There really are some legitimate questions to ask about the Toronto Maple Leafs, aside from how long it will take the agony of the Tomas Kaberle trade to end.
First, Kaberle. Trade talk around him is feverish, although general manager Brian Burke, who was not talking to Toronto reporters Thursday, tried to play down the Boston Bruins trade talk. But he told the league's NHL Live! show, "I think there is more activity coming. I can almost promise it from our team."
Now, the questions.
The first one is can the Maple Leafs make the playoffs? This became somewhat legitimate thanks to the Leafs' recent run of modest success. Unfortunately, the answer is no.
There are seven teams chasing the last two playoff spots in the NHL's Eastern Conference, eight if you want to count the New York Islanders. To be sure of a playoff spot, the Leafs need to win 17 of their last 24 games. That would give them 90 points, which could even be good enough for seventh place considering the way some of the contenders (New York Rangers, Carolina, Atlanta) are playing. And that is 17 wins in regulation time. Surrendering points in overtime and shootout wins is not an option if you have to make a run from the back of the pack.
The trouble is, the Maple Leafs are simply too inconsistent to go 17-7 over the rest of the schedule, which brings us to the final question.
Why are the Leafs so maddeningly inconsistent, looking like zombies against the Montreal Canadiens, then reeling off two solid wins against the Bruins and Sabres?
For an answer, we turned to an NHL team's pro scout, whose job description calls for him to watch a lot of Leaf games. He agreed to share his opinion as long as we kept his name out of it.
The Leafs' big problems, our informant says, are youth, lack of depth and average goaltending.
They had 11 players aged 25 or younger on their roster Wednesday night when they beat the Sabres. That much youth leads to the sort of things the Leafs are prone to, such as a disconnect between the defence and the forwards that leaves them looking lost at both ends of the ice. Youngsters often forget what they're supposed to be doing in the heat of the moment. Our scout says sometimes that happens to the defencemen and sometimes the forwards.
"[Head coach]Ron Wilson said after a game [recently]defencemen weren't moving the puck and I thought that was dead-on," the scout said. "The forwards were there and there were momentary lapses when the puck doesn't go up to them and all of a sudden there's trouble.
"But the other thing with that team is there are a lot of nights when the defence is looking for somebody and [the forwards]are not in good position or they've flown the zone."
The depth problem is a familiar one in the NHL. The scout says most teams wrestle with it. Thanks to the salary cap, even the wealthy teams such as the Leafs cannot plug roster holes by writing cheques.
Right now, thanks to injuries, the salary cap and the pain of rebuilding, the Leafs have four veterans on their roster who have spent most of their careers in the minor leagues - forwards Tim Brent, Joey Crabb, Jay Rosehill and Darryl Boyce. When you combine this with the large number of youngsters, you have a lot of players who can be good here and there but not every night.
"I like these guys and they work hard," the scout said. "But when you come right down to it, are they really legitimate big-leaguers on a full-time basis?"
Thanks to Jean-Sébastien Giguère's groin issues and Jonas Gustavsson's struggles on the ice and with his health, the scout says the Leafs' goaltending is average at best even when you throw in rookie James Reimer's excellent work. That is better than last season, but still not good enough.
"I certainly wouldn't put it all on the goaltending," the scout said of the Leafs' predicament. "But if it was exceptional on a game-to-game basis, they probably would have a half dozen more wins." That would have them almost even with the sixth-place Montreal Canadiens.
However, now that Giguère and Gustavsson are both out the Leafs are looking for another goaltender. Asking Reimer, 22, to carry the load by himself does no help to the long-term plan.