They’re back! For the first time in nine years the Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs (insert Leaf jokes here) After nine long years and seven different coach-GM combos the Toronto Maple Leafs will be playing meaningful hockey this spring. Bust out your car flags, spoil yourself with overpriced playoff tickets, and enjoy your first ever Leaf playoff game in HDTV.
Starved Leaf fans your day has finally arrived. Watch classic footage of Leafs playoff hockey on YouTube, but remember, the last time the Leafs were in the post season YouTube didn’t even exist!
It’s now more clear than ever that things drastically improved when Leafs management decided to axe Ron Wilson and bring in a coach with a proven Stanley cup pedigree – Randy Carlyle. With Carlyle, the Leafs play a rough and tumble brand of hockey, and insist that fighting is a major part of their team identity. However; the man who pieced the puzzle together is no longer with the team. Love him or hate him, Brian Burke was the visionary whose dream is finally bearing fruit.
Back in January when the Leafs fired Brian Burke, fans had mixed feelings. While not many shed tears, some felt his time in Toronto ended too soon. Dave Nonis may now have the keys to the ignition, but he’s more or less kept the roster Burke built intact.
The same goalie Burke touted as “the real deal” turned out to be just that for Toronto, and the same Nazem Kadri fans wanted traded for Luongo turned out to be an absolute stud.
Despite numerous trade rumours surrounding a veteran goalie at the deadline, management wisely decided to put their faith in Reimer. Since then he’s rewarded the team with big wins over New Jersey and Ottawa – the first time a goalie has single-handedly stolen games for the Leafs since Ed Belfour way back when.
In hindsight, Burke clearly won in the trade market. He traded virtually nothing to Calgary for Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, stole Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner from Anaheim and ripped off Nashville for Cody Franson. Swapping Luke Schenn for James van Riemsdyk at the draft has also paid dividends. Van Riemsdyk has provided the Leafs with the size up front they’ve seriously lacked in the past. Not to mention JVR has also enjoyed success alongside Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak.
But perhaps the most significant move of the Burke era was the hiring of Randy Carlyle. Though he struggled through the free agent market with blunders such as signing Colby Armstrong, Tim Connolly and Mike Komisarek, his last move was certainly his best.
On July 1st 2012 Burke signed Jay McClement. With names like Zach Parise and Ryan Suter available, it wasn’t exactly what Leaf fans had hoped for, but McClement more than surpassed expectations. His shorthanded prowess has been a key asset to the team, as the club ranks third in the NHL at a penalty kill rate of 87 per cent.
The future is optimistic for this youthful Leafs club as they field the NHL’s youngest roster (average age is 26.9). Significant contributors such as Nazem Kadri (22), James van Riemsdyk (23), Phil Kessel (25), Cody Franson (25), Jake Gardiner (22), and James Reimer (25) are all 25 or under while their oldest player John-Michael Liles is only 32.
This year the Leafs have dressed seven players who spent time with the Marlies last season, which is a sign that the club’s depth is an obvious strong suit. The Marlies are en route to their second consecutive Calder Cup playoffs, and it will only further the franchise’s development.
Despite not making the playoffs in his stint with the Leafs, it’s important to give Burke credit and remember that rebuilding a franchise takes time and patience.
When Burke arrived in Toronto in 2008, the Leafs were an absolute mess. Their long time captain Mats Sundin had just left the team, Vesa Toskala was their starting goalie, Jason Blake was their top scorer and their farm system offered few alternatives.
It wasn’t a just rebuild for Burke, it was a massive operation. Fast forward five years and the Leafs are finally in the post season, have a glut of young talent, and ample salary cap room to use in the coming years.
Fans may have a hard time believing it, but for now it sure looks as though Burke knew what he was doing after all.