September 28, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Twelfth in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the Northeast Division (34-35-13, 81 points). The first season of the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson regime saw a thing roster play competitive hockey, although not exactly the kind the Leafs overlord wanted to see them play.
So now the Leafs are attempting to win in the NHL with a franchise philosophy that falls somewhere in between the Broad Street Bullies and a Steven Seagal movie without the subtly.
That's made them quite endearing, by the way.
The Phil Kessel(notes) trade made a surprisingly good offensive team much better, and the summer's free-agent splashes on defense and goal have the Leafs looking better on paper than they have in years. The pieces are starting to fit, the "pugnacity, testosterone and truculence" are starting to filter throughout the roster; but the Leafs aren't really a playoff team, are they?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): The Leafs' coveting of Kessel was about as clandestine as John Goodman as a ninja. Burke saw something in the kid that warranted giving up two firsts and a second, as well as a $5.4 million cap hit for five years. That others do not is disconcerting, but Kessel could turn out to be a foundational player on this roster.
Mike Komisarek(notes) (five years, $22.5 million) was signed away from the rival Montreal Canadiens to anchor the Leafs' blue line and no doubt for his attempted lumber rhinoplasty on Milan Lucic. Another coveted defensive free agent, Francois Beauchemin(notes), was signed to a three-year deal after some solid seasons with the Anaheim Ducks. Physical defenseman and Eastern Conference eye candy Garnet Exelby(notes) was acquired via trade. All of these moves improve the Toronto defense corps and underscore what an outstanding fiscal and personnel decision that Jeff Finger signing really was.
Then there was a big goaltending coup: Joey MacDonald(notes), who ... oh, right -- Jonas Gustavsson(notes), the 6-foot-3 MONSTER free agent from Sweden that the Leafs beat out the likes of Dallas and San Jose to sign. The early impressions are promising. Vesa Toskala(notes) has the job security of a Blockbuster Video clerk right about now.
The rest of the losses were middling talents (Jeff Hamilton(notes), Jamie Heward(notes)) or ancient goalies (Curtis Joseph(notes), Olaf Kolzig(notes)) or Ryan Hollweg(notes), who will sell crazy down in Phoenix this season. Toronto also said goodbye to annual goalie-of-the-future Justin Pogge(notes), who will now un-fulfill his potential with the Anaheim Ducks.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): When he returns from shoulder surgery, Kessel immediately becomes the Leaf's best offensive player, which obviously says more about their forwards than it does about Kessel. Scoring 36 goals as a 21 year old is an undeniable achievement, although he won't have nearly the offensive support he had with the Boston Bruins
until Burke signs Marc Savard(notes) next summer.
Until Kessel is healthy ... well, Jason Blake(notes) had a nice bounce-back season from his free-agent flameout upon arriving in Toronto. As long as we're all in agreement that he's not a 40-goal scorer, then he's a solid offensive player.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Without the dazzling Nazem Kadri to drool over, we'll focus on Mikhail Grabovski(notes) here. His 20 goals and 28 assists put him on the map after being ignored by the Habs for two years (although not by the Kostisyns). He's expected to be reunited with Nikolai Kulemin(notes) (15-16-31) and Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes) (23-38-61) -- a unit that not only showed good chemistry last season but one that allows rock-ribbed Americans Burke and Wilson to keep an eye on all of their shifty Reds at the same time.
Grabovski's numbers could improve if his consistency does. As Dobber pointed out in his seasons previews for fantasy hockey: "He had the following runs last year, in order: two points in 11 games; 16 in 14; six in 20; and he finished off the year with 16 in 13." That's somewhere between frustrating and infuriating ...
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): The top four is scary good. Komisarek has been skating with Tomas Kaberle(notes) (4-27-31 in 57 games) during the preseason, and it's not a stretch to call that pairing an elite one. Beauchemin has been paired with last season's breakout rookie Luke Schenn(notes), who did everything from force the Leafs to keep in the NHL with stellar play to fight Daniel Carcillo.
The final duo will be settled on from a group that (for now) includes Exelby, Ian White's porno mustache, Mike Van Ryn(notes) and the aforementioned Mr. Finger. (The latter two have been injured in the preseason.)
