As we start to ramp up for another action packed NHL season we also start to see/hear the many couch experts (myself included) start offering their opinions and projections for the race to April and what it will bring. Who’s going to jump out early.. who’s going to suffer the xmas slump.. Who has all the pieces to go all the way? It is worth noting that it is always surprising just how MANY teams have ALL the pieces but you can’t discount a fan of a dream.
In my house we cheer Maple Leafs Blue and it is NOT a choice, haha... but in recent years it has been difficult as you can imagine. This has been magnified by the fact that it seems every person you talk to is/was a Senators fan. They can’t wait to tell you how absolutely dominating their team is in the ‘battle of Ontario’ and how Spezza is the second coming of Christ. There never seems to be ANY recollection of all the years Sundin, Dougie and the boys wiped the floor with the Senator logo and they all seem to have a Leafs joke you have "never heard" tucked away in their dusty craniums. It has been a very long few years.
One Season in particular, Leafs Nation wallowed in self-pity on a quiet Sunday afternoon. It was April 2007 and the NJ Devils, in their final game of the season, had decided to rest Martin Brodeur in prep for their playoff run. The Islanders beat the Devils that day in a shootout. The significance you ask? That shootout win put the Islanders 1 pt. ahead of the now 9th place and devastated Maple Leafs and captured the final playoff spot sending the Leafs to the Links. To shove the knife in deeper, the Sens and the new-found Sens Army walked all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The only thing that saved from a total meltdown in Leafs Nation was that the Ducks easily swatted the Sens aside to capture hockey’s coveted prize.
Incidentally, it is strange that the “Diehard” Sens fans slowly diminish more and more each year since their run. Leaf fans have remained thru ALL the ups and downs… and there have been many. Even Habs fans always have their team’s backs, even if to shove a knife in it and cascade boos at their future hall of famer. None the less Habs fans are there in the dark times as well as the good times. Sens fans…. Where’d you goooooo? Some may suggest their bandwagons have moved on to other teams. Watch for an explosion of Kings fans mysteriously on the EAST coast. Since anything I say here has no chance of getting me fined, fired or flogged, I’ll just say it... Sens Fans aren’t real hockey fans.
Now, back to the season at hand. All I have been hearing is how bad the Leafs are. How they are doomed as they are every year. As previously stated I think I have probably heard every Leafs joke 100 times and each time with just as much enthusiasm. BUT.. this year is different, here’s why…
Last year the glaring issue with the top line was a center for Kessel. Although they couldn’t land a big fish they did get Tim Connolly, who is a very capable setup man who likes to carry the puck and has good vision and anticipation. Yes Kessel has been the puck carrier on this line but options never killed anyone. If Kessel and Connolly can both stay healthy for a full season give or take a few bumps and bruises they should be able to combine for roughly 130 to 140pts. If Kessel was ever able to put together a solid and CONSISTENT year he could score 40-45 and the duo would be looking at more like 150pts... I digress... Kessel and consistency don’t seem to reside in the same area code but the potential is there. Add Joffrey Lupul to that and at a solid and capable 60 point range the Leafs would be looking at 200pts+ out of their top line.
In 2010/11 the 2nd line produced 177pts. Granted each of the line-mates had a career year but if Kulemin and Grabovsky continue to mature and improve, which is expected, and then adding MacArthur and possibly Lombardi to the mix would surely turn in at LEAST a similar total come April. That would project the top 6 in the range of 375pts scored and easily closer to 400 with a little realized potential and some consistency. Last year the top6 scored 304pts. While in comparison the NHL’s top scoring team, the Vancouver Canucks’ top6 produced 408pts and that’s including 2 Sedin’s and a Kessler in the recipe. A mere 30ish pt. difference from our little Leaf projection.
Obviously there were a lot of changes to a lot of teams this offseason so it is a little harder this year to project where all the teams will fall. None-the-less it is a sign the Leafs are moving in the right direction. Possibly still a couple pieces away but if the Buds are solid in the bottom 6, which they are shaping up to be, then it all comes down to goals against.
