The consensus amongst both fans and media-type that follow the Toronto Maple Leafs is that the 2008-2009 season could be a long one. After three years with no success, and after enduring a bucket-full of embarrassing, lop-sided losses, Leafs fans are shell-shocked. In fact, it seems that the best that the Leafs ware expected to do, is again, miss the playoffs, but at least be competitive, losing a large amount of games by one goal, rather than, three, four, even five goals. However, with the winds of change already blowing strong in Toronto, a number of critical question have arisen with players vying for spots on the team’s roster. Until these questions are answered, predicting the fate of the 08-09 Maple Leafs could prove to be a futile task. Here are a few of the Question marks…
1) Can Curtis Joseph Step Into the Backup Role Effectively?
No doubt about it, this is Vesa Toskala’s team. However, he will not be able to play every game. Last year, every time Andrew Raycroft stepped into the pipes, it seemed like the team was forfeiting the game before the puck even dropped. With CuJo back in the Blue and White, will things change? Last year, Raycroft started in 19 games and had a record of 2 wins 9 losses, and 5 OT losses. In 9 appearances last Year, Joseph went 3 and 2. A healthy amount of games for Joseph to start next season would probably be 15 to 20. If he can win half of those games, the Leafs are looking at improving by, say 10 points next year.
2) Will Nikolai Kulemin Finally Break Through?
If you haven’t had a look at what he did in the Russian league and international play, Here:
Kulemin oozes potential. He uses his size, drives the net hard, and has a bullet shot. He is fast, and doesn’t mind using his body. If Kulemin can transplant his game into the NHL against bigger, stronger defensemen, he could be a real weapon in the Leafs roster. If Kulemin can put up good numbers as a rookie in both regular game play and the shootout, the Leafs could see a marked improvement in the standings. On a side note, Kulemin could be that mythical winger that could play with Mats Sundin; unfortunately, he may have come ten years too late.
3) Can the Leafs Defense… Play Defense?
Infamously the weakest link on Leafs teams of the past, this year’s defensive corps is being touted as a strong link. Within this question are many questions:
Can Carlo Colaiacovo stay healthy enough to contribute? This kid is full of talent. A few freak injuries have kept him out for longer than he deserved. If healthy, he greatly improved the Leafs Defense.
Will Jeff Finger live up to his contract? If he can do what they are paying him for, that is block shots and punish players who try to sit in front of the net, then this Leafs team is looking at a much improved Goals against.
Who is Jonas Frogren? Apparently, he is mean, and no one will want to stand in front of the net with him around. Intimidation in defensive hockey is huge, and if this guy can hold up his reputation as a punishing defenseman, then, much like with Jeff Finger, the Leafs could see an improved GAA.
Can Mike Van Ryn make a difference? They say he is good. I haven’t followed him much. His situation seems to mirror Colaiacovo’s. If Van Ryn can stay in good shape, then he can contribute both defensively and offensively. If he can give some McCabe-esque offensive punch, while playing a smarter defensive game, than the Leafs defense will be looking good.
4) Will the youngsters improve?
Can Anton Stralman and Jiri Tlusty, along with other Leaf youngsters step into a bigger role? These guys showed potential last year, and if they continue to develop and improve their play at the NHL level, then the Leafs could be better than expected.
5) Will Mats Sundin return?
Cut and dry, with Mats in the line up the Leafs are a better team. This horse is dead; I won’t beat it any more.
Of course, there are many other questions surrounding the Leafs this year. IF the answers to all these questions are positive for the Leafs, then Leafs nation could be pleasantly surprised this year. Then again, IF my aunt had balls… She’d be my Uncle!