Are the Leafs a Playoff Team?
The Toronto Maple Leafs will not be acquiring any more assets in the off-season... at least for now.
In an interview with the National Post's Michael Traikos, general manager Brian Burke said his team is going to sit back and let the players compete for spots at training camp. This is good news for the likes of Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Joe Colborne. While there remains holes on the Leafs' roster, Rick Dudley told the Star that patience will ultimately address the team's needs.
"Come training camp, if one or two young players makes the team, they're going to have to move people, and they are not going to be able to move the people they just signed,” Dudley said, in reference to the active teams only July 1. “They're going to have to move assets on their roster. That's a good thing (for the Leafs).”
Such a tactic speaks volumes of the Leafs' confidence in its top-six unit heading into the 2011-12 season. Perhaps not in the long-term, but the Leafs are still developing and fans should not be disappointed if Burke doesn't make a big splash this off-season---in fact, it's unlikely he does. Obviously the Leafs have no interest in acquiring leftover top-six players that could add no more to the line-up than the current unit already does. What the Leafs require, aside from a number-one center, is some help on the bottom-six, both in the form of veteran presence and a defensive specialist. While there are a few options in the free agent market---Chris Drury and Mike Grier most notably---the Leafs seem to be looking elsewhere to address its needs. While it's unlikely Burke opts to offer sheet any restricted free agent, it's within the realm of possibility he keeps an eye on any players that may be released if an arbitration ruling is too pricey for a team. If the Leafs' management staff deems the options available as lateral movement, rest assured that Toronto will enter the season with its current roster. And that shouldn't scare anyone.
As mentioned above, the Leafs still lack a number-one center, but with the additions of Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly, there is a considerable upgrade up the middle. No longer will Phil Kessel play alongside a 35-point centerman in Tyler Bozak, and that is perhaps the best news this summer. If Connolly is indeed healthy, or at least play over 70 games, he will provide the Leafs with a skill-set the club hasn't witnessed since Mats Sundin departed. And no, I am not suggesting Connolly is on par with Sundin, but he posseses great hands and vision to adequately compliment Kessel's abilities. Aside from Mikhail Grabovski, the Leafs had one center capable of playing in the top-six last season. With Connolly and Lombardi---if healthy--- the Leafs have three centers capable of producing on a scoring line. Not only does this provide the club with newfound depth, it gives head coach Ron Wilson options to work with---and thus ultimately determine his fate in Toronto. It's entirely possible the Leafs roll three scoring lines next season and take advantage of its depth, rather than rely on one or two lines. To put it bluntly, the Leafs simply lack star power at this point, so adding depth in a top-nine format is perhaps the club's best chance at finally attaining the post-season.
The defense has upgraded considerably since last season, with Mike Komisarek now the seventh defenseman on the depth chart. If he doesn't get traded, it's likely he sees limited time with the Leafs, as the club now has one of the most promising young defense corps in the National Hockey League. The addition of John Michael Liles and Cody Franson not only revamps the defense, but adds new dimensions to a crippling Leafs powerplay. And on the subject, Connolly's presence on the powerplay shouldn't be overlooked. He finished first on the Sabres in PP points in 2009-10, and tied for second last season---only played 68 games and had his least productive season since the lockout. If the Leafs' additions to the lineup contribute as they should, the powerplay should dramatically improve upon its 22nd overall ranking last season.
If the Leafs are realistically expected to attain the post-season, though, its penalty kill is undoubtebly the key. The team finished 28th in the league on the PK last season, and suffered in the standings because of the fact. None of the Leafs' acquisitions addressed this need, so unless Burke has another trick up his sleeve before the season starts, it's likely the team is counting on its strong second-half performance to continue. Much of that also rests on the shoulders of James Reimer, who will be counted on to consistently perform at a level not witnessed since the lockout in the Leafs' net. The fact that these question marks still cloud the Leafs is concerning, but fans must remember that the Leafs are still developing and are one the league's youngest teams---Liles, at 30 years old, is the Leafs' oldest player.
With all that said, if the Leafs can improve its powerplay, get stability between the pipes, and get a decent amount of production up the middle, I'd be confident in predicting the team's first playoff berth since the lockout. Although that's a lot of ifs, the Leafs finally have the assets that can realistically address its needs.
And that's not even considering what Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin may bring to the table. It's foolish to assume the Leafs can contend for the Stanley Cup, but with legitimate NHL prospects in the pipeline and youth anchoring its core, the Leafs are not far off from reaching that goal.
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