Will Gustavsson and Kessel Propel the Leafs to Respectability?

While there has been much buildup for the debut of Phil Kessel in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform, the goaltending of Jonas Gustavsson against the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight should be equally monitored.

In five games with the Leafs this season, Gustavsson has not allowed a questionable goal, and the same cannot be said for teammate Vesa Toskala, who has a putrid .813 save-percentage and a 5.13 goals-against-average.

Gustavsson already has a collection of highlight reel saves, and has consistently provided his team with a chance to win every game. While the defense infront of him hasn’t been stellar, they, like the rest of the team, have been progressively improving as the season moves along.

If the 25-year-old netminder can post another “W” in the win column tonight, regardless of how he performs, he will assure himself a date with the underachieving Carolina Hurricanes on Friday. If he can establish the role as the Leafs' No.1 goaltender, he'll be starting a slew of games this season--barring Toskala doesn't make a miraculous comeback, and let's be honest, that seems about as likely as Mike Ribeiro not being a total douche.

But having a capable goaltender between the pipes won’t be the only thing that should boost the Leafs, as the return of Kessel should implement a new dynamic on the powerplay and five-on-five.

I’m not insinuating Kessel will pot 40 goals and lead the Leafs to the promise land, but his goal-scoring prowess should help the Leafs’ offensive woes (ranked 27th in the league for goals scored). It remains to be seen if he’ll establish chemistry with Matt Stajan and/or Jason Blake, but if they struggle with the puck in the early going, it’s likely he’ll find himself flanking Mikhail Grabovski, who has been playing with a little more jam lately, racking up six points in his last four games.

So, if Gustavsson can provide the Leafs with steady goaltending, and if Kessel can use his speed and finishing skills to remedy the Leafs’ offensive struggles, is it realistic to expect the Leafs to rebound from a nightmarish month of October?

Maybe it’s too hard to predict, considering nobody expected the Leafs to stumble out of the gate with such a deafening thump this season. But considering every player on the Leafs’ defense has improved lately, perhaps there’s reason for optimism after all.

There are several pieces that have to fall in place, but a Leafs squad capable of attaining the playoffs is not out of the question. It may not mean much, but there’s no doubt this is the best team the Leafs have had, on paper, since the 2005-06 campaign.

Unfortunately for Gustavsson and, to a higher degree, Kessel, any hope the Leafs have left of salvaging a decent season lies on their shoulders. If they can meet expectations, then a new page will be turned for the 2009-10 Leafs. And hopefully it’s one that doesn’t include constant ribbing from others teams’ fans and shedding tears after each and every game.

What do you think? Can the Leafs still become a playoff team? Will Kessel and Gustavsson help turn this ship around?

Also, you just know Victor Hedman is going to score his first goal tonight.