The NHL season finally starts tonight with the league's two most historic franchises facing off.
Tonight the speculation will end to some extent. Both the Canadiens and Leafs have undergone some serious changes this off-season and both feel confident stepping into this first game of the year.
Toronto has undergone an infusion on defense with the additions of Komisarek and Beauchemin (both Montreal draft picks) and the addition of Phil Kessel up front (out until mid-November). On the Montreal side of the ice we have seen a complete turnover of the offense with the top 3 forwards (Gionta, Gomez and Cammalleri) all being new faces on the team.
This game looks to be a fast paced game as both teams both speedy lines, puck-moving defensemen and the crowd will be electric at the Air Canada Centre. According to various sites the Leafs line-up will look as follows:
I feel that the lineup has a little extra depth but is still void of a pure sniper until Kessel is able to lace up the skates some time in November. Most people will be watching to see if Viktor Stalberg can keep up his torrid goal scoring pace from pre-season and if he can stick on that top line over the season. In a previous blog outlining the Leafs youth I stated that I believed Stalberg may have been the best of the college players with his blend of skill, speed, and great hands around the net. So far he has been great but against a top NHL lineup he has yet to be tested.
On defense I believe the Leafs have a solid 3 pairings. Kaberle will be able to work his creative offensive skills knowing that Mike Komisarek is back there and likeweise for Luke Schenn who will hopefully be able to develop his offensive game with Francois Beauchemin stabilizing that pairing. Exelby will provide some big hits on the third pairing and Ian White showed last year that he is an NHL defenseman that can be relied upon on a nightly basis.
For me, the real concern will be Vesa Toskala. Toskala is apparently healthy this year but for me in preseason he did not show any signs of being more confident and steady in the nets. Leaf fans must hope that the improved defense will be able to insulate Toskala and keep those rebounds away from the net. Jonas Gustavsson will start off as backup and the all eyes will be on the big Swede this year to see if he can become a starting goalie and potentially a star in this league. Great goaltending will go along way for this team. If I may get ahead of myself a little bit; great play by both Toskala and Gustavsson will catapult this teamin a fight for the playoffs. If Gustavsson shows he can be a number one and Toskala struggles then Vesa will without a doubt be gone when his contract expires at the end of the year.
My prediction: If both Toskala and Gustavsson end the year with SV%'s above .910 and barring any catastrophic injuries, the Leafs will finish 7th in the East. Otherwise, this team will be hard pressed to get into the top 8 once again.
On a side note I would like to express sadness that Sundin has hung up the blades for good. My longtime favourite Leaf and player in the league, Sundin was a great Leaf and Captain and hopefully is remembered as such by the fans he so often brought to their feet.
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Written by Mike Crupi