After finishing second last in the 2009-10 season, there’s not really anywhere to go for the Toronto Maple Leafs but up. Well at least Leafs Nation is hoping.
Only the Edmonton Oilers had a worse goal differential last year and that is something the Leafs are hoping to turn around this year. The team’s biggest move in the off-season was bringing in Kris Vertseeg from the Chicago Blachawks but it wasn’t done there as the Leafs also brought in some potential key role players in Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur. A full season with Phil Kessel, lined with Versteeg, could work out to pay dividends immediately.
Young guns in Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and Luca Caputi will also be looking to stamp their name in the starting line-up. Bozak and Caputi are already penciled in, or one would think, while Kadri’s future remains in question. General manager Brian Burke hasn’t said if he plans to get Kadri into the bigs this year or not, and probably won’t until the day of. Nikolai Kulemin and Mikael Grabovski will also be looked at to add secondary scoring, which could either help lift them from the basement of the Eastern Conference or put them right back in it.
On the defensive side of things, the Leafs have a solid core of players being led by Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn. Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek round out the top five, while Brett Lebda, Jeff Finger and Carl Gunnarsson are all in the mix for the final pairings. The mix of offensive talent and defensive grit is there, it’s just how well they match-up. As last season showed, the Leafs were pulling the puck out of their net much more than their opposition most nights. If the chemistry is right in the pairings, they could be a strong force.
Between the pipes the Leafs have a proven veteran and an aspiring relatively young battling for the number one spot. Burke announced Jean-Sebastien Giguere would get the nod to open the season, but that doesn’t mean Jonas Gustavsson won’t be in the crease at all. While not the best tandem in hockey, it does give the team a 1-1a scenario in which they can be confident with whoever gets the start each night. While Gustavsson was thrown into the spotlight due to the poor play of former target Vesa Toskala, he’ll now be able to learn from Giguere and allow some of the pressure to be on someone else’s shoulders other than himself.
The Leafs have the tools to become a playoff contender but only time will tell if they figure out how to use them throughout the entire season. Leafs Nation will be hoping for something better than last season, which they weren’t rewarded for as the team’s first round pick (second overall) was in Boston’s hands due to the Kessel deal, as if the do not perform up to par they once again will miss out on a potential star with their first round pick in this year’s draft also in the hands of the Bruins. With Tampa Bay reloading, Atlanta hoping for another push, the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes looking to get back in the second season, Toronto will be hard pressed to make the playoffs. It can be done, to repeat – can be done, but only if they get of to a much better start than 1-7-4 record they began with in October last year.
Next up: the Vancouver Canucks