With rookie camp underway in London, ON and the “main” training camps’ kick-off in Toronto just around the corner, it’s time to turn our attention towards the Leafs outlook for the 2010/11 season.
Brian Burke and Co. have been busy this offseason continuing to overhaul the roster and upgrade in key areas, notably focussing on bringing talented youngsters into the fold on the front end.
Read on for some keys to the upcoming season:
The inability to parlay Tomas Kaberle and his expiring contract into a top 6 forward asset remains disappointing, however, the Maple Leafs head into the season boasting one of the deepest and most promising defence corps in the National Hockey League.
With the mid-season acquisition of Dion Phaneuf, the defence corps remains little changed from the squad that finished 29th in the NHL a year ago. Bounce-back years are expected from Mike Komisarek (injury plagued 2009/10 campaign) and Luke Schenn (‘sophomore jinx’) which should enable Francois Beauchemin to settle into his niche of playing steady minutes as a second pairing defenceman. Carl Gunnarson and Tomas Kaberle round out the Leafs top pairings, adding some finesse and puck-moving prowess to the aforementioned groups’ brawn.
Similar statements were made just over a year ago in regards to the strength of the back-end for the blue and white, but one glaring question-mark has been addressed on this version of the hockey club: starting goaltending.
There is little doubt January 31 of this year is a watershed in the return to greatness of the Toronto franchise. Not only was Dion Phaneuf brought to Toronto in a lopsided trade with the Calgary Flames, but Brian Burke also pulled the trigger on another deal, shipping considerable salary (and considerable underachievers) to Anaheim for the services of Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
Aside from posting back-to-back shutouts to begin his tenure in his new uniform, Giguere was a calming mentor who viewed the goaltending in Toronto more as a partnership than adversarial relationship.
Not coincidentally, Jonas Gustavsson’s stock rose as he was partnered in the twine with a netminder that plays a similar style to his and was willing to help the rookie learn the ropes in the NHL; something incumbent Vesa Toskala was unwilling (or incapable) to do.
The future is bright in the Leafs crease, with not only the talent on the big club in net, but also an abundance of quality youngsters pushing for playing time. Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and James Reimer all look like legitimate goaltending prospects and strong organizational assets.
Opening Night Forecast:
With the improvements to the defence and goaltending positions, the Leafs forward corps continues to be a work in progress, and in most eyes, an area of concern. The Leafs should be better stopping goals in 2010/11, but who’s going to score them?
Former NCAA standout Tyler Bozak burst onto the scene midway through the last campaign to give some hope for the future to Leaf fans looking to re-capture playoff glory. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and look up Bozak’s first career goal on Youtube – I daresay you’ll be hard-pressed to find a prettier first career NHL goal, probably in the history of the league. (Please post a link in the comment section if you think there is a nicer one)
Bozak’s emergence coupled with the continued progression of Nikolai Kulemin gives the Leafs the beginnings of a forward corps that will grow together over the next several seasons. The all around strength of Kris Versteeg’s game, the sniping ability of goal-scorer Phil Kessel, the size and scoring ability of Clarke McArthur and the undeniable speed and talent of Mikhail Grabovski lends itself well to optimism amongst this top 6 forward group.
No player will be more carefully scrutinized in training camp than 2009’s 7th overall draft pick Nazem Kadri. “Pencilled in” on the opening night roster, Kadri could see his stock – and forward rank – rise amongst Leaf forwards with a fast start, and will likely begin the season playing carefully limited 3rd line minutes and an abundance of powerplay and shootout assignments. Veteran Colby Armstrong seems to be the logical pick to play alongside Kadri at the start of the season, showing the rookie what it akes to be a professional while at the same time offering a blend of skill/scoring to go with a considerable dose of sandpaper.
This young group will be given every opportunity to earn their ice time as the season goes along, and the value of experience will aid in this young group’s maturation into a dynamic offensive presence.
Colton Orr and Mike Brown provide the “dynamic duo” lacking in last season edition of the Maple Leafs. No one can dispute Orr’s status amongst the NHL’s elite pugilists, however on most nights encountered a pest or two unwilling to ante up and go with a legitimate heavyweight. Enter Mike Brown, who fits the bill on the undercard as the teams “light heavyweight” and will tasked with strong defensive play, PK ability and taking out the trash that doesn’t step up to the plate. Armstrong – while capable – will not have to take on these tasks aside from in the spur of the moment and provide physical spark, leadership and secondary scoring to the squad.
Circle a couple of nights on your calendars this year if you are a fan of truculent hockey – no doubt Ron Wilson and Brian Burke have made note of a couple sideshow acts from last season.
Opening Night Forecast:
*Sjostrom (recovering from offseason surgery)
We’ve been down this road before. Maple Leaf team underachieves for much of the schedule, then excels when the pressure is off late in the season and provides optimism for the next year to the legion of fans.
I am a little wary of setting the bar too high for the 29th place squad from a year ago, but, a total reversal of fortunes in the form of a strong start to the season will tell the tale whether the blue and white are a playoff team or a group that still needs to ship in some star power to the group up front.
Personally, I think this team will battle all year for the 7th – 10th seed in the Eastern Conference; a dramatic improvement over the 15th place finish from a year ago.
My heart says: Playoffs Baby!
My head says: It’s gonna be close.
Time will tell. We’ve all seen this movie before; here’s to a happy ending in 2010/11.
Follow me on Twitter: @mbd_27
About the Author
Written by Mike De Petrillo
Leafs fan; former OHL LW; Live in Toronto