The Toronto Maple Leafs’ current hot streak – they’ve won 12 of their past 14 games, including seven of their past eight – shouldn’t get Leafs’ fans overly excited. This is not to suggest they shouldn’t enjoy the Buds’ wave of winning hockey. This is, however, a streak that should be met with the same calm skepticism that greeted the Leafs when they lost five of seven games to start the year.
As the saying goes, “Toronto’s teams are never as bad as they look on their worst days, nor are they as good as they seem on their best”. The roller-coaster lifestyle in Leafs Land is what happens when you mix decades of ineptitude with a few memorable post-season runs to keep the fan base aching for more. We all know now that this year’s version of the Leafs are better defensively than last year’s roster, but they’re also worse on offense than they were last season. Both of those weathervanes are likely to even out in the weeks and months ahead. The challenge for head coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff is to quickly iron out any wrinkles in Toronto’s all-around game, and have them primed for the beginning of the playoffs.
You’ll never have that without having key players remain healthy all season long, though. It’s all but impossible for any team to avoid the injury bug, but we saw what happened last year when Leafs captain John Tavares was sidelined at the start of Toronto’s first-round series against Montreal. Sometimes, one injury can be the catalyst and main factor in a team’s collapse, and that was the case in the Leafs’ showdown against the Habs. For Toronto to take its next competitive steps, it needs all hands on deck. And in an Olympic NHL season and its attendant schedule compressions, staying healthy might just be their biggest challenge.
But that’s largely up to chance. Some teams will be more fortunate to stay relatively intact, and no amount of planning or safeguarding will change it. You just hope that, if you do have injuries, they happen early or mid-season and allow players to return to the lineup come playoff time.
That definitely helped the defending Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning win their second Cup in a row last year. Star winger Nikita Kucherov wound up being healthy just as the post-season began, and he went on to compile a team-leading 32 points in 23 games. And this year, again, Kucherov has gone on the injury list – this time, after playing only three regular-season games. You can be as suspicious as you want about the Bolts, salary cap management and their good fortune, but if the league is OK with this type of scenario, and the players don’t have a problem with it, we just have to chalk it up to happenstance.
We also have to chalk up the Leafs’ start to them living up to expectations. Very few predictions had Toronto missing the playoffs, even after they’ve moved from a relatively easy North Division last year to the more familiar and competitive Atlantic Division this season. Few, if any analysts were comfortable arguing the Leafs were not a playoff team. You had to respect the firepower Toronto GM Kyle Dubas had assembled, and you had to think nothing changed last summer to take away the Leafs’ potency.
So, that being said, the Leafs are where many of us thought they would be after one-quarter of the regular season: right in the mix for first place in the Atlantic, with the Lightning and Florida Panthers buzzing in the same vicinity. They’ll need to be about as consistent in their next 20 games if they want to ward off the likes of the Boston Bruins as they make up the five games in hand they currently have on Toronto. But even if they do undergo a regrettable stretch, remember the lesson above. The Leafs are never as good or as bad as they may appear.
That will be a small comfort, though, if they can’t evolve into a bona fide Cup contender.
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