What Will It Take?
We’re officially into the second half of the season. the Leafs are an improved club over last year, and are in the hunt to end a playoff drought that has a
fan base starving for hockey beyond April 7th of this season. As is well known, the architect of this team- a cunning and passionate Mr. Brian Burke- enjoys to get his ‘deadline deals’ done in advance. The reason for this is twofold. (1) It allows the players acquired to have some extra time to get acclimated to their new surroundings and teammates and (2) it avoids the madness and sometimes-necessary overpayments that characterize February 27th.
Over the coming days and weeks, Burke will continue to explore many avenues on his quest for improving the team, but it goes without saying that he isn’t the only GM trying to do so, and by no means will acquiring talent be a simple task. By his own admission, Burke is looking to improve primarily by way of adding size into the top 6 group of forwards. If and when Burke makes a deal, this team will be different, but it remains to be seen if it will be better, or rather, better suited to conquer the task at hand which will remain the same: make the playoffs.
How might the Leafs go about accomplishing this goal? What needs to be done? Let’s take a look inside some of the numbers.
Over the past 5 years, an average of points was good enough for 8th place, a home that would make the Leafs and their fans ecstatic despite what some pundits have said. Furthermore it would solidify the steady improvements and strides that are being taken by the Leafs thanks to Burke and of course the players themselves.
As it stands the Leafs have a record of 22-18-4, which is good for 49 points
Over the past 6 years, here is how the 8th place teams have finished their years in the Eastern Conference:
2011: 93 pts, 44 Wins
2010: 88 pts, 39 Wins
2009: 93 pts, 41 Wins
2008: 94 pts, 41 Wins
2007: 92 pts, 40 Wins
2006: 92 pts, 43 Wins
This results in an average of 41 wins and 92 points as being good enough to claim 8th place; something that- if achieved by the Leafs- would make the team, the fans and the city ecstatic, needless to say. Furthermore, it would help continue the progress that the Leafs have made since they began their rebuild. For argument’s sake let’s say that the Leafs would need to reach a total of 94 points to make it into 8th place, which is only one point better than last year’s New York Rangers.
As of right now, the Leafs have 49 points in 45 games with a record of 22-18-5, and sit 9th in the Eastern Conference playoff race (1 point back of the Capitals in 8th). That’s 49 out of a possible 90 points or .544 points per game. The average 8th seeded team mentioned above would have acquired 92 points in 82 games or .561 points per game, slightly better than what the Leafs have managed thus far. With 37 games left in the season, there is tons of hockey to be played, but an extended losing streak would be near impossible to work your way back from with so many teams being this close, this early.
In those 37 games the Leafs would need to attain 45 points of a possible 74 points at a rate of .608 points per game. Clearly the Leafs need to have a better ‘second half’ if they want to get to what should be a safe enough zone to make the playoffs.
To achieve those 45 points the Leafs’ record would need to look something like this 20-12-5. This record might look a little familiar to you, and if it does, you have a good eye. When James Reimer grabbed hold of the crease last year, he put up a record of 20-10-5.
Is this feasible? Well, let’s take a look at some highlights on the schedule from here on in. the Leafs will face 21 teams that are currently above them in league standings, and 16 that are below them.
This may seem daunting, but let’s break it down even further. Of those teams that are ahead of the Leafs, 17 are in the east, and 4 are in the West, which is important in that losing a game to an Eastern conference foe is more detrimental to playoff hopes than losing to a team from the West.
Of those 17 Eastern conference games that feature teams currently ahead of the Leafs, 11 games are against teams that are currently within striking distance of the Leafs (PITT, WSH, NJ, OTT, FLA). Ottawa is the furthest team ahead of this pack, with 58 points, however they have played 48 games (3 more than PITT, NJ & TOR and 4 more than WSH & FLA). Let us assume that the Capitals continue to climb the standings and win their division, which is not unlikely in the slightest, though far from easy. Should this happen, they would join the Rangers, Bruins and Flyers atop the conference, fighting for the 1-4 spots in the East. That leaves 4 spots to be had between the Leafs, Penguins, Senators, Devils, Panthers, Jets, Sabres and Habs.
