For the first time since the 2004-05 lockout, the Leafs are entering a season coming off a playoff appearance. They even came within minutes of beating the eventual Eastern Conference Champions last year. Despite this, the majority of analysts have picked the Buds to either be in a dogfight for a playoff spot or to miss the postseason altogether.
The Leafs have responded with six points in their opening three games, but the wins were far from dominant.
In the season opener in Montreal, both teams struggled to find much of a flow. James Reimer was able to keep the Leafs in the game at 2-1 until they finally broke through for three unanswered goals. In Philadelphia, they were extremely fortunate to escape with any points, let alone two. Jonathan Bernier played the role of a stonewall in the City of Brotherly Love and virtually won the game on his own.
It was in the home opener against Ottawa where Leafs Nation held their breath. After tying the game 2-2, the Leafs fell behind by two faster than you could blink. We then saw what we’ve seen all too often in recent years, a goaltending change. But Bernier came in and stabilized an incredibly shaky situation, backstopping Toronto to a dramatic 5-4 shootout win.
Coming into the season, I took to Twitter and boasted Bernier as a future superstar. While it is still very early, it would appear the upstart has all but taken over the starting job in Toronto, whether head coach Randy Carlyle admits it or not.
As far as the team goes, when articles began to surface about Toronto’s unsustainable shooting percentage from last year’s shortened season, I felt projecting their success or failure this season deserved deeper analysis.
Let’s examine the additions and subtractions of each position.
As much as I was a fan of Ben Scrivens, Jonathan Bernier is an undoubtable improvement. Even if Reimer failed to improve he likely would not regress, and it is then safe to assume the Leafs improved in the game’s most important position.
On defense, the Leafs parted ways with Mike Komisarek and Michael Kostka, while bringing in Paul Ranger and Morgan Rielly. Most Leafs fans and analysts will agree that both Komisarek and Kostka were defensive liabilities. While Ranger has had a somewhat suspect opening few games, he still has a lot of potential and brings a more versatile game than either Komisarek or Kostka.
It is then safe to assume the Leafs also improved on defense, especially when you factor in that both John-Micheal Liles and Korbinian Holzer, both starters last season, are now with the Marlies.
Lastly, the forwards. Mikhail Grabovski is a notable loss up front but his choice words for Randy Carlyle in the offseason revealed a distinct divide between the two. Dave Nonis then brought in David Clarkson. The enforcer brings a unique blend of toughness and scoring touch, having scored 30 goals before the lockout and 15 goals in the shortened season last year.
The reason most analysts think the Leafs will have a rough go this season is because of the division realignment. However, I see that point working both ways.
In past years, Toronto has been stuck playing 32 games against a usually competitive Northeast Division, a division which saw four of its teams in the postseason last year. Now each team will play a home-and-home with every other team in the league. Would this schedule not favour the Leafs compared to their old one?
The Red Wings do bring yet another contender into the conference, into Toronto’s division, and it’s competition that stiffens the Leafs’ chances of making a successful run.
Although Detroit improved at the forward position, I’m still not too convinced their defense can keep pace.
Montreal did acquire Danny Briere this summer but they still lack size and any real depth in their top two lines.
Ottawa could be a scary team to deal with simply because of what they accomplished last season. At the same time, it was a shortened season and teams lacking depth, like the Senators and Canadiens, benefited as a result.
I also expect to see Tampa Bay contending for a playoff spot, but aside from Boston it wouldn’t appear there’s a ton of top-tier threats within the division.
As for the Metropolitan Division, Pittsburgh is arguably the only elite team within it. Washington, Philadelphia and the Rangers usually compete but aren’t as potent as they once were. The Islanders could be the next best team in that division depending on what type of goaltending they get this year from Evgeni Nabokov.
In the end, the Leafs may benefit from a relatively weak Eastern Conference. On paper, it would appear to be the Bruins, Penguins and everybody else. However, I think Toronto will retake their spot in the upper tier of teams this year.
Only time will tell which one gets the better of the other but I predict Toronto to have the last laugh. I truly believe the Blue and White have returned to the form they had in the early 2000s and will finish atop the division.