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By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - What has happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the post-lockout era hardly seems possible for the NHL's most valuable franchise.
But, the Leafs, who were valued at $521 million by Forbes back in November, have learned the hard way that being profitable doesn't necessarily translate to success on the ice.
When the 2010-11 regular season ended, it marked the sixth straight campaign that Toronto failed to qualify for the postseason -- the longest playoff drought in the storied Original Six franchise's history.
Lately, however, it seems that the Maple Leafs are ready to rejoin the ranks of NHL playoff teams, as a rebuilding project begun over three years ago by general manager Brian Burke is finally beginning to bear fruit.
The biggest difference for the Leafs this year has been the club's much- improved offensive attack. Toronto finished last season ranked 21st in the NHL with an average of 2.60 goals per game, but after 53 games this year, the Leafs are ranked fifth with 3.09 GPG.
Still, Toronto head coach Ron Wilson wants his team to be careful not to get too caught up in watching what other Eastern Conference teams are doing on a nightly basis. The Maple Leafs instead need to focus on doing what needs to be done to gain points on their own.
"There's not a whole lot of scoreboard watching on our part," said Wilson. "We just try to take care of our own business and worry about ourselves."
Toronto has certainly been able to maximize its point earning potential in recent weeks, as the Maple Leafs have posted a 5-0-1 record in their last six trips to the ice. Prior to that run, the Leafs had dropped four of five and Toronto will need to avoid swoons like that down the stretch if it wants to punch its first ticket to the postseason since 2004.
One player who seems personally determined to get the Leafs back into the NHL's annual tournament is winger Phil Kessel. A former first-round pick by Boston in the 2006 draft, the 24-year-old American is finally coming into his own after briefly becoming a poster boy for Toronto's recent lack of success.
Kessel was acquired by Burke from the Bruins for a hefty price just prior to the 2009-10 season. The Leafs gave Boston their first and second round draft picks in 2010, as well as a first round pick in 2011. With Toronto missing the playoffs before both of those draft years, the division rival Bruins landed a pair of top-10 picks (Tyler Seguin, 2nd overall, 2010 & Dougie Hamilton, 8th overall, 2011) thanks to the Kessel trade.
To top it off, the rival Bruins won the Stanley Cup title last year and Seguin is looking like a stud forward in the making.
Yet, through it all Burke had faith in Kessel, and now after two okay seasons in Toronto, that loyalty is finally paying off.
It's not that Kessel was bad in his first two years as a Leaf, it's just that he simply wasn't the Hart Trophy candidate that he's become this season. He posted 30 goals and 55 points in 2009-10 and jumped to 32 goals and 32 assists last season, but Kessel is ready to blow those numbers out of the water in 2011-12.
Through 53 games, the Wisconsin native already has 29 goals to place him second only to Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. Kessel's 57 points are third in the NHL and just seven shy of tying his personal best total from last season.
The speedy Kessel has also done what all great players must; that is, make the players around him better. That is especially true of linemate Joffrey Lupul, who in his eighth NHL season and first-full year with the Leafs has already posted a career-high 55 points. Kessel's centerman, Tyler Bozak, a 25-year-old player who wasn't drafted, also has 31 points in 44 games to leave him one point shy of his career-best point total.
But, it hasn't just been Kessel's line that has the Leafs hopeful for a return to the postseason. Toronto is also allowing less goals this year than it did last year, even if its still only ranked 20th in the NHL in goals surrendered per game.
What has set Toronto's defensive game apart recently has been the club's ability to stop the opposition's power-play chances. The Leafs have gone 15 straight games without allowing a power-play goal, the longest such streak in the league since the Chicago Blackhawks went 19 straight games without giving up a power-play goal in 1969-70.
All told, Toronto is a perfect 22-for-22 over its current run, which is the longest such streak for the franchise since 1940-41.
If Toronto's penalty killers keep playing like that in front of goaltenders Jonas Gustavsson and James Reimer, it will make qualifying for the playoffs a whole lot easier.
It's taken several years, but things are finally looking up again for the Maple Leafs. Yet, with improved play comes increased expectations and failure to make the postseason this spring would really be a crushing disappointment.
Kessel and the Leafs have two months to prove they belong back in the postseason. For a storied franchise that has only been able to brag about financial success in recent years, a playoff appearance would be worth much more than a strong bottom line.
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