While the Toronto Maple Leafs left on a high for their two-game road trip Tuesday, there is still a small cloud hanging over the team.
It is the knowledge that even though a shutout win over the Calgary Flames on Monday night ensured the Leafs ended their four-game homestand with a 2-1-1 record, they still don't have the depth to be a serious NHL contender.
So even if the Leafs win Wednesday in Detroit against the Red Wings and beat the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday to keep the heady feelings going into the all-star break, there is little chance general manager Lou Lamoriello is going to dive into the trade market before the Feb. 28 deadline – despite all the talk about St. Louis Blues defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk.
The leg injury to Morgan Rielly, who missed his third game on Monday and is not expected to play until after the break, made it clear the Leafs are not ready to make the jump their fans would love to see.
Yes, they are 11 points ahead of last season at this point and on pace to make the playoffs. But no one should lose sight of the fact this is still early in the team's rebuilding plan (they were 30th in the standings last season).
Jumping into the trade or free-agent market would be foolish. NHL general managers like to say there are two occasions when teams overpay for players: at the trade deadline and on free-agent day. That's why only teams that are one or two players away from making serious noise in the playoffs should participate in those markets.
Even a rental player such as Shattenkirk, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, will cost draft picks and/or prospects the Leafs should not be surrendering at this point.
The Rielly injury set off a domino effect through the Leafs' defence corps, taking players out of their comfort zones and forcing head coach Mike Babcock to shuffle his defencemen.
Proof can be found even in the part of the Leafs' game that was being praised this week: penalty killing. In the three games since Rielly was injured on Jan. 17, the Leafs allowed just one power-play goal in 13 opposition opportunities. They even scored two shorthanded goals – both coming from demon checker Zach Hyman.
But Babcock says the same thing each time the penalty killers are brought up. "The first thing is the red light should be flashing if you're shorthanded that much," he said after Tuesday's practice. "[It was a] lack of discipline with our sticks again. We can't keep going to the box."
The reason the penalty killers are so successful is the play of goaltender Frederik Andersen and the forwards. The defence is showing the stress of too many defencemen forced to play outside their normal roles – they are the ones taking too many penalties.
In the 5-2 loss to the New York Rangers, all four power plays were the result of penalties to Leafs defencemen. The worst were consecutive minors to Frank Corrado, who was playing in his second game of the season. He hasn't been in the lineup since.
Three of the power plays in the shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators were caused by defencemen. Worst of all, the tying goal that allowed the Sens to get to overtime and eventually steal a win was given up late in the game on a penalty to Martin Marincin. Normally he would have been in the press box, not the game.
Things improved against the Flames, with the defence responsible for only two of five power plays. But Babcock's unhappiness with the penalties shows he believes the Leafs are living on borrowed time.
Then again, if Rielly gets back in the lineup on Jan. 31, when the Leafs end the all-star break in Dallas against the Stars, all will be right with the centre of the hockey universe.
But it will not erase the fact the Leafs simply are not ready to make the final jump to serious contender. Better, they should abstain and even try to get some assets for veteran defencemen Roman Polak or Matt Hunwick should anyone come calling. Leave the big spending for at least a year or two.