Preface: This began as a simple look to see where the Leafs would stack up in the coming season and morphed into a monster all of it’s own, so I’ll be releasing it over the next couple days in pieces, each one a different aspect of the team. While I was writing it, I read a piece from Eklund that briefly compared Toronto’s outlook for this season to the Phoenix Coyotes last year. Upon considering the two teams, I realized the two rosters were actually very similar and that with fairly realistic expectations for the Leafs this season, they should be able to achieve at least comparable numbers to what the ‘Yotes put up in ’09-10. Here goes:
All the chatter this summer is that the Leafs don’t have enough offense. That Tomas Kaberle was the last chance for Burke to get the top six forward he so desperately needed. That no matter how good the Leafs’ defense looks on paper, you can’t win games if you don’t score goals.
Bullshit. Normally, I don’t put much stock in what comes out of Eklund over at HockeyBuzz, but he had a piece up the other day about how he thinks both the Leafs and the Oilers will make the playoffs this season. I know, the fact that it was predicted on HockeyBuzz just about guarantees that it won’t happen, but I’ve started to get excited about the Leafs’ chances in the East this year. Ek’s argument for the Leafs making the playoffs was based largely on a brief comparison to the Phoenix Coyotes, the Cinderella team out of the West in 2010. Keeping in mind that the Coyotes finished 4th last season in a tough Western Conference and held their opponents to a Conference-best 202 goals against, while scoring just 225, let’s take a look at the Leafs’ playoff chances, at least on paper.
Defense: Depending on the opponent and the nightly roster tweaks, the Coyotes’ d-corps looked generally like this: Jovanoski/Michalek, Morris/Yandle, Jim Vandermeer/Sami Lepisto. Mathieu Schneider and Derek Morris were picked up towards the end of the season. Compare that to Phaneuf/Beauchemin, Kaberle/Komisarek, Schenn/Gunnarsson with Lebda and Finger ready to fill in at a moment’s notice, and I’d have to agree with Eklund that the Leafs’ defense this season should be better than the Coyotes’ last year.
One common factor among the large majority of the Leafs, especially coming off of last season’s performance, is an urgent need to prove themselves. For starters, at least 13 of the Leafs expected to make the roster this year are 26 or younger. It doesn’t get much older, either, as only Francois Beauchemin, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger and JS Giguere are over the age of 30. [Editor's Note: I actually stopped here and wrote a blog with the top 10 Leafs with something to prove, you can read that here]
On the list mentioned above, 5 of the players discussed were defensemen, due to the fact that, based on contracts awarded and previous playing histories, the Leafs actually have one of the top defensive units in the Eastern Conference, if not the league. Name me another team that has 8 NHL-ready defensemen on call with a better top six, besides Detroit (Lidstrom, Rafalski, Stuart, Kronwall, Lilja, Ericsson, plus OK Tollefsen and rusty old Ruslan Salei). With so many of the Leafs’ defensemen playing to impress and Dion Phaneuf where he loves to be, squarely in the spotlight, I don’t see how this team can end up playing bad defense this year. I’m not saying it won’t happen, I’m just saying I don’t know how it could.
Goaltending: Obviously Ilya Bryzgalov’s play in Phoenix last season was a cut above what we should expect from either Giguere or Gustavsson, but I don’t think we’ll have a repeat of last season’s goaltending horror story. The second the Leafs hit the ice with a proven netminder in net, the level of play jumped dramatically, and remained relatively competitive for the remainder of the season. Gustavsson could be poised for a breakout season, now that he is familiar with the North American ice and has his rookie jitters, and hopefully his heart problems as well, behind him. A confident team is a competitive team and if the Leafs can foster an attitude that their goalies can be relied on, not to win games singlehandedly, but to make the big saves when needed and not give up goals on dump-ins, they should be confident.