Amodeo: Leafs can still take plenty of positives from 2011-12 season

(Tim Kolupanowich/CM)

It’s safe to say the past few months have been hard to swallow for the faithful Leafs Nation. Through the first half of the season, the Leafs were in the playoff picture and positioned to place anywhere from fourth to eighth in the Eastern Conference. However, as we’ve all witnessed, the Leafs success drastically came to an all too familiar halt and the team free-fell to the bottom of the standings – enough to throw them into the lottery draft mix.

For many Leafs fans, it may seem hard to find any positives from the Leafs 2011-12 season, but if you look closely and at the big picture, there are several things that fans should be extremely happy about.

1. Jake Gardiner: Prior to this season, no one knew how good this kid would become. Through 74 games this season, Gardiner has registered seven goals and 23 assists for 30 points. Another impressive stat on Gardner’s repertoire with the Leafs – a team that has had so many defensive struggles this season – is the 21-year-old rookie’s even plus-minus rating. What is more impressive is the style of hockey that Gardiner plays. He is a smooth skating defenseman that has the ability (and is not afraid to) jump into the rush. He doesn’t panic in his own end, and has the ability to skate himself out of trouble. Leaf fans should be very excited for how well Gardiner played this year and what lies ahead in his promising and young NHL career.

2. Phil Kessel: While many people will continue to be upset with Kessel for not being a factor physically, or at times defensively, what Kessel did this season offensively has been amazing. Through 81 games, the NHL All-Star Kessel has registered 37 goals, 45 assists for 82 points. Kessel has remained in the NHL top 10 for goals, assists, and points all season. Consider that Kessel has had this amazing offensive season without a true No. 1 centre, and it makes Kessel’s accomplishments that much more commendable. However, despite not having someone who is considered a No. 1 centre, his chemistry with Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul has been enjoyable to watch, as any given night this line can dominate a game.

3. Joffrey Lupul: Although Lupul has not played a game since March 6 due to a separated shoulder, Lupul had an exceptional season for the Leafs, racking up career numbers in assists and points. In 66 games with the Leafs, Lupul  registered 25 goals and 42 assists for 67 points, all the while maintaining a plus-1 rating. He showed a great chemistry with Kessel and Tyler Bozak as he was often the physical force that was needed to create time and space for Bozak and Kessel to use their creativity offensively. Lupul was one of the most consistent Leafs this season as well. Considering the horrific back injury that he had a few seasons ago in Anaheim, where he was considering not even playing again, this has truly been a wonderful season for Lupul. Joining Kessel and Dion Phaneuf at the 2012 NHL All-Star game, Lupul even scored two goals for Team Chara. Between Lupul and Gardiner, Leafs GM Brian Burke surely gained some points there, having acquired these players last season from Anaheim for François Beauchemin.

4. Tyler Bozak: While many do not consider Tyler Bozak as a number one center for a NHL club, Bozak has shown amazing chemistry with Leafs first liners Kessel and Lupul. Bozak was supposed to start the season on the third line, as newly signed Tim Connolly was supposed to be the clubs first line centre. Connolly was injured in the pre-season, Bozak began the season on the Leafs top line. After Connolly returned to the Leafs line up, he struggled to find chemistry with Kessel and Lupul, which led to Bozak being placed back on the first line again. Bozak has played well this season, registering 18 goals, 29 assists for 47 points in 72 games. If Bozak is given another year to develop with Kessel and Lupul, he could fit well into the Leafs long-term plans – even if he does eventually get bumped down to the second line.

5. Carl Gunnarsonn: Most nights, Gunnarsson’s name is not mentioned in the highlight packs, however he has been the Leafs most dependable defenseman all season long. Although he did not put up amazing offensive statistics; four goals, 15 assists and 19 points in 76 games, he was a claiming force on defense for the Leafs and has the potential to be a solid two-way defender. His strong defensive play also allowed Dion Phaneuf to be able to contribute offensively for the Leafs as well. Gunnarsonn will be a key piece moving forward for the Leafs defensive core as he should remain in the Leafs long term plans.

Although the Leafs had a horrific fall from the playoff picture, it is often forgotten that the Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL. If they would have made the playoffs this season, it would have been an unbelievable story. However, the fall that occurred was largely due to the Leafs inexperience. This will help the Leafs franchise moving forward, as many of the young Leafs will remember this experience and use it as a learning tool moving forward. Considering that the Leafs will return with a similar lineup next season, this experience in failure could be very beneficial to the young core.

– Danny Amodeo, Contributing Writer

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