The Eastern Conference Finals officially got underway tonight, and despite the best efforts of Ben Bishop’s leg to shrink his usable body to a standard height, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the first game by a score of 3-1. If nothing else, it means that we can add “Stanley Cup Winning Captain” to Steven Stamkos’ description when we write about him signing a contract here in two months.
The start of the series had us thinking, though. The Leafs haven’t made it to this stage since 2002 when the Carolina Hurricanes beat them in six games. They’ve only gotten this far four other times (1978, 1993, 1994, and 1999) in the post-Expansion Era. Forget the cup, is Toronto ever going to get back to the final four anytime soon? We weighed in with some thoughts.
Ryan Hobart (The Leafs Nation)
I’m going to be cautious and say five years. Without a star goaltender, currently or in the pipeline, there’s nothing to carry the team above where it should be. As such, I’m betting on it taking a while for the core of young talent to establish themselves enough to be in the conference finals. From the seasons where Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar debuted for their clubs, it took six years to reach the Conference Finals (where they both eventually won the Stanley Cup).
It takes a long process to build a team up to the level of consistently making the playoffs. The Leafs are well on that road now. Once the 2016 draft has finished, they’ll have likely established almost exactly the prospect pool they need to move forward. From there, it’ll take development, adding solid depth pieces, and a respectable goaltender to make a playoff club. So, let’s say that takes two years. Then, you have to get into the playoffs and be hot at the right time to carry your in-season quality into a deep playoff run. I’m unfortunately betting on that taking a little longer.
Corey Connolly (LeafsHub)
If there is an over-under on when the Leafs will reach the Conference Finals set at say four years, most fans will take the Under. I am just like most fans. I will say the Leafs are capable of reaching those lofty expectations in three years based on the three pieces. Talent, Babcock, and the competitive nature of our management team. The last two are straight forward, Babcock has won on multiple levels, similarly so has Lou and Shanahan. Most media outlets won’t discuss it yet, but the Leafs are already deep in talent and about to be deeper. The only thing that is holding the Leafs back is quality goaltending and a partner for Rielly to eat up a significant amount of minutes and provide stability in own zone for when Rielly decides to push the play. I would also like to see a bit more capable size on the front end that can control the puck on the cycle.
This brings us back to the management team. Lou has always had solid goaltending, or taken a risk to acquire it. This will be no exception here in Toronto, so expect it sooner than later. Three years is a conference final, but the fun will begin earlier than that.
ElSeldo (Pension Plan Puppets)
Perhaps we need to slow down just a bit on our expectations. Plenty of teams are fantastic but have issues making it out of the second round (hello, Washington). Playoffs alone are probably a season or two away. I was giving this some thought, though. So we want to make the conference finals, well our first challenge is to look at our goal situation. Now, we can keep on developing in the system, but that could take up to 5 years for a conference final caliber goalie to emerge. Unless, of course, Sparks/Bibeau have a level they can whip out at a moments notice. Maybe they do, but I wouldn’t count on it. The best option we have then is to look at a trade or free agent. Everyone, or a lot of people at least, think that James Reimer will be resigned after the season is over. Reimer, though? Oh, he dragged us to the playoffs and OT of game seven, but he’s not proven and would just serve to be a holdover until the real number one arrives. Not to dismiss him, I like him; I’m just being realistic. Everyone put away your pitchforks. Suppose goaltending isn’t an issue, then the timeline shortens up real quick. Under forward we’ll have Marner, Nylander, Kadri, Matthews, maybe JVR still, and that’s a damn fine group. Coming up the backend, we have a solid 2 D is Rielly and Gardiner, and possibly Tyson Barrie if they can make Sakic look like a fool. Kings would weep if we had three D-Men like that. I think realistically, looking at how the team is moving, and how patient the front office is we’re looking at- 5 years to make the conference finals. Three if we get Stamkos.
Jeff Veillette (The Leafs Nation)
The Leafs are adding a bunch of young players next year that are projected to be immediately impactful in the NHL. There’s a very real possibility that, if July goes their way, they’ll go from zero to two elite centres. Jonathan Bernier is at least an average goaltender and won’t repeat the start of last year again, and I can’t imagine that something wasn’t bugging Garret Sparks in the back half of the season. Nobody on the Leafs defence is a huge brand name, but most of their core looks decent enough as far as facilitating a puck-possession game. The Leafs were a top-half possession team last year with awful shooting and save percentages attached, and are about to get a lot more talented.
This doesn’t scream “instant cup competitor” by any means, but it’s enough to at least wonder about a playoff spot no later than 2017/18, if not next year. From that point, the playoffs are a crapshoot; a younger group might find themselves less tired, that same group may find themselves too inexperienced, or a few shots can go off the post in a certain way and send them to a quick exit or a deep run. The Chicago Blackhawks are a modern dynasty and lost in the first round this year. Nobody left in the conference finals won their division. A deep run could happen sooner than later, and it might just be out of their control.