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But seriously, why not the Leafs?

If you’re a fan of the Leafs, in the next few days or weeks (many of them hopefully) there’ll be no way to avoid hearing a bunch of reasons why a team that hasn’t been to the Finals in 51 years isn’t capable of winning it all this year.

(I guess when I put it like that…)

But while there’s obviously no guarantee of a Cup for the Leafs or even that they’ll make a meaningful run this spring (because there never is for any team), there are some simple rebuttals to a lot of the old-school junk you’ll hear around the workplace or whatnot leading up to these playoffs. There are some legitimate criticisms to respond to as well, so let’s just try to cover all of it, because, really, why not the Leafs this year?

Andersen isn’t “the guy”

I’ve come across this criticism of the Leafs’ chances pretty often, and I’m pointing it out first because it sucks the most. Without getting into the whole “goaltending is voodoo” thing, the fact is that trying to say one guy “has it” in the playoffs and others don’t is foolish given the history of Cup winners, especially in recent years.

I’d be willing to bet there are folks who still believe Corey Crawford is terrible. He isn’t, but even if you think he is, he has rings. Matt Murray? Fresh out of the minors and into back-to-back Cups. Pekka Rinne? Supposedly “terrible” one season and a Vezina trophy candidate the next, but, like, also had a Cup run in that so-called down season?

The point is things go all over the place for goalies, but all we have to go on is that Andersen is above-average right now, can be outstanding on any given night, and I’d give him as good a chance of backstopping a champion as anyone else.

It really isn’t more complicated than that. He’s good. Let’s move on.

The Leafs have a weak blue-line

Now, this is a legitmate concern, at least partly. I’d feel a lot better about the Leafs in the playoffs and in general if they were stronger along their right side, but it hasn’t materialized yet. But what we get in exchange for not making a major move to bring someone in at the deadline is an intact forward depth chart of killers, so it isn’t all bad.

We might go overboard on Penguins comparisons here, but this is another one we have to point out because the two teams’ makeups aren’t all that different. Pittsburgh’s defence corps last year was Cole, Maatta, Hainsey, Dumoulin, Daley and Schultz for their Cup run. I’d argue that, barring injury, Toronto’s is a good bit stronger than that, and even if someone is of the wrong opinion that it isn’t, that team at least proved you can get around that type of setback or weakness in the playoffs.

As an aside, there’s also a contingent of people out there who will talk about the Leafs getting “pushed around” because they’re apparently not physical enough on the back end. This dated idea that you need a huge punishing defence group in order to survive the playoffs is just that, so let your Office Don Cherry know what’s up.

The Leafs are not established contenders yet, they’re just not ready

This is the classic “They just don’t have it” or “They have a good young core but it’s not their time yet” which, again, is not a real thing. It’s the laziest of narratives.

Every team isn’t ready until they are. The Hawks were brimmed with young talent flanked by a veterans in 2010 as they started up their dynasty, and other teams that have contended have similar stories. The idea of a perfect rebuild with a nice gradual climb to contending, some setback heartbreak, and then finally a Cup is fantasy land. The team is good or it isn’t, and the really good ones have the best shot at winning 4 games out of 7 the most.

Are the Leafs at least good enough to be in the Cup conversation?

Here’s a quick rundown or profile, if you will, of each team that has won the Cup since the full-season lockout. Nothing too in-depth here, obviously, but I think it gives a good idea of where winning teams have been performance-wise in recent years.

Year Cup winner Reg Season Points Standings Adjusted Corsi Rank (League) Goal Diff
2017      Penguins   111 2nd in East     15th +48
2016 Penguins 104 2nd in East 3rd +42
2015 Blackhawks       102 4th in West 2nd +40
2014 Kings 100 6th in West 1st +32
2013 Blackhawks 77 (lockout) 1st in West 4th +53
2012 Kings 95 8th in West 2nd +15
2011 Bruins 103 4th in East 12th +51
2010 Blackhawks 112 2nd in West 1st +62
2009 Penguins 99 4th in East 19th +23
2008 Wings 115 1st in West 1st +73
2007 Ducks 110 2nd in West n/a +50
2006 Hurricanes 112 2nd in East n/a +34

Now here’s the Leafs’ profile for this season.

