Just kidding. It’s no secret Leaf fans are known to be some of the more overly optimistic fans in the entire NHL, but they may finally be justified in doing so as the league’s youngest team is finally showing signs of promise. One of a very small number of teams that has yet to make the playoffs since the lockout, Toronto has now gone six straight years without making the postseason tournament, a streak they’ll be hell-bent on ending this season. Led by captain Dion Phaneuf and a monstrous blueline, the Leafs will have a lot of question marks surrounding their season – questions that will only be answered as the season progresses. Will James Reimer be able to repeat his impressive performance in the second half of last season? Will Tim Connolly finally be the playmaking center that will push Phil Kessel over the top and keep him out of those 12-13 game scoring droughts? Can the coaching staff finally fix the special teams?
Tim Connolly – We’ll start with the man who’s supposed to be coming in and taking the role of first line center that has been so blatantly void since the departure of Mats Sundin. Known for his deft passing skills and solid two-way play, Connolly is a heck of a hockey player – when he’s healthy. Check out these numbers since the lockout – 55 points, 63 games (05-06), 1 point, 2 games (06-07), 40 points, 48 games (07-08), 47 points, 48 games (08-09), 65 points, 73 games (09-10), 42 points, 68 games (10-11). Consider that he was never really a primary scoring option in any of those seasons in Buffalo, with guys like Derek Roy ahead of him, and it’s clear that there’s the potential for him to really take advantage of playing on the top line with Phil Kessel.
Matthew Lombardi – One half of what could be the steal of the summer, Lombardi’s concussion history was the impetus behind Nashville dealing him out of town. His contract was uninsured, meaning the cash-strapped Predators were on the hook for it even though it didn’t count against their cap space. One of the quickest players in the league, Lombardi gives the Leafs another great two-way player that can not only be responsible in his own end, but can contribute offensively as well. Originally thought to be unavailable due to a lengthy recovery from a concussion, the most recent report from Brian Burke has Lombardi at about the same position in his recovery as superstar Sidney Crosby, meaning he could join the Leafs’ active roster far sooner than expected.
Cody Franson – When Brian Burke offered to take Lombardi’s contract off of Nashville’s hands, he wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart. In return, Burke snatched up the towering Franson off the Predators’ young and talented blueline. Despite being stuck behind stars like Ryan Suter and Shea Weber, the 6’5 24 year old still put up 8 goals and 29 points in his sophomore season. With a booming slap shot, Franson will likely get some time on the Leafs’ powerplay, and should have plenty of opportunities to prove his worth.
Philippe Dupuis – More of a depth signing than anything else, Dupuis will be expected to take on some of the role formerly filled by fan favorite Tim Brent, an energy center on the 4th line capable of killing penalties and being solid defensively.
John-Michael Liles – Brought on to replace Tomas Kaberle, Liles was acquired in exchange for the extra 2nd round pick the Leafs got when the Bruins won the Cup (part of the deal that sent Kaberle to Boston). A low-risk, high-reward potential acquisition, Liles has been one of Colorado’s best offensive defenseman for some time now, and has scored more than 30 points in all 7 of his NHL seasons. Liles is in the last year of his contract and has a unique opportunity to earn himself a hefty payday when he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. Whether the Leafs want to keep him around or not will depend on how their young offensive defensemen like Jake Gardiner and Carl Gunnarsson continue to develop, but they should at least get a serviceable season of play from him. A career -16 player, his biggest strength is the offense he provides, but considering he’ll likely play on the 2nd pairing with Luke Schenn, he should have plenty of support back there.
Tomas Kaberle – I know he was traded away at the deadline last season, but it would be a crime not to mention the guy that played so well for so many seasons in Toronto. Kabby was a great defenseman, and while the incessant trade rumors took alot away from his final years in the city, there’s few players that would have conducted themselves with such class through the whole situation. Say what you want, but 83 goals and 520 points in a Leaf uniform over 12 seasons is nothing to be ashamed of. Best of luck in Carolina, Kabs, except when you’re playing the Leafs, of course.
Tim Brent – Joining Kaberle in Carolina, the high-energy grinder will probably be remembered most for the incredible effort he turned in during a critical late-season win over the Hurricanes during the Leafs’ unsuccessful playoff push. Blocking three shots and clearing the puck on a 5-on-3 kill late in the game endeared him to Leaf fans as much as his workmanlike approach to the game and the hustle he demonstrated every shift.
Freddie Sjostrom – Sjostrom never really panned out after being brought over as part of the Phaneuf trade, and returned to Sweden to play for Farjestads BK in the Elisterien.
Brett Lebda – It’s not fair to kick someone when they’re down, and I won’t do that here. A 4-point, -14 performance in 2010-11 saw Lebda spend most of the season in the press box, and he was waived after being traded to Nashville. He’s yet to sign with another team.
I’m going to take this line by line, starting with the Leafs’ top unit of Joffrey Lupul, Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel. There’s alot of sports pundits out there, this one included, that thinks Kessel easily has 40-goal potential. Despite being bereft of true playmaking linemates for the past two seasons, Kessel has been a solid 30-goal scorer, and he’s still just 23 years old. The combination of Connolly’s playmaking skills and the presence of Lupul’s big body should free up a lot more space than Joey Crabb and Tyler Bozak did last year. Lupul is another of many Leafs with something to prove this season, after making a comeback from a potentially career-ending back injury and ensuing infection. If those two can hold up their end of the bargain and make Kessel even better than he has been, the Leafs will be much better off.
Now, for the famous “Mac ‘n the USSR.” The Leafs’ best and most consistent line last year, the trio of Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski will be expected to perform as well, if not better than they did last season. That will be a difficult task, as they all posted career years, and combined for 80 goals and 177 points. Their success will depend on how well the first line lives up to its own expectations, as they were forced to face most opponents’ top defenders last year. If the Leafs can successfully ice two effective scoring lines, it will make life that much easier for both of them.
