Sorry for the long delay, I’m sure you were on the edge of your seat waiting for the final part.
Special Teams: Perhaps the only bigger concern than the offense this season should be special teams, an area where the Leafs were absolutely dismal last season. An epically poor penalty kill cost Toronto more games than I can count, and an inept powerplay was just as deadly to their nightly chances of winning. Things should be much better this season on both ends of the ice, and that alone should provide the Leafs with a significant boost in their ability to compete.
Freddie Sjostrom, Mike Brown and Kris Versteeg have all served plenty of quality time on the penalty kill, while Colby Armstrong and Nikolai Kulemin are both capable of performing there as well. One thing’s for sure, whatever Wilson trots out onto the ice for the PK this year will look a hell of a lot better than Rickard Wallin and Wayne Primeau. Versteeg netted 3 shorthanded goals last season, while Mike Brown had one of his own.
On the flip side, if Phaneuf and Kaberle can get their shit together, the Leafs will have one of the scarier blueline powerplay units around. With Kaberle buttering up passes for Phaneuf to blast home while Colby Armstrong plants himself in front of the net (something no one on the Leafs seemed capable of doing last year), powerplays might actually be exciting to watch. Eleven of Versteeg’s 44 points came on the powerplay last year, and there’s plenty of options for Wilson to run through til he finds combinations that work. Beauchemin and Gunnarsson could be a very capable 2nd string D pairing as well.
Bringing it back again to the comparison of the ‘Yotes, Phoenix was one of the best penalty killing teams in the league, but had the worst powerplay in the Western Conference. The Leafs should be able to muster a better powerplay than that, and that should help them reach a higher level of offense than the Coyotes were able to last year. If Toronto can become consistently effective with the man advantage, their style of play could utilize it incredibly well. An aggressive team that plays solid defense, forechecks hard, creates turnovers and draws penalties is tough enough to play against, but one that makes you pay for your mistakes is just that much more dangerous.
So what does it all mean? It means I think the Leafs have a very realistic chance of being a very competitive team in the Eastern Conference this season. It means I’m excited for this season, but while I’m always excited for another Leafs season, this year I actually think there’s some reason to be. There’s a lot of question marks that will either have very positive or negative effects depending on how individual players end up approaching the season, but I think the potential is there for a very successful season, and the groundwork is being laid for what could be a great team in a few years. I’m not going out and saying the Leafs are going to win the Cup, but there has so be some hope that playoffs could be in the very near future.