anti-Joe Nieuwendyk. Keith Aulie’s playing 20 minutes a night. Carl Gunnarsson’s playing between 23 and 24 minutes a night. Kessel’s leading the way. Don’t bother, my ass.
The way I see it, the Leafs could be playing out the stretch. In a perfect world, they’d be fighting for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but the world is far from, and never will be, perfect. Meaningful Leafs games, that’s what these — tonight! — are. Or, as I like to call them, playoffs before the playoffs.
Leafs 3, Flyers 2. Playoffs!!!1
Image via this isn’t happiness.