One of the biggest issues for the Leafs’ offense last year was the lack of secondary scoring. A healthy Colby Armstrong should be a step in the right direction, while the likely addition of Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak to the 3rd line should give the Buds a unit that is both capable of taking care of business in their own end and provide some offensive pop at the other end. Now, recent reports have indicated that Matthew Lombardi could be healthy, and if that’s the case, there’s a good possibility that he’ll end up taking a spot on the wing with Bozak and Armstrong, potentially relegating Kadri to the Marlies once again. However, Kadri has had himself one hell of a preseason, and will at least give the Leafs’ brass something to think about before they demote him again. Personally, I like the idea of him playing alongside Bozie and Armstrong, while at the same time, there’s no question that a healthy Lombardi is a more proven commodity. Only time will tell, I suppose.
On to the bangers. This line will probably see all kinds of shuffling over the season, but the most likely combination to start the year has Colton Orr and Mike Brown on the wings, with either Darryl Boyce, Philippe Dupuis or, potentially Lombardi down the middle. However it shakes out, again, the Leafs look deeper than they have at any point in the last two seasons. Jay Rosehill, Joey Crabb and Mike Zigomanis could all also see time on this line as well.
There’s no question, that on paper, the Leafs have one of the deepest defensive units around this season. With the aforementioned Liles and Franson added to the mix, the Leafs have no less than 8 NHL-ready defensemen in the lineup. It’s a pretty good possibility that Phaneuf begins the season paired with young Keith Aulie, as the two showed surprising chemistry in the wake of Francois Beauchemin’s departure last season. I know, Aulie could be in line for the dreaded “sophomore slump,” and he didn’t look all that great during the preseason, but if he’s truly struggling, there’s plenty of other options.
Schenn may have taken forever to get his deal done, but it’s done, and I expect him to continue to take another step in his development this season. He is slowly turning into exactly what we thought he would – a big, physical shutdown defender. Obviously, his game’s not perfect yet, but he’s still very young, and I can’t wait to watch him continue to grow as a player. Gunnarsson and Komisarek will likely battle for the 6th spot beside Franson, and it will be very interesting to see how that pans out, as Komisarek makes a very expensive press box player if he can’t be trusted with solid minutes. And don’t forget about Gardiner and Matt Lashoff, who will both be waiting eagerly in the AHL should the time come that their services be needed. Barring any serious injuries, the Leafs should be more than set on defense this season.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the Leafs this season is in net, but for once, there appears to be a respectable answer. James Reimer was, without a question, the driving force behind the mid-season turn around we saw last season. 20 wins, a 2.80 GAA and a .921 save percentage in just 35 starts isn’t exactly the stuff of Vezina winners, but for a rookie that joined a team that was one of the worst in the league when he took the net by force, it’s pretty damn good. There’s no question the team played better under Reimer than it did in front of either Gustavsson or Giguere, and if Reimer can actually develop into a legitimate number one keeper, it will be the first time the Leafs haven’t had to piece together a netminding operation since the days of Ed Belfour.
“Optimus Reim” can’t be expected to start all 82 games, which means that some of the burden will fall to Jonas Gustavsson. This season will truly be a make-or-break year in the career of the Monster. He’s in the final year of his contract, and his play this season will determine whether or not he ends up having a legitimate career in the NHL. I still think there’s a lot of talent that we just haven’t seen from this kid yet. When you take into consideration the struggles he’s had to battle against through the first few years of his career – multiple heart surgeries, the loss of his mother – you have to feel for the big guy. There’s obviously some flaws in his game, but if he can work the kinks out, give the Leafs 20-30 quality starts and keep the pressure off of Reimer, both he and the Leafs will be much better for it.
I almost didn’t even wanna write this part, since there’s damn near nothing that’s gone right on special teams for the Buds in the past two seasons. Wilson’s boys ranked 22nd in the league in powerplay efficiency and 28th on the kill last season, and you gotta think that if those numbers could have been a bit better, the way their season turned out might have been too. Connolly and Lombardi should prove to be quite valuable on the penalty kill. The biggest additions on the powerplay will be on the blueline, as Liles and Franson will both be valuable assets, although Connolly should help out there as well. There’s not much else to say except things have to get better, or the Leafs won’t have much chance of being any better.
All told, I’m excited for this season. Sure, the Leafs may not be the most talented roster in the league, but if Reimer and Gustavsson can provide consistent, capable goaltending, the Leafs have the defense to back that up, and may finally have the firepower to take advantage of it. I don’t think they’re gonna be running anyone out of the building with buckets of goals, but they shouldn’t be giving them up in bunches, either. One thing to watch will be the way they start. Another slow start could spell the end for Ron Wilson, especially given the new hires at assistant coach. Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon both have previous head coaching experience, although Gordon would be first in line if Wilson were to get the axe, given his experience as former Isles’ bench boss.
Get ready for a fun ride, Leaf fans. It’s not going to be easy sledding all season, but I’ve got a damn good feeling this is the year they get back to the big dance, and we all know, once you’re there, anything can happen. Go Leafs!
Tags: Brett Lebda Brian Burke Carl Gunnarsson Clarke MacArthur Cody Franson Colby Armstrong Colton Orr Dion Phaneuf James Reimer Jonas Gustavsson Luke Schenn Mike Komisarek Mikhail Grabovski Nazem Kadri Nikolai Kulemin Phil Kessel Ron Wilson Tim Brent Tim Connolly Tomas Kaberle Toronto Maple Leafs Toronto Marlies Tyler Bozak