They're In The Race
Gotta go for it now. Four points out with 21 games to play. A playoff berth is there for the taking.
But what exactly does that mean? What message are the Maple Leafs sending boss Brian Burke these days?
Now 8-2-2 in their last 12 games and seeming to gain strength with every veteran player sent packing, this is a bit of a conundrum. James Reimer, even after giving up a four-spot to the Habs on Thursday night, is a big part of the equation, giving the team a steady hand in the crease it simply didn't have for the first half of the season. Phil Kessel, meanwhile, is hot again, and like most teams, the Leafs are a much superior team in games when their best forward scores than in games he doesn't.
But how to figure the improved play with Francois Beauchemin, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kaberle traded away, quality veterans all, with only Joffrey Lupul added and Brett Lebda given an expanded role? Is Keith Aulie so much better than Beauchemin, does Dion Phaneuf have more room to lead without much experience at all around him?
The schedule, meanwhile, is also a big part of the reason the Leafs have picked up the pace. It's been very soft of late, and while they deserve credit for taking advantage of that schedule, it also undermines to a small degree their acheivements. More opportunity lies in the immediate future with the battered Penguins - minus Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and now Brooks Orpik as well - in town Saturday, followed by a visit to drooping Atlanta on Sunday in the final game before the trade deadline.
Then, weirdly, the Pens come to the ACC again on Wednesday. Go figure that sked.
After that, no extended road trips, no lengthy travel.
So what should Burke do? Add a body? Or just let the kids play, see whether their improved play is real, or whether it falters under the pressure of a fight for a playoff berth? Carolina, the team the Leafs are apparently trying to catch now, added scoring winger Cory Stillman on Thursday, a veteran who played on the Hurricanes Stanley Cup winner and a proven playoff performer.
Does Burke try to match that move?
Two things he's likely not to do, and that's subtract a useful player - hard to see Clarke MacArthur departing even if unsigned - or move a meaningful draft pick or prospect for a rental or an older player likely to be around only for a year or two. There will be no major deviation from the plan now that it's starting to show some results.
On a trip through western Canada, you can see there are tough choices everywhere. In Vancouver, there's great debate over the quality of the fourth line, and even whether slumping second line winger Mason Raymond is up to the challenge of an extended playoff run.
In Calgary, interim GM Jay Feaster is searching for ways to clear cap space to add something, knowing full well the Flames lack prospects to guarantee a particularly bright future. In Edmonton, home of the 30th place Oilers, rearguards like Ladislav Smid and Jim Vandermeer may be on the move, and the debate over who GM Steve Tambellini should pick if the club picks first overall again - Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson seems to be the popular choice - is heating up.
In Toronto, the belief a few weeks ago was that the playoffs were but a remote dream and that the tough choices would revolve around getting Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause. Now, that's in the past, the chance at a playoff berth is at hand and totally different choices have presented themselves.
Gotta go for it. But what exactly does that mean?