What if Everything Goes Wrong?
The hockey yearbooks have hit the stands and prognosticators everywhere are making their predictions for the upcoming season. It's also the time when the fans of all teams assume this is the season that their team will take that next step.
Fans on Twitter and around the Internet are vehement that this season the playoff drought will end for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I personally agree. Although, I do not agree with the fans that say the Leafs will make the Eastern Conference Final; it kind of proves the "plan the parade" argument.
For this article though, I'd like to look at the opposite end of the spectrum and speculate how everything can go off the rails for the 2011-2012 Leafs.
What Can Go Wrong
As all fans know, the Leafs hopes this season lie at the feet of James Reimer. As Reimer goes this season, so go the Leafs' playoff chances. Is it unrealistic for the Leafs to put that much pressure on a 23 year old, second year NHLer? Leaf fans have heard this numerous times. Steve Simmons is everywhere in Toronto,and we know the negative side to this argument. If Reimer struggles this season, the Leafs may be in for another horrible year. Jonas Gustavsson, Ben Scrivens, or Jussi Rhynnas may emerge in the same way Reimer did last season and provide salvation, but the Leafs are taking a big gamble on Optimus Reim.
Another area of concern are the players coming off of career seasons. Last year, the wonderful MaCarthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line was one of, if not the best second line in the league. Clarke MaCarthur came out of nowhere last season, doubling his previous career high in points from 31 to 62. A late signing, MaCarthur had the game winning goal in the season opener and never looked back. Is it fair to assume that he is a legitimate, point producing player now? Can a player who has a career season in a contract year be trusted to duplicate it after getting paid (2 years 6.5 million)?
What about Mikhail Grabovski? Can the Leafs rely on him? Coming off of a 29 goal, 58 point season, is he capable of contributing at that level on a consistent basis? Being labeled a loose cannon before the 2010-2011 season, has he matured into the leader that he was last season? Leaf detractors say that the jury is still out on these two players, yet many fans are basing their playoff predictions on both Grabovski and MacArthur having similar or better seasons. If the MaCarthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line is unable to provide offensive support to the Lupul-Connolly-Kessel line, the Leafs offense will definitely struggle.
Of course, the upcoming season could always be derailed by a significant injury. The Leafs struggled mightily last year without Dion Phaneuf and Colby Armstrong. What if Phil Kessel goes down early and for a significant amount of time, or if Luke Schenn blows his knee out? The season could turn in an instant with a bad injury. Just ask the New Jersey Devils how a bad injury can turn a team's fortunes for a whole season. Any significant injury to one of the Leafs' core players (Reimer, Phaneuf, Schenn, Kessel, Grabovski, MaCarthur, Kulemin) could make for a long winter and short spring for the Blue and White.
What I Really Think
The points made above are all possible. Yes, Reimer may struggle. MaCarthur and Grabovski could regress. Players could get injured. Will any of this really happen though? Other than the injuries, I think the Leafs are in the clear.
James Reimer is not your typical sophomore NHL'er. Reimer has been lauded for his ability to keep his feet on the ground. He is said to not get ahead of himself, and keeps things in perspective. I have stated my thoughts on James Reimer before, but I'll say it again. A devout family man, Reimer is not the type of player who reads the press clippings, or suffers from a massive ego. Visibly humble, Reimer's aww shucks personality and intense work ethic will allow him to remain consistent in the NHL. I'm sure having Jean-Sebastien Giguere as a mentor last season was a plus as well. Giguere mentored both Ilya Bryzgalov and Jonas Hiller before they became all-stars, so Reimer seems to be in good company.
The ability of MaCarthur and Grabovski duplicating their career seasons is difficult to predict. A former Canadian World Junior member and Western Hockey League star, MaCarthur was always viewed as a player capable of putting up points in the NHL. It took him a little longer to get there, but players develop at their own pace. Is MaCarthur a legitimate point producer now? This season will go a long way to establishing that. At this point last season, the Leafs and fans were touting Kris Versteeg as the real deal. MaCarthur capitalized on Versteeg's inability to produce. MaCarthur's totals may drop slightly, but he will be a valuable member of the Leafs this season. If MaCarthur struggles though, maybe another player steps up and picks up the slack (Kadri, Frattin Caputi?). I saw enough from Mikhail Grabovski in both 2008-2009 and 2010-2011 to call him a proven top six player in the NHL. An intense waterbug, Grabovski has taken on a leadership role on the ice. Having wore an 'A' on some occasions last season, Grabovski will be a significant player for the Leafs this season.
Brian Burke and his team of brains have slowly built up the depth in the organization. The Leafs will be able to withstand some injuries this season. If the unfortunate should occur and one of those key players mentioned above are lost for a significant amount of time, then the season will be a difficult one. Injuries are unplanned and a matter of luck. If they happen, hopefully the Leafs have enough depth to overcome.
To all Leaf fans, I'm ready for an exciting and successful season, but if this season is another difficult one look on the bright side, at least we have our first pick this year!
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