105 points, 3rd in the East, 14th in adjusted Corsi, and goal differential of +45

The weak point here is obviously the Leafs’ shot-attempt share, and in fact they were a lot better in that regard last season when no one had them penciled as contenders. With that said, I’d have a hard time taking anyone seriously who truly believes last year’s club is better than the 2018 version. You could argue this iteration of the Leafs has the deepest slate of playmakers of any team in the league, and that bodes well for them potentially mirroring the Penguins in breaking the mold on going the whole way without being a puck-dominant team like those Kings/Blackhawks juggernauts earlier this decade.

Their road to the Finals is too tough

Oh, it’s daunting no doubt. Look, there’s plenty of warranted concern about the Leafs being able to get through Boston and likely Tampa on their side of the bracket, then knock off Pittsburgh on the way to the dance. It’s a mountain.

But, like, this is just what happens when your favourite team contends, so get used to it. And while the complaints about the playoff format are somewhat valid, if the Leafs weren’t playing the Bruins in the first round, they’d be playing Pittsburgh under a 1-8 format, so it’d be stressful as hell either way.

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Don’t get me wrong, I understand some the doubt surrounding the Leafs for a few of the credible reasons we’ve already listed off. Plus, I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t like they’ve been a destroyer of worlds all season, either. I mean, the season started off fine, but then things went a little sideways near the early-to-midway point and a lot of (warranted) questions crept in. For a two month stretch there starting in late November, Matthews began dealing with a nagging injury, the lineup seemed entirely sub-optimal, and their play felt, dare I say, Carlyle-like for awhile. Stretch passing, dump-and-chase, extended own zone time, it was bad. And it felt like the Leafs could start to tumble a little into the middle part of the playoff picture.

Instead, they put their foot on the gas and have trended up in a major way in the last three months or so. Here’s a look at how the Leafs have climbed to peak at the right time – the top records in the league since game 41 of the season.

That’s some major company and a beautiful sign going into the playoffs for a team so young. We talk about the potential improvements and our expectations from year-to-year with this core of kids, but sometimes it seems we overlook how much they can improve in-season. Toronto is a much better team than they were earlier in the season, and they were a solid one then.

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Again, the Leafs might pull it off or they might not. Every team except for one doesn’t. But while it sounds overly simplistic, good teams near the very top of the standings are there for a reason – they just more-or-less laid waste to the rest of the league for eight months. As far as being a real contender goes, I just don’t see much of an argument for Toronto not being one, especially given their upward trend in the second half. And even by the somewhat anecdotal eye test I probably don’t have to tell you that the way the Leafs have played highest-end teams like the Bolts, Bruins, and Preds this season has been encouraging. Don’t be afraid of feeling confident because of that.

When you get good, you’re good. And like Babcock himself has said in the past, once you build your way into contending, you knock on the door as many times as possible and (hopefully) once in a while someone opens up and gives you a huge silver mug for it. Early exit, late exit, or all the way, these Leafs are living in that contending space now. Embrace it.

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  • FlareKnight

    Make a point. In the end only one team makes it and wins. So it’s not going to be easy for anyone. But the Leafs have the pieces to make a run here. Let’s start off with taking down Boston and keep it going.

  • jimithy

    By way of this site I would like to congratulate the Leafs on delivering an unheard of rare consistent season.
    This postseason may be short but future postseasons could change all that.

  • leafdreamer

    Beautifully written piece. Thank you. We’re entering the contention window. We look a lot like 2009 Penguins and 2010 Blackhawks teams in terms of young super-star forward talent and nice sprinkling of veterans to support the young guys. We’re going to need Rielly, Gardiner and Dermott to find another gear though if they’re to play the roles of Letang and Keith. Blackhawks couldn’t have done it without Seabrook and Byfuglin and we have anyone remotely resembling them but those were old days and old ways. We have a realistic chance especially with the best coach in the world who, at present, and you never know how long it will last, appears to have the undivided attention and full respect of the room and that’s nothing to f**k with.