The Toronto Maple Leafs were arguably the most talked about team in the NHL last season. Even in the off-season, the Leafs were still among the most discussed NHL clubs. The 0-7-1 start to the season set the tone for how the rest of the 2009-2010 year would unfold. After trading several under-achieving veterans and acquiring young talent, the Leafs began to play better and ended a rough season with some optimism, despite missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Although the Leafs improved after giving their younger players larger roles, the season was ultimately stamped as the year Brian Burke traded 2010′s second overall draft pick, Tyler Seguin, to a division rival.
Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs made the majority of their changes towards the end of last season, acquiring Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere, among others. The Leafs biggest splash this off-season was trading for Kris Versteeg from the Stanley Cup winning (read: salary cap shedding) Chicago Blackhawks. The following day, Burke signed gritty winger Colby Armstrong to a three year deal worth $9 Million.
The Leafs made a number of depth acquisitions over the summer including goalie Jussi Rynnas, Brett Lebda, Clarke MacArthur, Matt Lashoff, Marcel Mueller and others. While a lot of these are yawns, some of the signings (Rynnas, for example) might prove to be pretty important in a few years. Burke has made no bones about stuffing the Leafs depth cupboards and that’s a good thing.
With reasonable confidence I declare the Leafs to be better this season than last. The simple reason being they gained a few significant pieces in the off-season and didn’t really lose anyone, except Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg was the main piece sent to Chicago in exchange for Versteeg. Although Stalberg has promise, he’s a long term project the Leafs were willing to part with in order to get better immediately. They effectively upgraded Stalberg to Versteeg, thanks to Chicago’s salary cap troubles.
Losing Garnett Exelby and Wayne Primeau are barely blips on the radar. In Primeau’s case, the Leafs have a number of other fourth line players who can add truculence and character to the team. In Exelby’s case, his departure might mean fans won’t have to smack their foreheads as much… basically it’s “Exel-bye.”
Amidst loads of pressure, Brian Burke didn’t make the kind of trade or signing fans expected or hoped for (Marc Savard, Ilya Kovalchuk, Bobby Ryan, Wayne Simmonds, any good player etc…) this summer. As a result, Toronto’s offense is still pretty thin. Not Christian Bale in The Machinest thin, but not nowhere near Dark Knight thick. Get my drift?
As it stands, Toronto have two legitimate top six forwards in Kris Versteeg and Phil Kessel. Toronto have several “bubble top six forwards” who possess second line potential, but aren’t there yet. Those players include playmaking center Tyler Bozak, hard checking winger Nikolai Kulemin and maybe even Mikhail “liquid courage” Grabovski. Maybe.
Somewhere in this mix is Nazem Kadri. Don’t interpret the naming of Kadri as me placing him in the Leafs top two lines… this year. Perhaps next year or later on in his career. He has the talent and potential, however, as Burke stated on Sunday, he’s not playing anywhere near it right now.
There’s a reason virtually everyone has questioned the Leafs goal scoring abilities for the upcoming season. Their top line isn’t a real top line and their second line is closer to a third line on most other teams. While the obvious challenge will be scoring goals, it’s worth noting Toronto’s top line will also be challenged with facing other teams top lines on a nightly basis. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Kessel-Bozak-Versteeg line (assuming this line stays together) stacks up against the top lines of the Flyers, Penguins, Bruins etc…
For all the talk about defence keeping goals out of the Leafs net this year, I have to wonder if the forwards will be able to help them, in goals for and goals against.
Defence is easily Toronto’s deepest position. Captain Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, Tomas Kaberle (for now), Francois Beauchemin, Jeff Finger and Brett Lebda are all signed to one-way contracts for the 2010-2011 season. That doesn’t count Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Matt Lashoff who are all on two-way contracts too. For those counting, that’s nine NHL-caliber defencemen.
Many believe Finger will be sent down to the AHL Toronto Marlies to clear cap space and make room for a better defenseman. I’m guessing Lashoff will start the year with the Marlies too. Brett Lebda is a depth signing and might not dress every game. Minutes will be tough to come by in Toronto and I’m curious to see how coach Ron Wilson splits up ice times for some players.
In saying that, there’s simply no way this group of defensemen can be as bad as last season. On paper, this is a pretty solid defensive core, but features a number of question marks. Komisarek is returning from a fairly serious injury and Schenn is coming off a disappointing softmore season. And let’s not forget the season long drama we’re about to endure as Kaberle is likely to face months of trade speculation leading up to the trade deadline.
