With the dust seemingly settling around the NHL, I figure what better time than the present to evaluate the Leafs roster and make some predictions, as it stands today, heading into next season. If nothing else, should be entertaining.
I'll play Burke and build from the net out.
Toskala - After a year shortened by an injury that many argue affected his play, Toskala is going to be looking to have a bounce back season, and given that he is in the final year or the extension the Leafs signed him to, he surely will have some extra fire burning under him to prove he is a legitimate number one starter in the NHL. If having something to prove on those grounds weren't enough for him to step up, the signing of SEL standout Jonas Gustavsson should undoubtedly add the competition in net that the Leafs have lacked for what is amounting to an eternity. With a much improved and more physical defensive group in front of him that wont stand for anyone digging for the puck or storming in on him, I fully expect Toskala to regain the form he showed during his playing time with the Sharks.
Gustavsson - Whether he has taken what Burke said seriously about Toskala being the starter and how he'll have to take that away or not is another story, but the fact is, if Gustavsson can even come close to duplicating his numbers from last season in the SEL, he will see plenty of action, likely splitting time with Toskala. I see Wilson not even hesitating to go to this guy the second he thinks Toskala is shaky, something he could not do last year with Joseph as the backup. This guy was sought after by many teams, and at under 1 million for one year, it is a great signing, if nothing else, to give this guy a shot that he earned with his play last year overseas.
On to the defense, which, some may argue could be the best depth defense in the league, one through six.
Kaberle - With his name coming up as trade bait throughout the league, the question is there whether he will be on the team come the season opener, and I for one believe he will ultimately be moved for a top six forward and a forward prospect or pick (at the very least), but for the sake of the blog I will keep him in the loop. If he were to start with the Leafs I would think he would be on the top pairing either with Schenn or Komisarek. Expect a fully healthy Kaberle to play the brunt of the power play time and to garner the Leafs 40-50 points. They wont have to rely on him logging 25+ minutes a game next season night in night out so he will be fresher and putting up more points than last season in which he still managed 31 points in only 57 games.
Schenn - Should be nicknamed the untouchable. Burke insists he could have moved up in the draft had he included this defensive rock. I am in full agreement that unless it guaranteed Tavares, it wasn't worth it, and even then there is still some doubt. Schenn will play a tonne of penalty killing time, and on a nightly basis, he will be seeing a lot of time versus the league's best offensive talent. Don't expect many points from him again, as his power play time will be limited, but you'll probably see him drop the gloves 4 or 5 times again and see him using his body to be in the top 10 in hits by a defenseman again. He will surely be top pairing in my opinion if Kaberle is moved, and if not will still be fighting for that second spot.
Komisarek - Lured away from the arch-rival Canadiens, Komisarek will also be providing ample body work from the back end for the Leafs this year. Another player likely to be in the top 10 in hits by defensemen, will be provide many players with second thoughts about coming into Toskala or Gustavsson's comfort zone. I wouldn't expect too many fights from the guy, but 2 or 3 isn't out of the question. Like Schenn, his offensive numbers aren't likely to turn heads, nor will he make the all star game again this season, but his body work will rev up the team on many nights and keep fans cheering. He will be penciled in as an early favourite to start on the top line but will have Schenn to compete with for that.
Beauchemin - One of Burke's go to guys in Anaheim (there were many), Beauchemin has come aboard the already jam packed Maple Leaf's blue line. He will likely play a lot of power play time, especially if Kaberle is moved, and even if he isn't will likely be paired with him on the back end of the top power play unit. He will still get his share of 5 on 5. Health concerns aside, as he only has one full season under his belt at the NHL level, it isn't a stretch to expect 12-15 goals and around 35 points from him. He will likely be a second pairing guy on opening night with whichever of Schenn or Komisarek don't play with Kaberle, provided Kaberle is still there and if not a likely partner would be Exelby.
Exelby - If he plays all 82 games, then you can expect him in the top 15 in hits by a defensemen easily. He cracked the top 30 last year and only played 59 games so this is another guy the Leafs will rely on to keep their goaltenders comfortable. Sometimes over the line hits are a bit of a concern, unless the team can improve the penalty killing to back him up. Offensively he is a downgrade from Kubina, who he was traded for, but defensively he is superior to Kubina. Don't be shocked to see him drop the gloves 4 or 5 times either, especially in game changing situations. His -2 rating from last year is nothing to be concerned about, as it came out of Atlanta. Don't expect many, if any, goals from him, but his hits and gritty style are going to be appreciated by the whole team.
Finger - A health Finger will take the sixth spot on this roster. If Kaberle is moved then he'll be 5th and White and Van Ryn will battle for the sixth. Finger, another player from the top 30 in hits by a defenseman last season, despite only 66 games can be used on the 2nd power play unit as well as a penalty killer. He can also log a fair number of minutes versus a teams 2nd offensive line as he has shown the ability to step up and make the hit to shut the opponent down in the past. If he plays 3rd pairing minutes with penalty killing time and 2nd power play unit time, 25 points is probably about where he'll end up and top 20 in hits by a defender will be in the region of where he ends up.
