The Toronto Maple Leafs are… the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL
As we near the month of April, the NHL season is winding down and the postseason will soon begin. Once again, the Toronto Maple Leafs will fail to qualify and their fans will postpone all plans for the parade.
Since the lockout, the Leafs are the only Canadian team who hasn’t participated in the playoffs at least once. Their long history of sacrificing the future for short-term gain has not proved to be successful. Any way you look at it, trading two first round picks for right winger Phil Kessel was foolish and unjustifiable. Adding Taylor Hall and perhaps Ryan Nugent Hopkins or big Swedish defender Adam Larsson would have gone a long way in helping rebuild this team. Instead, you wonder when this team will actually become relevant again.
When your team’s leading scorer is Clarke Macarthur, you are indeed in a dark place. On the bright side, Brian Burke has stockpiled many draft picks this year by trading defencemen Tomas Kaberle and forward Kris Versteeg, who never really seemed to fit with the Leafs. In order for the Leafs to become successful again, they will have to do it through the draft. Let’s face it – what free agent would actually want to play for this team?
Meanwhile, Burke’s old team, the Vancouver Canucks, are poised to make a run for the cup this year. With the Sedin twins firing on all cylinders and goaltender Roberto Luongo playing some of the best hockey of his life, the team will be hard to beat. As of the end of March, the Canucks have pretty much wrapped up the President’s Trophy for the league’s best record. The Canucks sport a potent offence, fantastic special teams and likely the best defensive pairings in the league. If everything goes as planned, the Canucks will be the first Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993.
In Montreal, the Habs have a decent roster with a great coaching staff in Jacques Martin and Kirk Miller. It is miraculous that the Canadiens are sitting sixth place in the Eastern Conference with a chance to catch the Boston Bruins for the division lead. The Canadiens will lose over 300 man games due to injury by the end of the season. Some of the Canadiens’ major stars have missed a lot of the season including Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges, Mike Cammalleri, and Max Pacioretty. With many players out for the season, it will likely be a very tough task to win even a round in the playoffs, but this is a Habs team you can’t ever count out.
In Calgary, the Flames have undergone a complete turnaround. Miikka Kipprusoff can now stop a beach ball and Jarome Iginla is getting more ice time and is once again dominating. After struggling for much of the first half, the Flames have an opportunity to make the playoffs, but would likely play the Canucks in the first round. With Jay Feaster now at GM, the Flames will be much better off now and in the future.
Outside of Canada, there are many teams to watch leading up to the playoffs and throughout the spring time.
The Washington Capitals are probably the hottest team in the NHL right now. Before Christmas, the Capitals found themselves in a major funk on an eight-game losing streak. Now, head coach Bruce Boudreau has really helped the team improve their defensive play and, with Alexander Ovechkin, Nik Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin up front, they will be one of the teams to beat in the East.
The Philadelphia Flyers are likely the favourite in the East. After losing to Chicago in last year’s final, the team has only gotten better. Led by defencemen Chris Pronger and forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, the team has the ability to score goals and play a good defensive hockey game. With all of their size up front, they are one of the toughest teams in the league to play against and when it comes to playoff hockey, that’s a great quality to have.
The Boston Bruins, currently leading the Northeast Division, are another contender in the East. With big defencemen Zdeno Chara and new addition Tomas Kaberle, they are solid defensively. Up front, they have one of the most balanced attacks in the league. David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic lead the way on a team that has 10 players with 30 or more points. The Bruins have the potential to go all the way this year.
The Detroit Red Wings are good as always. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has really come into his own, winning over 30 games this season and Henrik Zetterberg is having a great season. Year after year, the Red Wings are always a threat and major credit goes to head coach Mike Babcock and perhaps the league’s best GM in Kenny Holland.
Elsewhere in the West, it’s an absolute dogfight. All but eight points separates fourth place from 10th place. Several good teams currently hold playoff spots including: the Phoenix Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars. Even the Nashville Predators and Anaheim Ducks, currently on the outside looking in, have legitimate rosters and can skate with the best of them.
This year’s playoffs are looking like they are going to be one of the most entertaining shows in years. Realistically, any team has a shot to win the cup, and that’s what separates our great sport from the NFL, NBA, and MLB.
Enjoy the ride.