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Vesa Toskala is the starter much in the same way an average veteran quarterback is the "starter" when the crowd's chanting for the rookie to enter the game. His 3.26 GAA and .891 save percentage in 52 games was symptomatic of the team's porous defense, but it wasn't exactly a Vezina-worthy year between the pipes for him, either.
The buzz is all with Jonas Gustavsson, on a one-year deal and looking at times in the exhibition season like the hype's been worth it. He moves well for a guy taller than most NBA shooting guards, and his previous professional dominance in Sweden has him seasoned for the NHL. He could be the reason this team makes the postseason. He could also be the reason Pierre McGuire's head finally explodes from having to call a Monster a monster.
The Inventor (The Coach): Ron Wilson proved two things last season. First, that a good coach can turn a barren wasteland of a roster in transition into a competitive team on the ice. Second, that the San Jose Sharks' constant playoff choke jobs on his watch may have had something to do with the players.
The Burke/Wilson combination remains the basis of hope for this franchise, as the GM fills the roster with the kind of players the coach wants for success. Wilson enters this year with a much improved blue line but a flock of young forwards he'll still need to work some magic with to find offense. But he's up for the task. Hanta-yo, good sir.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Goaltending: C+ (With obvious room for quick improvement.)
Special Teams: C+ (The League's worst PK should improve with the new blue-liners.)
"Looking for a second lightning strike, Brian Burke has kept his promise of building a Ducks-like Leafs team from the weight-room out. This season has Burke and Leafs Nation expecting many Eastern conference cases of 'Leafs Flu.'"
"Speed, skill, fisticuffs, and copious amounts of truculence; a visit to the Air Canada Centre will no longer be a walk in the park. Most importantly: youth. Lord willing, some goaltending, and voila: playoffs! Four years after the lockout, the Maple Leafs finally get it. Thank you, Brian Burke."
"Everyone knows the four words that will describe this year's Leafs team. They've heard them so much that they are already sick of them and their teams haven't even suffered through a physical intro. The Leafs are still very much a work in progress. Big-name additions like Komisarek, Beauchemin, and Kessel will make the team more competitive this year while players like Gustavsson, Bozak, and Stalberg gain the experience that they need to become major contributors. They'll scramble for the 8th playoff spot but brighter days are ahead."
"The Leafs have added one first-line forward, two very good defencemen and a much better backup goalie. Those improvements should be enough to add a handful of wins, which would put the Leafs into the playoff discussion.
"Burke and Wilson have changed the culture in Toronto. At the very least, they'll be tough to play against and fun to watch for the first time since the lockout."
Don Draper Says ...
"Look, not to speak out of turn here gentlemen, but the levels of pugnacity and testosterone with these guys sometimes make me feel like I should be wearing one of Betty's house dresses by comparison."
"Well, there isn't much that DOESN'T make me feel like wearing one of Betty's hous...about them Giants? I love the football. Who needs a refill?"
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): True story -- the Toronto Maple Leafs were 10th in goals scored last season. Nobody knows how or why a roster that lacked a single player over 65 points for the Leafs was able to generate that amount of offense. Pardon us if we're wondering how they'll do it again this season, even with the addition of Phil Kessel.
The defense looks stout and the goaltending will take care of itself. Perhaps the biggest issue facing the Leafs: Does this attitude infusion translate into points in the standings or simply entertaining hockey?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): This is not a playoff team.
We all sort of want it to be, because you're lying to yourself if you pretend that a competitive Toronto club doesn't make the NHL a more interesting place. Add in the fact that they're a physical bunch, and they're on everyone's radar.
But the kids aren't old enough yet. The depth isn't there. There are too many parts moving right now on this roster. The X-Factor is Gustavsson, who could have the type of impact on the Leafs that, say, Steve Mason(notes) had on the Jackets last season. But Phil Kessel isn't Rick Nash(notes), and Grabovski and Matt Stajan(notes) (15-40-55) aren't Antoine Vermette(notes) and Kristian Huselius(notes).
The bandwagon's going to be crowded for this team if it's playing good hockey upon Kessel's return. Words like "playoff bubble" are being bandied about already. Baby steps: Finish out of the division basement for the first time in two seasons, and it'll be forward progress.