WHO GOES WHERE?
Penguins: I’ll say the make it, because with Malkin leading the charge, there’s just no reason to believe otherwise. Let’s say in 5th. May seem a little high, but they’ve been crushed by KEY injuries, and are getting Letang back soon.
Devils: I think they’ll end keeping pace with where they are as long as they get the goaltending, which is no guarantee, but let’s say 6th.
Senators: Certainly were a surprise but are now showing they belong. Can they keep it up? Their goaltending and timely scoring along with great seasons from Spezza, Karlsson, Michalek would suggest yes, but time will tell. I’m going to say they make it in one of the lower seeds. Let’s say 7th.
Now, that leaves the Leafs, Panthers, Jets, Sabres and Habs battling for the 8th and final spot. The Panthers lose a lot of games in overtime (most OT points in the league), and I honestly think that the clock will strike midnight for this Cinderella story before the season ends. It’s going to be a battle, but if the Leafs can win 20 of their next 37 games, and take a handful of the rest of those to OT, they’re in (more than likely. Again nothing is guaranteed). It’s doable. But it will be far from easy. Currently the Leafs seem to have a revolving door of injuries wherein one player recovers and another goes down. The much publicized trade season is upon us, so any upgrade to our team would only help our chances, but banking on a January Burke theft special 3 years running might be a bit much.
Therefore, currently, the Panthers are the team the Leafs need to most definitely win their games against (of course, in addition to those teams right behind/right in front of them if possible).
WHERE WILL THE WINS COME FROM?
Good question. Let’s look at this month-by-month.
Records up to date:
5 games remaining
Realistic record: 3-2-0
To close out this month, the Leafs have the Wild, Canadiens, Islanders (x2) and Penguins. I’ll say the Leafs can beat The Wild and Canadiens, and should be able to win at least one of the back to backs with Islanders, but let’s say they get a split there. That leaves them with 3 wins and 2 losses. This would give the Leafs a record of 7-5-0 in January.
Realistic record: 7-5-2
February wins would include: Penguins, Jets, Habs, Oilers, Flames, Devils, Panthers. Again, no team can be taken for granted, but arguments for winning these games would not be hard to produce. That’s not to say that it won’t take a complete effort from the boys in blue, but this is far from unrealistic.
Realistic record: 8-6-1
March wins: Bruins (they have to win one eventually, right?), Panthers, Bolts, Sens (or Habs, or Isles), Devils, Canes, Sabres. If you’re not confident about beating the Bruins at some point, then maybe sub in the Isles game there. The Devils will be really hungry, no doubt, as will the Panthers but the Leafs CAN beat them. They are not elite teams.
Realistic record: 2-0-1
April wins: Sabres, Bolts. Really any of these three games (Habs being the other game) could be wins, and likely should be wins if the Leafs want to consider themselves a competitive playoff team, but they’ll be close at season’s end and one could make an argument either way. That being said, the Leafs will be hungry too. Should be some good games.
This kind of finish would ensure the Leafs 94 points and a good chance at making the playoffs in either the 8th or 7th seed. Of course this is all hypothetical, and ANYTHING can happen, but logically speaking, this isn’t unattainable. Call it wishful thinking. Call it kool-aid drinking. Call it what you will. Improvements WILL have to be made (namely scoring on prime chances, consistent goaltending, shutdown defending), but this team has shown, that when they are using their speed, and capitalizing on turnovers, they can win games, and win enough of them to be given a chance at making the playoffs. The Leafs are notoriously known for having poor starts to the season, and winning what are often labeled meaningless games down the stretch. We’ve had a decent first half, not great but not terrible. We’ll need to capture some of that stretch-run magic to hit those 94 points.
Can they? I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait. Let the games begin.