2011 ended, as it began, with the Leafs out of a playoff spot and with fans of the team screaming for answers. Some of the questions, of course, have changed but there are still plenty being asked. What's going on with the goaltending? Why is our penalty-kill so ineffective? These are the recidivists.
But there are new questions too and not all of them are quite so negative. Has Phil Kessel truly arrived as an elite NHL player? Has Lupul finally lived up to his potential? Somehow, it feels like the team is in a better place heading into 2012.
Having flipped the calendar and taken stock of the year that was, it's now time to look forward. January is a month for reflection and a month for improvement, and with this in mind I've put together a list of New Year's resolutions for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Let's all hope that the Leafs can follow through on them.
In 2012, the Toronto Maple Leafs commit to;
1) Improve the penalty kill
This is certainly the topic du jour among all of Leaf Nation right now. To be honest, it's a little shocking that the team is even competing for a playoff spot given how abysmal they've been on the PK. After a great start, it's caught up to them and things will only get worse if the penalty kill doesn't get better.
2) Find a starting goaltender
For quite a while, it looked like they had found a starter in Reimer but things are a little less certain lately. Reimer was de-railed by a suspected-though-never-confirmed concussion and hasn't really looked the same since. Gustavsson has been inconsistent. There's nothing that says either of these guys can't be the answer for the Leafs in goal but if they aren't, Brian Burke needs to find the answer and find it fast.
3) Hold on to their 1st round draft pick
The Toronto Maple Leafs, as currently constructed, are a tough team to evaluate. I wouldn't be surprised if they finished 6th in the Eastern Conference but I also wouldn't be surprised if they finished 25th in the NHL. With this in mind, I feel that it's critical that the Leafs hold on to their 1st rounder -- they're a few key injuries away from it being a lottery pick.
4) Make solid decisions at the trade deadline, based on reasonable expectations
There's not a Leaf fan out there who isn't sick of seeing this team miss the playoffs. The team's streak of futility has crossed the border of the absurd and is speeding toward preposterous. Having said this, it's important to recognize that this team is getting better, not worse.
The Leafs' time may not be now -- even for a goal as modest as a playoff appearance -- but it's up to management to recognize what this team can achieve in the final stretch of the season. It's important that the team either make the playoffs, or continue to build for the future. There is no way that Leaf fans should be forced to endure the stagnation that was so prevalent in the JFJ years.
5) Identify the core
This year is going to be where the heavy lifting takes place for the Maple Leaf braintrust. They've done a good job at improving the team's asset base, but ultimately, that's the easy part. The trick now is to identify which of these players will form the core of the team moving forward and which pieces will need to make way for prospects or new additions. Perhaps most notably, a decision will have to be made on UFA-to-be Mikhail Grabovski.
With Connolly, Lombari, Bozak, and Steckel all signed for another season and Joe Colborne pushing for a fulltime slot in the NHL, the decision on Grabovski's future will likely be the most important question Brian Burke will have to answer over the next six months.
In 2012, Blue Chip Prospects commit to:
1) Be more cautious with potential
When evaluating the team heading into this season, I assumed they'd be quite good defensively. I expected the odd gaffe from Gardiner but in general, I figured that the Leafs would be icing a solid group of blueliners. In reality, what we have is a defense with great potential. There will be a time where Luke Schenn, Cody Franson, and Jake Gardiner will be very good NHL defensemen. That time just isn't now. The best thing we can hope for is that the unit continues to improve.
2) Not worry about free agents
I may not have written too much on the subject, or at the very least came across as only passively interested, but the truth is, I was emotionally invested in Brad Richards this offseason. I wanted so badly for the Leafs to find a way to land him. The fact of the matter is, free agent contracts for star players rarely work out in the longterm. Richards has been good in New York and the Rangers are first in the conference right now but the fact of the matter is, there haven't been many impact free agents in recent years. It's important to keep this in mind as the enigmatic Alexander Semin approaches unrestricted free agency.
3) Try to ride the wave
I'm as guilty as any Leaf fan out there of getting apathetic when the team goes into a prolonged slump. I don't consider myself a bandwagon Leaf fan by a long shot; in fact, it's a matter of self-preservation, more often that not, that makes me take a step back. In 2012, I resolve to be more balanced in my fandom and to not get too excited when things are going well, nor to get too down on the team when they're struggling.
4) Make fun of our rivals
We used to be a lot better at riping Habs, Sens, and Flyers' fans than we have been over the last 6 months. We're going to do a better job of letting these people know what we think of them and their team, I promise.
5) Figure out how to use Twitter
Readership here at BCP is actually pretty solid. This may surprise some of you as the comments section is typically thin and the Twitter account is a bit of a joke but honestly, if you're reading this, you're not alone! We've received some great support from Pension Plan Puppets, The Globe and Mail, and Spector's Hockey over the years and it's time we put a little more work into promoting ourselves.
So go on, check us out on Twitter at bcphockeyblog . We'll answer your questions, try and be funny, and probably have a lot of fun talking hockey with you. If you're already following, drop us a line, we'd love to hear from you. Unless you're a Habs fan; in which case I hope you light your own car on fire. Don't actually do that, by the way. I know how you struggle with sarcasm... and the written word.