If you are wondering whether the Leafs are indeed on the upswing, if the team’s play over the last 12 months is really just a bubble in a bathtub full of failure, ask yourself this question.
If you were starting a new franchise right now, and you could draft just one Maple Leaf, who would it be?
Go ahead. Indulge me. Who is the best bet to be a cornerstone player?
James Reimer. Good choice. He’s 23 and while the sample size of 45 games is perilously small, you can argue that a .918 save percentage and 2.63 goals against average suggests a very good NHL career is in the offing. You might want to hedge things a bit since Reimer has been felled by head and neck injuries. Suit yourself.
Phil Kessel. The obvious choice. Second in the league in goals, 17 and points, 35. Just 24 years old, Kessel is coming off three consecutive seasons of 30 or more goals. Using a player’s present scoring pace to predict a season-ending tally is a ludicrous proposition. Suffice to say that Kessel is on pace for a rounded up 50 goals. Just sayin’.
Dion Phaneuf. Great choice. A Norris Trophy finalist in 2008, Phaneuf is playing the best hockey of his career. He has contributed 18 points so far and stands sixth in the league in ice-time. The team’s captain and on-ice heartbeat, Phaneuf is the only Leaf who can disrupt a game with a hit or a goal. If you believe the blue line is invariably the foundation on which you build a team, he’s your guy.
Joffrey Lupul: Interesting. Still a youngish 28 he is enjoying his highest level of productivity. Lupul is closing on four seasons of 20 or more goals. He is 28 and was drafted seventh overall in 2002. He isn’t an eye-catching choice but he is a versatile forward. You probably wouldn’t take him but you could do a lot worse.
Jake Gardiner: Surprisingly defensible. Gardiner’s eight points is third among rookie defencemen. He is third in ice-time for rookie rearguards and with 23, 25 and 26 minutes over the last three games he might lead first year defencemen by season’s end. Gardiner’s game is built on phenomenal skating but his decision-making, superb stick and solid decision-making allows him to play like a veteran in the defensive and neutral zone. His work in the offensive end is still in development but a 21-year-old who has analysts mouthing ‘special player’ wouldn’t be a bad start for a new entry.
From 1995-2008, the answer to that question would have been Mats Sundin or Curtis Joseph.
Since then there has been a host of uninspiring second-tier choices, Phaneuf when he was still finding his game, Mikhail Grabovski maybe. Last year Nikolai Kulemin would have gotten some votes.
So what you have over the last 15 years is Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph and nobody to speak of.
Now you have four solid choices and another if you have an overriding fondness for Lupul.
That’s five potential cornerstone players, none older than 28 and three younger than 25.
And that is why the current edition of the Maple Leafs really bears no relation to recent teams.
The last Leaf team with comparable core of talent was the 2003-2004 club. Perhaps you remember them; they were the last version of the team to make the playoffs.
That team was built around Ed Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alex Mogilny and Sundin, then 32 and the youngest member of the core group.
Will the four current cornerstone Leafs match that distinguished group? Hell, no.
But there are five players to choose from and unlike that club’s superb core, all are just entering their prime or have years to go before what should be their best seasons.
Aside from Ken Dryden’s lamentable flirtation with silver, the Leafs have always worn blue and white. The colours stay the same. Everything else has changed.