With such a poor finish from the Maple Leafs last season, there will be a lot of players playing with a chip on their shoulder. Toronto’s not a fun place to play when you’re a loser, and these ten players have to make strides this year to prove they’re not.
10. Nikolai Kulemin: Last year’s performance: 78 GP, 16-20-36 Playing half the season on the 3rd and 4th line didn’t help Kulemin’s stat line, but he did play well when given the opportunity to skate with Kessel and Bozak on the top unit. After a somewhat lengthy negotiation process, he’s back in Toronto with a new contract, and is now getting paid over $2 million. The only reason the contract process took so long was that his agent was demanding that he be paid like a top line player. If he truly wants to be paid like a top line winger on his next contract, he’ll have to score a lot more than 36 points.
9. Mikhail Grabovski: 59 GP, 10-25-35
“Grabbo” is one of the more frustrating players on the Leaf roster, because of the flashes of skill he explodes into occasionally. Bad thing about flashy players sometimes is that they can be streaky as a pair of Gary Bettman’s tighty whities, and that’s exactly the case with Grabovski. He did turn in an improved effort when he returned from injury after the Olympic break, but at 26 years old in a contract year, he’s at a turning point in his career.
8. Luke Schenn: 79 GP, 5-12-17, +2
You might think Schenn would be a bit higher on this list, considering he’s in the final year of his entry level contract. However, I don’t think there’s any real risk of Schenn wishing to leave Toronto, the city that was ready to crown him their new son when he first came to town. If he doesn’t want to leave, there won’t be a ton of pressure on him to perform with the veteran defensemen ahead of him on the depth chart, which means all he has to do is play his game and continue to develop.
7. Nazem Kadri: 56 GP, 35-58-93 with the London Knights
I’m firmly of the belief that Kadri will be a real deal forward, the likes of which the Leafs haven’t drafted in quite some time. Name me the last impact player that the Leafs drafted that made an immediate impact. Based on Kadri’s appearance last spring in the NHL, I wouldn’t have said I thought he was ready, but upon hearing that he’s dedicated himself to getting to an NHL size this summer and burgeoned to 188 pounds I began to take notice. The kid’s got a hell of an attitude, he loves playing the game, and he’s pretty damn good at it. Still, it will be up to him to prove that he’s even ready to play at the NHL level this season, and that he can be an offensive force, if that’s truly the type of player he wants to be.
6. Francois Beauchemin/Mike Komisarek: 82 GP, 5-21-26, -13/37 GP 0-4-4, -9
I lump these two together because, last season, when they were the biggest acquisitions Burke made before trading for Kessel, they were supposed to be the anchors of the new defense. Beauchemin came out and stunk the joint out at the start of the season before starting to get his act together towards the end of the year. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove himself, assuming he gets the top spot alongside Dion Phaneuf. Komi had a hell of a debut season in TO, breaking his leg after a disappointing start and missing the rest of the year. Komisarek, like Schenn, should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Phaneuf’s presence, as he can now play his physical game without the spotlight resting squarely on his back.
5. Jonas Gustavsson: 16-15-9, .902 save percentage, 2.87 GAA
Ah, the rookie season from hell is finally over for the Monster, and from his showing at the end of the year, he has emerged none the worse for the wear. After losing his mother before the season, Gustavsson was forced to undergo a heart procedure not once, but twice, at different points in the Leafs’ season. He showed promise after the first one, but was forced to have another surgery in December. All he did upon returning from injury was win his only start for Sweden at the Olympics and then come back to Toronto to tie a franchise record with 7 straight wins. Signed to a two year deal in the summer that does little more than give the Leafs enough time to effectively judge whether he’ll be the goalie of their future or not, Gustavsson also could have newly signed Jussi Rynnas nipping at his heels for the role, depending on how rapid his development is. The pressure won’t be huge, with Giguere probably first in line for the starting job, but I’m assuming that if he wants to go out and play his way into the starting role, the opportunity is there.
4. J.S. Giguere: 10-15-7, .907 save percentage, 2.85 GAA
Giguere’s record looks worse than it was during his stay in Toronto, as he went 6-7-2 with 2 shutouts and a 2.49 GAA with the Buds. In the final year of a monster $6 million contract he earned as a Conn Smythe winner with the Ducks, Jiggy will have to prove he’s still got it if he wants any shot at another deal in the summer. Just ask Marty Turco and Evgeni Nabokov how the market for veteran goalies is these days. With Gustavsson looking to take the job for his own, it’s clear Giguere’s there to provide reliable goaltending in the meantime. His performance could have a major impact on the direction the Leafs’ season starts in.
3. Tomas Kaberle: 82 GP, 7-42-49
The only story that created more ink this summer than Kaberle’s non-trade was Kovalchuk’s non-departure from New Jersey. With his NTC in full effect, Kaberle now holds the keys to his own future, and he’s got a lot to play for. At 32, he’s got more than a few good years left in him (not saying he’s the same player as these guys, but look how long Brian Rafalski, Scott Niedermayer and Mathieu Schneider have played as skilled puck-moving defensemen). Whether or not he remains in Toronto after this season largely depends on how the Leafs do. Should Toronto get off to a hot start and remain competitive by the trade deadline and Kaberle has been an integral part of that success, I would think he would probably remain a valuable asset to the Leafs, and would either draw a huge return or simply remain on the squad. If the results were there and his monetary demands weren’t unreasonable, I could definitely see him finishing his career in Toronto, if that were a legitimate possibility. However, if the Leafs are struggling again come deadline, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of deal worked out. Ultimately, I think the cards are in his hands, though.
2. Dion Phaneuf: 81 GP, 12-20-32
The new sheriff in town has all kinds of expectations on his broad shoulders, but something tells me he’s the kind of player that thrives on this sort of thing. He had the least productive season of his career last year, but as the newly appointed leader of a very young team, he has the opportunity to really carve out a place for himself in Leafs’ lore. Coming out of the longest playoff drought in franchise history, Phaneuf will be expected to take a leading role in guiding the Leafs back to the postseason. He knows it, and I can only hope he takes full advantage of it.
1. Phil Kessel: 70 GP, 30-25-55
As the only legitimate 30 goal scorer on a team hurting for offense, Kessel’s burden would be large enough without any existing circumstances. The fact that Tyler Seguin will be suiting up against the Leafs 6 times a year only makes the pressure on the 22 year old winger. Yes, he is only 22, and yes, he already has two 30 goal seasons under his belt, but that doesn’t change the fact that if he doesn’t turn in a huge year this season, and Seguin turns out to be a legit NHL player, the fallout will be very loud to say the least. To be honest, anything less than 30-35 goals would have to count as a failure, while the potential for 40-45 goals could be realistically achievable.
Naturally, if Brian Burke and Ron Wilson could be on this list, they would both be at the very top, since this whole ordeal is their creation. Wilson will be expected to keep this group competitive all year, probably at the risk of his job, and Burke has his own reputation to think of, if nothing less.