The Toronto Maple Leafs may still surprise us with another win or two against the Boston Bruins. But after that heartbreaker of a defeat they were dealt in overtime on Wednesday, the end of a team's breakthrough season appears near.
You often wonder what sort of stamp a playoff run will make on an individual player or a team. Did any of you believe that after the Vancouver Canucks lost Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup final that they wouldn't get up off the mat, that they would be beaten so swiftly in the first round in the next two playoffs?
What will this playoff venture do for the Maple Leafs down the road? You see players like Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson and Joffrey Lupul continue to grow every shift, every game. The future seems so bright for this trio.
Franson and Lupul are two of the true leaders of this club. They're the kind of people you want influencing a dressing room.
But you also have seen Nazem Kadri struggle. Local reporters built him up mightily during his outstanding start and middle part to the lockout-shortened season. But he wobbled to the finish line and the talented kid has continued to spin his wheels in his first visit to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Phaneuf on rocky ground
You also have to wonder about Dion Phaneuf's future in Toronto. After his overtime gaffe, in which his ill-advised pinch paved the way for David Krejci's game-winner to put the Bruins ahead three games to one in the series, Phaneuf has found himself in hostile ground with Maple Leafs fans.
His latest mistake simply magnified the fact that, in his eighth year, this hard-hitting, smooth-skating defenceman continues to make the same mistakes he did as a raw rookie with the Calgary Flames in 2005.
The 28-year-old Phaneuf has one more season left on his $6.5-million-per-year contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis will have to make a decision on Phaneuf in the next several weeks because a lot of the blockbusters these days are made at the NHL draft.
If the Bruins eliminate the Maple Leafs in the next few days, Nonis should take a few days to let the emotions of the playoff run subside before deciding what to do with Phaneuf. He doesn't want to make the same mistake that the Canucks did with goalie Roberto Luongo a year ago. That storyline developed into quite a mess this season.
Depth on D
The one area where the Maple Leafs have depth in the organization is defence, with teenagers Morgan Rielly, Matt Finn and Stuart Percy and others like Jesse Blacker and Korbinian Holzer.
Nonis has to be sure that he feels Gardiner is ready for prime time, ready to replace Phaneuf's minutes and role. Gardiner, 22, certainly has exhibited that he is ready with his performance against the Bruins in the last few games.
When Mark Fraser was knocked out of Game 4 after he was hit in the forehead with a shot in the third period, Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle increased Gardiner's ice time. Only Phaneuf (31:14) and Franson (28:14) saw more action than Gardiner at 27:45.
There is little doubt that Franson is ready for a bigger role. He not only has been a boon to the Maple Leafs' power play, but also a solid contributor alongside Fraser on the third pairing.
Fraser, who does not wear a visor, is gone for the series after he underwent surgery to repair a fracture between the eyes and cranial area. That's sad news because Fraser was another pleasant surprise for the Maple Leafs this season.
Maybe it's time to put Gardiner with Franson and see if there is a match. Maybe they have a future together as the club's top defence pairing.
After all, it's always interesting to see what sort of stamp a playoff run will put on a team or a player down the road.
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