On a brighter note, Carl Gunnarsson emerged last year as strong puck moving defensemen and lead the Leafs in plus-minus. He also averaged 21 minutes per game in the 43 games he appeared in too. He might be able to help quarterback Toronto’s dismal powerplay on the “B” unit (ie. not Phaneuf’s unit).
Here’s another position that can’t be worse than last season. Team punching bag (read: Vesa Toskala) is gone, meaning Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere will handle the season’s goaltending duties for the Leafs. That’s definitely an improvement from last season.
According to Ron Wilson, Giguere is expected to be the team’s number one goalie (at least through training camp). Giguere is coming off a “so-so” season split between Anaheim and Toronto. While he started and ended his time with the Leafs well, the middle wasn’t so hot. Injuries (which he’s had repaired over the off-season) were said to be a big reason for that.
As for Gustavsson, a year of transition and experience under his belt should help the young goalie this season and beyond. Last year wasn’t an easy year for the Swedish goalie, but he was still able to put up some respectable numbers. The Leafs expect Gustavsson to push Giguere for the number one spot throughout the season and consider him their goalie of the future. The Gustavsson-Giguere duo has to be consistent and better than last season in order for the Leafs to push for the playoffs. Burke has always said his teams are built from goaltending out… these two goalies need to live up to that.
Best Case Scenario
Luckily for Toronto, there are only a handful of true, slam dunk playoff teams in the Eastern Conference this season. The Toronto Maple Leafs are built to compete with several other teams for the final two or three conference playoff positions. If the Leafs can squeeze into the playoffs, this will be a terrific rebound season for Burke’s group.
In order for the Leafs to make the playoffs, goaltending and defensive play will have to be solid and consistent, something this team struggled with last season. The Leafs will need several players (Bozak, Kulemin, Armstrong) to have very good offensive seasons too. As obvious as it may sound, the Leafs will need to be healthy throughout the year too. While other teams can withstand an injury or two, the Leafs don’t have the NHL depth to do it.
Worst Case Scenario
It goes without saying the Leafs absolute worst case scenario is another bottom 10 finish in the NHL. Not only would it signify another season of missing the playoffs, it would further the belief that the Leafs are not getting better under Burke’s guidance.
To make matters worse, everyone knows Boston holds the Leafs first round draft selection in the 2011 Entry Draft (as part of the Kessel trade). Missing the playoffs for a fifth straight year and surrendering another top 10 draft pick to the Bruins would be the absolute worst thing that could happen to Toronto this season.
In terms of prospects and future talent, the Toronto Maple Leafs have several noteworthy players.
The obvious player that comes to mind is former first round draft pick Nazem Kadri. Kadri is a high talent center that plays a physical brand of hockey. He has potential to be a solid NHL player, but lacks the maturity to make a seamless transition to the “big show.” It’s not that uncommon for a 19 year old prospect to require a bit more seasoning before entering the NHL. It’s expected Kadri will start the year in the AHL with the Marlies.
Jussi Rynnas is a Finnish-born goalie signed earlier this summer to bolster Toronto’s goaltending depth. He had a pretty good showing in the Leafs training camp, but is probably a few years away from being an NHL goalie. He, along with Ben Scrivens are two more goalies who could potentially end up as strong NHL goalies. Burke has done a nice job of building goaltending depth for the Leafs.
Finally, Jerry D’Amigo is a future Leaf who had a great training camp over the last few weeks. D’Amigo signed an entry level contract with he Leafs earlier this summer and has potential to be a strong second line winger in a few years time. He was assigned to the Marlies during Sunday’s team cuts, but should continue to develop in the AHL. D’Amigo enjoyed a breakout season playing college hockey for RPI and on the US World Junior Championship team last year. If his play on these teams are any indication of his potential, Leaf fans are going to love this kid.
All Eyes On
Whether it’s fair or not, all eyes will continue to be on Phil Kessel. He is Toronto’s best player and most consistent goal scorer. If the Toronto Maple Leafs want to have a good year, it’s going to start with PK81. Kessel is going to be relied on to improve Toronto’s powerplay (Phaneuf should help with this too), and to score timely goals for the Leafs. Many felt Kessel’s impact faded down the stretch with the Leafs last season.
Every move Kessel makes will be under the world’s largest microscope and will in some way, shape or form be compared to potential draft picks and Tyler Seguin. The good news for the Leafs and fans is Kessel is coming into the 2010-2011 season healthy and in better shape than last year, a year that saw his score 30 goals in 70 games.
Shoot it, Shoot it out cause they want it a little more
You can be rest assured
You give them all you got and you give them a little more
You never even know what for
- 10 Years – Shoot It Out