Toronto Maple Leafs Season Preview
With training camp in their rear view mirror, the Toronto Maple Leafs have made their final roster decisions, and are ready to begin the 2011-2012 NHL season.
A hyperventilated fan base can catch their breath over the next couple of days and remember that pre season means absolutely nothing. Having finished with a 4-4 record in their fake games has caused many people to sound the alarms.
During these times of despair I hope these fans remember the preseason of 2009-2010. That was the preseason in which Viktor Stalberg led the league in preseason scoring. The Leafs finished with a 6-3 record in fake games that year. They played so well that Brian Burke admitted he thought the team was closer than they actually were, causing him to make a big move and acquire Phil Kessel for a playoff push. The Leafs finished that season with the second worst record in the league, and preseason all-stars Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg weren't on the team the next year.
The eight games that the Leafs have played this fall were both encouraging and frustrating. The Leafs are definitely a fast team, with a potentially physically imposing defense. In the end, their hopes live and die with how James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson perform between the pipes.
Below is the final Leafs roster heading out of training camp, and my thoughts about the players.
Extras: Tyler Bozak, Jay Rosehill
The Leafs will begin the season without Clarke MacArthur (serving a two game suspension) and most likely without Tim Connolly (injury). Frattin will replace MacArthur on the Leafs first line, while Bozak will step in for Connolly for the first couple of games. With the acquisition of Steckel (acquired Tuesday for a 2012 4th round pick) and the surprising early recovery by Matthew Lombardi, I really don't see a place for Tyler Bozak on this Leafs team.
The Leafs will face the Montreal Canadiens Thursday and the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, they will have a full week off before they face the Calgary Flames on the following Saturday. My feeling (along with many other people's) is that Bozak will be moved by the Calgary game.
Frattin won a place on this team by default after Nazem Kadri sprained his knee (out 2-4 weeks). There are many talking heads and fans who believe Frattin would have beat out Kadri regardless, but I doubt that. Kadri provides the Leafs with a power play weapon and a shootout specialist, he will eventually be a very valuable player to the Leafs this season. The more I watch Frattin the more I like him. He's a good skater with a hard, heavy shot. From the small sample size of games I've seen him in, I like how whenever he has the puck in position he does not hesitate to shoot.
With the acquisition of Steckel the Leafs depth down the middle has gone from Bozak, Grabovski, Darryl Boyce and Tim Brent (the centremen that ended the 2010-2011 season with the Leafs) to Grabovski, Connolly, Lombardi and Steckel. Steckel and Lombardi provide the Leafs with two proven defensively responsible pivots. Steckel led the league in faceoff percentage last season winning 62.3% of his draws. A 6'5" 220lbs centre iceman who can lean on the oppositions best offensive forwards and penalty kill is a significant bonus to this Leafs squad. Lombardi's speed is an asset, he will create headaches for the opposition and contribute offensively once he recovers from missing an entire season.
The Leafs top six forwards will all be looked upon to contribute significant offense this year. Kessel, Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur are all expected to duplicate and perhaps build off of the career years they had in 2010-2011. Lupul and Connolly should be major upgrades as Kessel's linemates over Bozak and the winger of the month that played with the Leafs sniper last season (Joey Crabb, Armstrong, Kadri and Kris Versteeg). These two lines will split the power plays minutes evenly this season.
Depth and character players such as Armstrong, Brown and Dupuis are defensively capable, strong forecheking and selfless penalty killers. Armstrong is a more than just a depth player, but for the sake of trying to keep this short he fits into this group.
Extra: Cody Franson
The surprise of training camp was Jake Gardiner. An unbelievably smooth skating blueliner who in his brief time as the apple of Leaf fans eyes this preseason, consistently lead the rush offensively while being the first player back defensively. Poised and composed beyond his years (only 21), he forced his way onto the team by leading the playing well over twenty minutes a night in the preseason.
Gardiner's emergence forced the Leafs to send promising yet disappointing Keith Aulie to the Toronto Marlies to begin the season. Aulie is still a big part of the Leafs future, but he was terrible this fall. Big defenders such as Aulie sometimes take a while to get into the flow of things at the beginning of the year. In my opinion, the Leafs ability and willingness to let Aulie sort out his problems with the Marlies speaks to their depth and to their focus on developing players properly. Remember two seasons ago Luke Schenn struggled mightily in his second season, and he was left to figure it out at the highest level. It seems the Leafs have learned from that mistake.
Mike Komisarek is looking to bounce back this year and justify his big paycheck. There were some obvious struggles by Komisarek, but he also had some nice moments this preseason. An early and productive start is imperative for Komisarek. The first fifteen games of this season will really determine how his year will go for him.
John Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarsson were the two best blueliners this preseason. Liles is a fantastic skater and has strong offensive instincts, he will be the Leafs power play quarterback and offensive initiator most nights. Gunnarsson is a strong, steady and emerging horse on the blueline. Hopefully the rumours of him being traded are untrue because he should be a key member of the Leafs top four for a long time.
People around the league and fans of the Leafs are aware of what Schenn and Phaneuf are capable of, and what is expected of them this season. Both are leaders on the ice, who should set the physical tone on a nightly basis. Phaneuf is looked upon to continue with his late season offensive renaissance, having Liles on the power play should really boost Dion's numbers. While Schenn is expected to take a major step in becoming a ferocious shut down defenceman.
Off season acquisition Cody Franson is the seventh defenseman at the moment, but that may change quickly if Gardiner is unable to continue his strong play, or if Komisarek begins to treat the puck like a hot potato again. Franson is a big and imposing defender, who is hesitant to use his size. He has a rocket for a shot and is adept at getting it through on net. He struggled this preseason, but many people expect the talented youngster to take off once he gets acclimatized to Toronto.
Reimer is the number one, and although he seemed to struggle this preseason the true test begins Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre. He should play between 60-65 games this season, and will be looked upon to provide the Leafs with the goaltending they saw in the final part of last season. "Will Reimer be able to carry load this season?" seems to be the question of the day, every day. Time will tell. See my article on why I think he can and will.
Gustavsson had a rough preseason as well, but seemed to get stronger as it went on. He still chases the play too much and is lost on breakaways and shootouts. Hopefully Leafs goaltending expert Francois Allair can teach him to be more quiet and steady in the net. "The Monster's" ability to give Reimer a rest and win some games will go a long way in determining if the Leafs are a playoff team this year.
The Leafs strengths heading into this season are the depth down the middle, and the blueline. With a dynamic offensive line in MacArthur, Kulemin and Grabovski supplemented by the Connolly, Kessel and Lupul line the Leafs shouldn't suffer in the goal scoring department this season. Keep in mind Lombardi and Armstrong are capable, and have a history, of producing offense in the NHL. In the end it all comes down to Reimer, and I think he'll be great.
Seeing this team from top to bottom I think they are a playoff team, they should finish either 8th or 7th this season. The Leafs are better than the Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets and the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference. I'm sure there are people who disagree, I will make my argument as to why I believe this in my season preview tomorrow.
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