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As playoffs fade, Maple Leafs have hope

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Oh, you better believe Brian Burke was watching Monday night, hopeful when the Boston Bruins took a 3-0 lead, anxious when the New York Rangers cut it to 3-2, profane when the Rangers scored three times in the final minutes to win 5-3 at a roaring Madison Square Garden.

“Yeah,” the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager said early Tuesday morning, already back in the office before dawn, “I’m watching the TV cursing the Boston Bruins and not being able to hold a 3-0 lead. It impacts us directly and significantly. But they don’t owe us that. They don’t owe us a win last night. We’ve dug this hole. We’ve got no one to complain to. We’ve just got to keep winning.”

Even if the Leafs keep winning, their surge almost certainly will leave them short of the goal Burke set before the season – the playoffs. They have gone 18-7-5 since the all-star break, racking up 41 points, tied for fourth-most in the NHL in that span. They have won six of their past seven games. Still, they sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 84 points.

Even if the Leafs win their final three games, they can’t catch the Rangers, now seventh with 91 points. The only way they can pass the Buffalo Sabres, eighth with 90 points, is if they win out without a shootout, the Sabres lose their final three in regulation, and it comes down to the head-to-head tiebreaker. (The Leafs won the season series 3-2-1). Even then, they also have to leapfrog the Carolina Hurricanes, ninth with 87 points.

Highly unlikely.

And so, when the Leafs look back on 2010-11, they will wonder: Why were they 19-25-5 before the all-star break? What if captain Dion Phaneuf(notes) had not missed more than a month with a deep leg laceration? What if goaltender James Reimer(notes) had risen up the depth chart earlier? What if Burke had made a bigger splash before the trade deadline?

“We tried desperately to add a player at the deadline,” Burke said. “We weren’t able to do it. Now the question is: Had we been able to do that, would this gap be different? And that’s one I’ll have to worry about all summer.”

But looking back, what did you expect? When Burke and Phaneuf talked in training camp about making the playoffs, most eyes rolled. The Leafs had the second-worst record in the NHL last season. First, they had to get back into the mix.

That they have done. They will have improved by at least 10 points. They will have played meaningful games down the stretch. Critics have stopped calling for the head of coach Ron Wilson, who will be back, according to Burke. Critics have even quieted their ripping of the Phil Kessel(notes) trade, now that the Bruins won’t get a second straight top-five pick out of a 2009 deal that sent two first-rounders and a second-rounder to Boston.

Yes, the Leafs have gone on late-season runs before. Every year since the lockout, they have posted a winning record since the all-star break. Every year since the lockout, they have missed the playoffs anyway. Barring a miracle, they will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, extending the longest drought in the franchise’s 94-year history.

But this run has not been a meaningless mirage.

“Nobody knowledgeable has said that,” Burke said. “Nobody with a grain of intellectual ability has said that this is a meaningless run. A meaningless, pressure-off run is 10 games. It’s not six weeks, seven weeks.”

The Leafs have won some big games, such as last week’s back-to-back 4-3 victories over Buffalo and Boston. They have shown they have some pieces around which to build, and Burke has added assets he can use to keep building.

Reimer has been a revelation, rising from fourth or fifth on the netminding depth chart to go 20-8-4 with a .920 save percentage. Phaneuf has been outstanding lately, with 12 points and a plus-7 rating in his past 14 games. Kessel has reached 30 goals for the third straight season, even though he doesn’t have a true No. 1 centerman. Despite his minus-21 rating, Burke called Kessel a “200-foot player now instead of just an offensive guy.”

The Leafs have an up-and-coming defense corps with 24-year-old Carl Gunnarsson(notes) and two 21-year-olds – Keith Aulie(notes) and Luke Schenn(notes). They have a second line of 20-goal scorers in Clarke MacArthur(notes), Mikhail Grabovski(notes) and Nikolai Kulemin(notes). They also have a stable of character players, starting with Colby Armstrong(notes).

As Burke shipped out veterans Francois Beauchemin(notes), Kris Versteeg(notes) and Tomas Kaberle(notes) in February, he picked up another top-six forward (Joffrey Lupul(notes)), two promising prospects (Joe Colborne(notes) and Jake Gardiner) and two first-round picks. He has millions of dollars of salary-cap space. So he will have ammunition and flexibility when he hits the trade and free-agent markets.

“We expect to be active,” Burke said, “and I think we’ve positioned ourselves for a good summer.”

Is Reimer for real? Burke conceded “there is no way to know that” based on less than half a season. But goaltending consultant Francois Allaire is high on Reimer, a restricted free agent. He’ll be back. The Leafs must decide on Jonas Gustavsson(notes), who has a year left on his contract, and veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), a pending unrestricted free agent.

“Do we go with James and ‘The Monster’ (Gustavsson)?” Burke said. “Is there a role for J-S Giguere?”

The Leafs need to find a No. 1 centerman to feed Kessel – and bump Tyler Bozak(notes) down into a more appropriate role. They need more skill overall. Expect Burke to continue to be bold, looking for players in their 20s – old enough to make an impact, but young enough to have some upside. He just can’t be too bold, because when he overrates talent is when he runs into trouble.

This team is not as good as it has looked since the all-star break. It is not one player away from Stanley Cup contention. But it is not as bad as it looked before the all-star break. It is not several players away anymore, either. Take the season as a whole, and this is a bubble team trying to become a playoff team, planning to become a championship contender someday. No more, but no less.

Burke doesn’t necessarily need a risky, home-run acquisition. He needs to carefully upgrade his roster, and he needs Colborne and Gardiner to develop in the minors, come up and play well next season, the way Aulie and Nazem Kadri(notes) have this season.

“This is not my first rodeo, rebuilding a team, and we have felt for some time the key is more putting building blocks in place that will be here in three or four years,” said Burke, who is leading his fourth NHL team and won the 2007 Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. “We’re not trying to get in the playoffs. We want to have a parade.”

A parade remains a distant dream. But it isn’t hard to envision the next step – this time next season some other general manager watching the TV, his guts churning with every goal, cursing as the Toronto Maple Leafs rise in the standings.

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