September 27, 2011
It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
Inspired by their rookie goalie, who went 9-4-1 in March, the Leafs rallied to finish eight points out a playoff spot (37-34-11, 85 points), saving Coach Ron Wilson's job for another season.
GM Brian Burke made some additions and subtractions in the offseason, but it's the returning group of Leafs that will make or break this team.
But will it be a playoff team in the Eastern Conference?
Defenseman John-Michael Liles(notes), acquired from Colorado for a second-round pick, gives the Leafs a power-play quarterback. On July 3, Burke made another blueline move: Acquiring blue-chip D-man Cody Franson(notes) and on-the-mend center Matt Lombardi for soon-to-be-waived Brett Lebda(notes) and minor leaguer Robert Slaney(notes).
Tim Connolly(notes) (2 years, $4.75 million cap hit) was a controversial free-agent signing, yet also an inevitable Plan B after the Leafs lost out on Brad Richards(notes). He can be an offensive force when healthy; but ask a Sabres fan about his stability and fragility. Forward Philippe Dupuis(notes) signed for 1 year from the Avs.
Gone are goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes), who signed with the Avalanche for two seasons; fan favorite Tim Brent(notes), who signed with Carolina for two years; and forwards Christian Hanson(notes) and Danny Richmond(notes), who both signed with the Capitals for one season.
At forward, Phil Kessel(notes) enters his third season with the Leafs after tallying 32 goals and 32 assists in 82 games, skating to a minus-20. His critics are often misguided or hyperbolic in their criticism of what is, essentially, a very good player held to a lofty standard.
He should see time with Connolly to start the season. The former Buffalo Sabres center is two years removed from a 65-point season; alas, that was the first time since 2003 that Connolly played over 70 games. He managed 68 last season and scored 42 points. The third member of the line should be Joffrey Lupul(notes), who arrived from the Anaheim Ducks last season and tallied 18 points in 28 games. Now when does he cameo in VH1 again?
One of the most pleasant surprises for the Leafs last season was Clarke MacArthur(notes), whom the Atlanta Thrashers walked away from after arbitration. His 21 goals and 41 points were career highs. He scored a 2-year deal for the effort.
Two other revelations: Mikhail Grabovski(notes), who scored 29 goals and 29 assists in skating to a plus-14; and Nikolai Kulemin(notes), who scored 30 goals last season in 82 games. MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin, both eligible for free agency next summer, could provide a solid second scoring option behind Kessel's line.
Tyler Bozak(notes) is bigger than he was last season, when he tallied 32 points in 82 games. Colby Armstrong(notes) will hopefully provide a little more offense, but hey, he's got 57,000 Twitter followers. Nazem Kadri(notes), who has endured two years of Ron Wilson's personal grooming, looks to stick with the Leafs on their third line (at least to start).
Popular grinder Darryl Boyce(notes) survived Jody Shelley(notes) attempting to ground him into the glass in the preseason … but really, once your nose is hanging off your face after a game, it's all going to be OK. Joey Crabb(notes), Mike Brown(notes), Dupuis and Matt Frattin(notes) fill out the forward options. Jay Rosehill(notes) and Colton Orr(notes) provide the low-minutes, big punches truculence.
The wild card at forward: Matthew Lombardi(notes), who has the ability to be a top six player in the lineup if he can fully recover from his concussion one year ago. He could be a huge factor if healthy.
On defense, Dion Phaneuf(notes) played 25:18 per game, including 3:55 on average on the power play. He tallied 30 points, was a minus-2 and had 121 blocked shots. Do his peers still consider him overrated?
Luke Schenn(notes) was second in ice time at 22:22, leading the team in shorthanded ice time at 2:44 per game. He received a new 5-year deal before camp on the promise he'll continue to develop into one of the best shutdown defenders in the League.
Liles scored 46 points last season for the Avalanche. He was good for about 20 points on the power play, and blocks a significant amount of shots.
Hey, remember Mike Komisarek(notes)? Signed through 2014, his ice time was under 14 minutes per game last season. Matt Lashoff(notes) and highly-touted Jake Gardiner(notes), a preseason standout, round out the group.
In goal, it's Reim time.
James Reimer was a rookie sensation who won 20 of 35 starts for the Leafs while posting a .921 save percentage. Down the stretch last season, he won seven of eight games. The fear is that he'll be a flash in the pan like so many other one-hit-wonders between the pipes. But if Reimer's the real deal, he could lead the Leafs to playoff contention. And he better be, with that spiffy new contract.
"Superman Returns."Prestigious director who has previous successes? Check. Talented cast? Check. Unproven commodity tying it all together? Check. Blue pajamas? Check.
Brian Burke has been the president and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs since Nov. 2008. The Leafs haven't made the playoffs during his tenure. They haven't signed an elite offensive star, missing out on the Sedins (despite Burke's courtship) and Brad Richards. The traded for one in Phil Kessel, but we all know the price for that bounty.
Burke has surrounded himself with an outstanding front office that includes Dave Nonis and Rick Dudley. He's made some smart decisions during the offseason, none the least behind his demand that Coach Ron Wilson make personnel changes on his bench.
Wilson has spent so much time on the hot seat that he's starting to blister. Another poor start could spell the end of Wilson's time in Toronto, which began in June 2008. But there's no question that he deserves a modicum of credit for last season's second-half surge.
Defenseman Jake Gardiner is a University of Wisconsin product who made things interesting in camp as a solid puck-moving defenseman. He's probably AHL-bound, but there's still a chance he could be a Cam Fowler(notes)-ish revelation if given a shot this season with the Leafs.
"HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT IF WE THREW YOU, EH?"
We hate to traffic in clichés about Tim Connolly's NHL legacy, but he was already injured in a preseason game.
Phil Kessel deserved an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Nobel Peace Prize for this smiling effort. Oh, Ovie, you scamp.
The play of James Reimer. If last year's rookie sensation is this year's pace-setting between the pipes, the Leafs could be in business. As Luke Schenn told Nick Cotsonika: "I don't think he's going to let it go to his head. He's real grounded. He's real focused. He wants to be the guy, doesn't forget where he came from."
If Liles and the improving forwards can get the power play better than 16 percent. If Reimer and the defense can dramatically cut into that 2.94 team GAA. If the team can roll three lines that threaten to score. If November isn't a complete disaster again. If … if … if … the Toronto Maple Leafs can be a playoff team for the first time since 2004. Or at least hang very, very close to the bubble.