I was ripped before for saying the Leafs have one of the top defensive units in the league but I’m standing by my statement. There is a ton of criticism of Dion Phaneuf but I think Dion is just getting comfortable. Last season saw him turn in 30 pts. in 66 games while dealing with a sever leg injury. Yes he got off to a slow start but with the pressure in Toronto and the team struggling, it’s not surprising. From January on the Leafs as well as Phaneuf were completely different. We started to see flashes of the old Dion coming back as he showed he had the ability to take over any rush if he put his mind to it. If Phaneuf's final 4 months of the season showed where his play is going, Brian Burke and Leaf fans will be very happy people. Couple that with the solid and still improving Keith Aulie and you have a very balanced top pairing. Aulie’s stay at home style and imposing size allow Phaneuf the freedom to get creative and drive the offence when needed. A luctury missing from the Captain's game prior to the Aulie pairing.
Then you have the Leafs young rock, Luke Schenn. He finished last season #1 in hits by a defenseman with 251. That was also good for 8th in the entire league. Did I mention he is doing this as a 21 year old? They say defenseman mature and peak between 28 and 32yrs old. If that’s the case with Schenn it just proves the Leafs may have their hands on a better version of Scott Stevens. Add to Luke’s side, the newly acquired JM Liles hot off a 46pt campaign, and we have yet again, a well-balanced 1-2 capable pairing to close out the top 4. Liles will also give the Leafs the boost on the PP that they missed with the Kaberle departure. Brian Burke also made chicken salad out of chicken sh!t (to quote Brock Lesnar) when he parlayed Lebda and Slaney into the extremely talented 23 year old Cody Franson and hopeful, yet still a concussion case, Matt Lombardi. Franson posted 29pts in 80 games for Nashville last season while skating to a +/-10 over an average ice-time of approximately 15mins/gm. close out the top 6 with a steadily improving Carl Gunnarsson who’s coming off his own 20pt in 68 game campaign and you have what is a growing opinion that the Leafs top 6 HAS to be in the top 10 in the NHL at the very LEAST. And this is with an average age of 24. This is a machine that will continue to improve and has potential to be a top 5 unit within a year or two.
With the improved D added to the projected offence, it leaves us with the goaltenders. With JS Giguere off to Denver it leaves Reimer driving the ship with once-top-prospect Jonas Gustavsson salivating from the bench. The next great hope in goal, affectionately tagged “Optimus Reim” will have to continue his impressive play over a full body of work in order for the Blue and White to have any hope of ending their playoff drought. Reimer has found a way at every level of his career thus far. The under-rated Maple Leafs backstop may have come out of nowhere to most casual fans but he has been on a mission since his days with the Red Deer Rebels where he posted a .912 save percentage to go along with a 2.52GAA over his 3 years. The 2006 Maple Leaf 4th round draft pick has been eerily consistent since his early days and followed his successful junior career up with a stellar season split between South Carolina and Reading of the ECHL where he posted a combined .933 save percentage and a 2.31GAA. That landed James with the Marlies where he again posted a solid save percentage and goals against of .925 and 2.25 respectively in the 09-10 season. After 15 games with the farm club to begin the 2010-11 season Reimer found himself the benefactor of an injury situation in the Leafs goal. Next came a quick west coast swing and a glimpse that the boys in blue may just have something in this young 23 year old goalie. That led to Reimer owning the crease down the stretch and finishing with a 20-10-5 record while logging a .921 save percentage and 2.60 goals against. From January to April the Leafs were at times one of the hottest teams in hockey and Reimer had a lot to do with it. In addition, had it not been for the recent influx in young potential superstars joining the NHL, Reims as he's called by teamates, would have gotten a serious look for rookie of the year honors. “With James Reimer, the issue has got to be to build on what he started,” said Burke. “A lot of goalies come in and have brief spectacular bursts in the NHL and don't sustain that. Jim Carey (former Caps goalie) is one. Steve Penny is one with the Montreal Canadians years ago. What I said to James Reimer is Google both of those guys and make sure you`re not one of them.”
With all that taken into account, I am going to say this is my answer to all the non-believers out there. The boys are young, they have an abundance of chemistry and potential, oodles of heart.. and they`re hungry to win. I project a Leaf finish somewhere between 6th and 8th thus ending the 7 year, 6 season playoff drought.
You heard it here.