Van Ryn - Occasionally, when healthy, last season he was their best all-round defender. Scoring 11 points in only 27 games last season, he proved he has some knack, when healthy, to help out offensively. He also showed he doesn't shy away from physicality, even with his injury prone body. With Kaberle on the roster he is fighting for seventh on the depth chart. Without him, he jumps up to sixth and the fight resumes there. If he were to win the sixth spot, he'd likely see time on the 2nd power play pairing with Finger. He wouldn't likely see much penalty killing time, but 5 on 5 and 2nd power play unit time would put him in the 30-35 point range. On another team with less depth at the back end, were he to play the whole season, 45 - 50 points is not out of reach for this guy in my opinion.
White - As stated, will be fighting for 6th or 7th, depending on what happens with Kaberle. Don't be surprised however if he steals a forward spot out of training camp. If he plays 3rd pairing minutes and some power play time 25-35 points is where I would peg him. If he jumps up to forward and plays 3rd line minutes with some power play time 40-45 points is where I'd put him. I would actually be willing to predict that if Kaberle remains on the team, then White will be a forward next season.
Of course there are other defensemen, who arguably should be included here, like Stralman and Frogren, but I think that they will be spending a large portion of the season playing for the Marlies or sitting in the press box.
Moving on to forwards, we get to what many argue is the Leaf's biggest weakness heading into the 09-10 season. To that I contend, it isn't that big of a weakness. The club finished 10th in goals for. It is argued that was with Antropov and Moore. To that I say, Tlusty, Bozak, Hanson and Wallin should be able to fill those numbers.
Blake - When he's on, he is the Leafs best forward. He was one of the hottest offensive players in the league at times last season. Many still want him and his contract jettisoned for future talent, and I was once on that band wagon, but now, I want him to remain a Leaf. His offensive talent is going to be needed this season, and I for one think that he can build on his numbers with increased ice time and more protection around him. I'm predicting 30-35 goals and 75 points for him. He will surely be a top line winger for this team.
Grabovski - Arguably the Leaf's second best offensive weapon heading into the 09-10 season. His 20 goal effort from last season was marred with a lot of inconsistency, but with a more consistent effort and front line minutes with Blake and the aforementioned increased protection up and down the bench, a 35 goal season is not unimaginable, and 80-85 points is certainly not out of the question. Looking to be a top line center on the team.
Stajan - Possibly the Leafs best play maker heading into next year, Stajan will be looking to build on his 40 assists and help keep the Leafs in the top half of league scoring. I don't see him cracking the 20 goal mark, but the 40 assist range seems about right so I'd put him in the range of 55-60 points again. Likely to be a second line center behind Grabovski.
Hagman - A full season between the first and second line will bring him close to the 60 point range. I wouldn't be shocked if he breaks the 30 goal mark this season, if he plays the whole year on the top two lines.
Ponikarovski - Likely first or second line forward, depending on his and Hagman's consistency, another 60 point year is all but assured if he plays the full season. He finally stepped up last year, particularly with the departure of long time teammate Antropov. I would be surprised if he reaches 30 goals, but he could be in the Stajan range when it comes to assists and should break the 20 goal mark, so the 60 point range might even be a bit conservative for him.
Stempniak - Having traded two former first round selections for him, the Leafs were hoping for some more offensive output. If he hopes to keep a top 3 line position with the NHL club, he will have to improve his numbers, as the Leafs have some younger guys they would gladly sub into his role on the team, at a much more cap friendly number. If he turns his game around, he is capable or playing on the second power play unit and garnering the team around 50 points and 25 goals. If not, he'll be watching a lot of games from the press box or spending some time re-tooling his game in the AHL.
Kulemin - Likely to be ridiculed for this prediction, I predict a breakout season for Kulemin. He is one of the better forward prospects in the Leafs system, if you still consider him a prospect, and I fully believe he will be given every opportunity to shine this season, being more able to focus on the offensive side of his game instead of the physical side it seemed that he was worried about last year. This year, his role will be quite obvious and could seem plenty of power play time and potentially first line minutes at some point should he elevate his offensive game. I predict Kulemin will hit the 30 goal mark this year and will be chipping in assists as well. He is capable of 70 points under the right circumstances and playing time.
Tlusty - High hopes are once again rekindled for this youngster as he had a great year in the AHL, at times being one of the most threatening the league had to offer. Expect him to be given the opportunity on the second line in camp, and if he can prove his worth, he'll stick, if not 3rd line minutes or one more year in the AHL might be in his future. I fully believe that like Kulemin, he just needs time and opportunity at this point in his career, and he will succeed. Paired on the 2nd line with Kulemin, I think the Leafs would have a dangerous number 2 line, and he could hit the 60-65 point mark as well.
Hanson/Bozak - Not really informed nor do I know much about these guys. From what I've seen and read, they seem to be 3rd liners with offensive and checking upsides. If I HAD to predict is put there on the 3rd line together and say that they'll potentially hit 30-40 points each and receive a look on the power play on some nights.
Orr - Fourth liner for sure, with no offensive upside. will likely play in the range of 6 minutes a night and will still get 150 hits and probably engage in nearly 20 fights for the Leafs.
Depending on the nightly opponent I think that the 12th forward spot will be filled by either Mitchell, Mayers or Wallin. I also think that on certain nights Wallin could be in for Bozak or Hanson.
All in all, I'm sticking with my prediction that the Leafs will jump to seventh in the conference. This team has many things it has lacked in recent years; from guys to stick up for one another, to increased depth, to young speedy talent, to improved goaltending, to competition for roster spots. For the first time in years I have some relatively high expectations for this crew.
Let me know what you think, or if I forgot anyone, it's hard to tell sometimes while you're writing.