What a series.
As disappointing as last night's collapse was, the mere fact of Toronto having pushed Boston to overtime in a game 7 is cause for celebration for fans of the Maple Leafs. No team has given this edition of the Leafs as much trouble as the Bruins and yet there we were, with them until the end, pushing Boston to the brink of elimination, and though it's the Leafs who find themselves on the outside looking in, there's something creditable in the way that they acquitted themselves during this year's playoffs -- something we'll hope to carry forward into next season.
While seven games isn't a sample size worthy of hard and fast conclusions, it does give us a glimpse through the window of what some of our players are or aren't capable of. There were some surprises during the playoffs and some disappointments; some things to be excited for and some causes for concern. Below are my observations on what we saw from our boys during the second-season.
Phil Kessel, Demon Hunter - It's indisputable that Phil Kessel had struggled mightily to produce results against the Bruins during his time with the Leafs and while many people wrongly attributed these struggles to vacuous psychological shortcomings, the truth is that lining up against a Norris-calibre defenseman is hard on everyone. During this series, Kessel was able to exorcize his demons and put to bed any fears that Leafs fans may have had that Kessel wilts under pressure. He was almost certainly our best forward in the playoffs and will be worth every penny he earns on the extension that we'd all better hope he signs this offseason.
Primetime Reimer - As good as Kessel was, there's no doubt as to who takes home the honour of series MVP. James Reimer had a marvelous series and if there are any detractors left then they probably aren't people who warrant listening to. True, there was the odd issue with rebound control but there's no doubting Reimer's abilities as a puck-stopper and his athleticism was on full display this series as well and one would think that there wont be any Luongo rumours this offseason. Reimer was great in the regular season and great in the playoffs -- he's a guy we can rely on moving forward.
From the Doghouse to the Penthouse - Jake Gardiner spent the majority of the season in Randy Carlyle's bad books for some inexplicable reason and was a healthy scratch in the opening game of the series. After drawing into the second game of the series, Gardiner finished second to only Dion Phaneuf in icetime per game at just over 23 minutes a night and was among the top performers in blue and white. As with Reimer, his game wasn't without its faults but the sum of his play was a big positive for the Leafs and I don't suspect that we'll see his name as a healthy scratch very often next season. Gardiner is a high ceiling defenseman and he's got himself on track after the concussion issues he dealt with to start the season.
Should He Stay Or Should He Go - There were probably four players whose careers as Maple Leafs had a lot riding on this series; JM Liles, Tyler Bozak, Cody Franson, and Clarke MacArthur.
Based on the company line on Bozak, the Leafs sound like they'd already made up their minds to keep him and if you went into this series with a preconceived notion of what Bozak was as a player, this series probably didn't tip the scales. Bozak was decidedly average in the series as a whole and if you're the type who puts a lot of stock in faceoffs, then the team's performance in the circle with Bozak out of the lineup would lead you to believe that Toronto needs him. Outside of that, Bozak was pretty replaceable when he went down, and the Leafs probably had two of their best three games in the series while he was out of the lineup.
Cody Franson is a guy that I was very much on the fence about heading into the playoffs. I like his offensive game, in particular his ability to get the puck on net through traffic, but his defensive lapses seemed to be increasingly frequent as the regular season wore on. In the playoffs I thought Franson improved his defensive play and dialed his physicality way up. He's never going to be a top-end defensive player but he did enough during this series to convince me that he's a guy I'd like to keep around.
Clarke MacArthur, like Jake Gardiner, was the irrational target of Randy Carlyle's ire. MacArthur put up 3 points in the 5 games he played and brought the consistent, all around game that Leafs fans have come to expect from him. I get the sense that he isn't in the Leafs longterm plans but if I were Nonis, he'd be in mine.
John-Michael Liles had a Bozak-esque series in the sense that he probably didn't do anything that would change whatever opinion you had of him coming into the series. Did he do enough to keep the team from using an amnesty buyout on him or to convince some other team to take on his contract? Tough to say.
The Dream - There may be no player who will benefit more from this year's postseason experience than Nazem Kadri who looked very nervous in the first two games of the series, turning the puck over regularly, but became the offensively dynamic player we saw during the regular season in the series' final games. Kadri picked his spots physically, drew penalties, and was dangerous in the offensive zone and his play against a team with the level of toughness that the Bruins possess bodes well for future playoff appearances. The knock on Kadri has often been his size but I don't think there was ever a time in this series where he looked intimidated nor did he get pushed around. It looks to me like Kadri's skills will translate to the tighter checking playoff game in the future which is a comforting sign for Leafs fans.
The Defense - To the surprise of very few, Toronto's Achilles' Heel was their defense. Reimer faced an average of just under 39 shots per game during the series which is asking way too much of your goalie. If watching Boston play has taught us anything, it's the value of having a truly elite defenseman and just how significant the gap is between the truly elite (Chara) and the All Star-calibre (Phaneuf). Having a dominant player like Chara on the ice for 50% of the icetime at even strength was a huge advantage for the Bruins.
The question of what needs to happen to this defense is a tricky one. Landing one guy of Phaneuf's level or better would probably be enough but how much can we improve this group if that guy isn't available? Gunnarsson should be better provided his hip heals, Gardiner played at a high level in each of his games, and Franson was pretty competent. I suppose adding a 3 or 4 defenseman makes this team better but is that really going to shave 7-10 shots per game? The only solution that I can come up with is to add a high impact defenseman and to do so with the free agent crop being what it is this offseason means that Nonis will have to look to the trade market. What kind of assets should we be comfortable parting with if it meant adding a Keith Yandle? Or do you stay the course and hope that Rielly is an impact defender sooner rather than later? I'm glad that I'm not the guy who needs to answer those questions.
The Team's Streakiest Player - Phil Kessel is consistently labelled streaky but to me, that seems to be based on results more so than his actual play on the ice. If you're looking for a guy who actually looks like a completely different player on a night to night basis, I think you'd have to point to JVR. There were times where he looked like a first line winger and the kind of player who could will a team to a victory and then there were games where you forgot that he was even dressed. Possible that he's playing with an injury, possible that he's more susceptible to being shutdown by tough matchups, but for whatever reason, JVR was Jekyll and Hyde for the majority of the season and that carried forward into the playoffs. Hopefully he'll be able to lay off the serum for the entirety of next season and be the player we saw in the early stages of this year.