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Maple Leafs Watch: No playoffs, but plenty of promise

Caring about NHL hockey in Toronto in April and May has become somewhat of a foreign feeling for Maple Leafs fans.

Since the spring of 2004, they’ve been subjected to either flat-out disappointment from seeing their team fall out of the playoff race by Christmas, or they’ve been heartbroken to watch the Buds get oh-so-close to the post-season, yet ultimately fail to qualify.

And with Toronto battling a handful of teams for one of the final Eastern Conference playoff berths, the second scenario may play out again this spring. But there’s something different about the 2010-11 Leafs team. Something worth looking forward to beyond the current season.

Regardless of whether Toronto ultimately makes it into the playoffs, there is legitimate reason for hope now.

There are vastly improved key players such as Mikhail Grabovski (to me, the Leafs’ best all-around forward this season) and defenseman Luke Schenn. There are still-young cornerstones in Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, both of whom are rounding into the form Leafs GM Brian Burke expected when he acquired them.

In addition, there are a few who’ve come out of nowhere – at least, as much as is possible when Leafs Nation analyzes every player like he were the final piece of a Stanley Cup puzzle – to make their mark and consistently contribute to the cause now and down the road. Here, I’m thinking about goalie James Reimer and blueliner Keith Aulie, but also worker bees such as Darryl Boyce and Tim Brent.

The other key to a brighter Leafs future is the organization’s expanding group of talented NHL prospects. With Nazem Kadri and new acquisitions Joe Colborne and Jake Gardiner under the solid tutelage of player developers such as Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, Toronto at long last appears to be on equal philosophical ground with elite franchises that rightfully recognize the importance of promotion from within.

So don’t get too upset if the Leafs aren’t quite up to the task of making the playoffs this year. If they continue on their current upward trajectory, there’ll be many springs to come where post-season play will be a given.

This article was originally published in Metro News. For more hockey commentary, check out Metro Sports.

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