Well, fellow Leafs fans, here we are again. Another year of (very, very, very probably) no playoffs, and the incessant "HAHA ZOMG DUMM (sic) LAFFS (sic) 1967, NO PALYOFFS (sic) SINCE TEH (sic) LOCK OUT (sic) LULZ LULZ BBQ LAFFS (sic) SUCK" comments that we'll get to hear yet again from Leafs haters everywhere. Living in Ottawa, as I do, makes this particularly annoying. However, even the lamest of the lame chirps about not making the playoffs don't even sting anymore.
Before I hit the bottle yet again as yet another salute to yet another disappointing season, I'd like to shed some light on the positives from this year. And let's not kid ourselves, there were a good few... they were just canceled out rather quickly. Follow me after the jump as we shamelessly rip off Elliotte Friedman's writing style and take a point-by-point look - 17 points, because Wendel Clark was awesome. If nothing else, may this list serve to try and ensure that all of our livers will still be usable by next season. Burp!
1. As crappily as this season has turned out, this has been a breakout year for Phil Kessel. He's showed that there is a lot more to his game than sniping off the rush. His awareness is better, he's made some great passes, and is better defensively. Huge difference from the Kessel that first came to Toronto. It'll be exciting to see if he can step it up another notch next year and become an even more complete player. YAAAAAAAYYYY!
2. Joffrey Lupul. Who could have predicted he'd have this kind of year? Answer: No one. Whether or not he'll repeat it next year is another discussion, but the point here is that it's always a pleasant surprise when a player you thought was meh at best scores at a point-per-game pace. Not to mention his trolling of Buffalo, Sens fans, and other people who deserve it, which is hilarious.
3. When was the last time a rookie Leaf defenseman had as good a season as Jake Gardiner is having? I suppose you could say Schenn in 2008, but I'd argue that Gardiner's played a hell of a lot better still. Like Lupul, no matter what happens in future years, his play this year has been another pleasant surprise, and a positive we Leafs fans can take away from this season.
4. Besides which, looking good on the Leafs' blueline was a lot easier in 2008-2009 (Schenn, Kubina, Kaberle, White, Finger, also starring Stralman, Frogren, Colaiacovo and Van Ryn) than it is now. Imagine for a second how bad THAT defense would have looked this year. (Not to mention 07-08, with Andy Wozniewski and all). The Leafs' record may not show it, but the personnel is definitely better than it was.
5. Mikhail Grabovski showed he wasn't just a one-season wonder last year. And he torches the Habs a lot, which is hard to not like. When was the last time Greg Pateryn did anything against the Leafs? Or anything at all? Ahahahahaha! OLE OLE!
6. Clarke MacArthur has also quietly had a decent year - he's just one shy of 20 goals again. Have to admit he's seemed a bit more invisible compared to last year, but hey, that's still not bad for another guy everyone expected to be completely crummy when he was first signed.
7. Phaneuf is closer to being the Phaneuf of old with the Flames than when he first became a Leaf. Still not up to his contract, but whatever. When he makes a mistake, it looks especially bad for some reason, but I think he's made less of them this year overall. He's seemed more calm and consistent offensively as well - more focused on getting the puck on the net and not always going for the big bomb and missing. I also like the way he joins the rush and plays more of a "rover" type role at times, especially when the forwards cover for him properly.
8. The Leafs got Cody Franson for Brett Lebda? Ahahahahahahahaha! THAT one, folks, is going to be a positive to look back on for well more than a year. Well, ok, the Leafs got Lombardi too, but still. That's like that guy who traded a paper clip up to what was eventually a house, but in one step.
9. Steckel and Brown have turned out to be good, solid depth players, albeit lacking in the skill department. It's a small step, but being able to fill out the fourth line with the right kind of role players, as opposed to replacement-level AHL callups or Rickard Wallins, is a necessity for a team that wants to get anything more than a sniff at the post-season.
10. Speaking of these types of players, it looks like Randy Carlyle is finally looking to put together a Nasty Plugger Line that is overall not fun to play against, although the personnel isn't there to do it quite right yet. I can't wait to see this once it's finalized - loved watching Zezel/Osborne/Berg drive opponents nuts in the early '90s.
11. Small sample size alert, and possible bias in my observation, but it really seems like Carlyle has the Leafs hitting a lot more than they did under Ron Wilson. Even if the team can't win to save its life right now, at least they are starting to be less meek and passive about it. I'm not advocating hitting other teams to injure them, but at least be unfun to play against.
12. Going back to players in the Leafs' top six, Tyler Bozak's had a pretty good year, too. Good overall game, kind of like Matt Stajan with more skill. Like Stajan, somewhat miscast as a #1 centre, but I suppose it's hard to deny line chemistry if it's there. Unlike Stajan, a decent contract and no stupid no-trade clause. In a perfect world, in a couple of years, he could centre the Nasty Plugger Line... c'monnnn Unicorn!
13. Yeah... the goaltending's been bad overall. But there have been some good points there, too. Reimer was having a pretty strong start to the season before Gionta ran him over (f*** you Healy again for saying Reimer sold it). I read an interesting point somewhere that you cannot work out if you have a concussion. So, IF that's what Reimer had, I'm hoping his post-injury skid was a result of not being able to work out, in which case there's a good chance he can return to form next year. Could also even say the same for Liles and Armstrong.
14. There's no doubt that Gustavsson has had some ToskaLOL moments this year. But, as Brian Burke said, he basically saved the team's season back in December. Not that that means anything now, but he WAS pretty damn good in December, and for him that's progress. I'd count that as the best month of NHL hockey that Gus has played to date. We have yet to see any signs that he can do it consistently, but that's maybe, possibly, something he can learn from and improve upon. We'll see.
15. The Leafs have six shutouts this year? That surprised the hell out of me to see. That's only one less than Boston and Detroit, and it's more than teams like Vancouver, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Dallas. Granted that's cherry picking the stat a bit (Rangers and Blues, for example, each have a jillion SOs) but given how stinky defensively the Leafs are, I didn't expect them to be nearly on the same radar in that department as some of those teams.
16. This is kinda the same as #8, but aside from the Kessel deal, just about every trade Burke has made has been an epic win. Seems like he waits and picks his targets. I'd sooner patience like that than dumb, reactive all-in deals, like the one for Rick Nash would have been. Face it, no other GM in the NHL has done as consistently good a job at getting usable NHL players for crap in return. Seriously. If you've ever been RT'd by @AskBrianBurke for trying to tell Burke he doesn't know his job, please punch yourself in the mouth now.
17. Fail for Nail, Suck for Galyenchuk, Bail for Mikhail, Slip for Filip, Hit the Deck for Radek, Fire Wilson for (Thomas) Wilson... whichever. I'm not into the tanking-on-purpose concept, but hey, a good draft pick isn't the worst consolation prize ever. Just don't do it again next year... please!