The Leafs finally made the playoffs: what it tells us about today’s NHL
For what it’s worth, the NHL’s long history of labor disputes between players and owners has created dramatic paradigm shifts in the League’s successful teams. The post-lockout NHL in 2005 saw the emergence of players like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, and Patrick Kane as the dynamic figureheads, leading their teams to playoff victories with high-flying offense.
People needed to be excited about hockey again for the NHL to emerge from the ashes of the “dead puck era” into a marketable product for a newly impassioned fan community. The NHL needed raw talent and fresh faces, and the draft classes provided that in spades. The NHL breathed anew, and interest in all levels of hockey, from the NHL to the NCAA to rec leagues, has burgeoned across the United States (the NHL’s target of increased exposure) in the years since 2005.
The peak of the NHL in that post-lockout era, so recent in the grand scheme of things, seems terribly distant as we look at the standings today. The Atlantic Division was the toughest in hockey–many of the teams seemed unbeatable for long stretches, except for the poor Islanders, who rarely made the playoffs and hadn’t been out of the first round since 1993. The Detroit Red Wings were still a dynasty, and the scrappy young Blackhawks eventually ended up on their heels.
Youngsters still seem to reign at times, but the playing field, especially in this short season, still trends perceptibly towards parity, and, luckily, without the extent of problems that plagued the dead puck era into oblivion. Teams can win with defense, and the defense can be as exciting to watch as the offense, leading to one-goal games and white-knuckle third periods that seem rowdy and dramatic compared to some seasons of the recent past.
This change might be best exemplified by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will see their first postseason since before the 2005 lockout.
The Maple Leafs are a young team with only two players aged 30 or above in Colton Orr and alternate captain Jay McClement. Very few names on the roster jump out at the casual hockey fan. It is not a team of stars. But this is a team that, for once, has potential offensive threats top to bottom, and a goalie who can stop pucks in the form of James Reimer. It would seem that a coaching change (made by Brian Burke late in the 2012 season as he fired Ron Wilson and brought in Randy Carlyle) and a GM change (as ownership fired Burke before the season began in 2013 and brought in Dave Nonis) was needed to get the team’s talent off the ground.
This is still largely Burke’s team, as the team has only made minor deals since Nonis took the helm in January. But coach Randy Carlyle has brought out the best in his roster.
Phil Kessel is scoring at more than a point-per-game pace (45GP, 48 points). Nazem Kadri, whose pro career wasn’t even underway the last time Toronto made the playoffs, isn’t far behind at 42 points in 45 games. The defense is hanging in there too, led by captain Dion Phaneuf, arguably the biggest name on the roster.
This is what every Leafs fan has been waiting patiently for, and they did it without too much fuss, and playing in the East’s toughest division this season alongside the Boston Bruins and the Montréal Canadiens, who are currently fighting for the No. 2 seed.
But Toronto might be the hottest of the three Northeast Division playoff teams heading into the season’s final week. Boston has been alternatively tough and undisciplined, inspired and lethargic over the last month, while Montréal has managed to take a lot of tough losses to teams lower on the totem pole. Toronto has also taken some tough losses, to the newly energized Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, but the Maple Leafs have shown resilience after bad nights all season long.
When Toronto takes the ice for its first game of the quarterfinals, there will be more than a few guys out there who have never skated in an NHL playoff game. Even if you’re rooting for the other side, you can’t deny that that’s a beautiful thing. Not to mention, perfectly indicative of the NHL’s trend upwards after this lockout–to even more underdog stories and first timers.
It’s harder than ever to establish a true dynasty in hockey. The competition is just that tough. And more people than ever are watching, from everyday fans to kids who are realizing that they could grow up and play hockey for a living. Draft picks like Sidney Crosby might be once in a lifetime, but there will always be names like Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak, and Cody Franson, playing great, entertaining playoff hockey, and showing up superstars when they get the chance.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are at last in the postseason. It’s going to be good.