After a long lockout and nearly four months without any hockey whatsoever, the Toronto Maple Leafs returned to action this past weekend to open the 2012-13 season. So how did the Leafs celebrate the new CBA? They fired their general manager and promoted his lackey.
To say the least, the start of the season was rough for the Leafs.
With a youth movement, a wave of young talent has hit the Leafs roster. In are players like 2009 first-round selection Nazem Kadri, Leo Komarov, James van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, Mike Kostka and Korbinian Holzer. Out are guys like Tim Connolly, who was waived and sent to the AHL, and Matthew Lombardi, who was shipped to the Phoenix Coyotes for a conditional fourth-round pick in 2014.
With youth comes mistakes, so this season will likely be a building season rather than a winning season. With a pretty deep draft class for 2013 and a high pick that they could land in the lottery, the Leafs are on their way to improving their team by leaps and bounds in the next few years.
Concerning this season, here are seven games that could define the Leafs' season this year. Good results could mean the team might challenge for a playoff spot; bad results would equal a possible lottery pick and the race to the first overall selection.
Obviously, how you start out the season could be a precursor to what the season could be.
With such a long layoff, I fully expected a sloppy game marred by missed chances, missed passes and likely a poor finish by the Maple Leafs.
What did I get? Exactly that. A very sloppy game played by both sides, but the Leafs managed to come out on top in this rather boring affair.
The Leafs' new defensive style is doing wonders for their penalty kill and team defence, but their offence, possibly due to the long layoff, is stagnant and nearly non-existent.
This is—or shall I say was—a big game for many Leaf fans. MLSE decided to thank the fans by offering free tickets to all fans this game, so as a result, the Leafs home opener was the first free home opener in NHL history.
How did the Leafs mark this eventful day in history? By peppering Sabres goalie Ryan Miller with fairly easy-to-stop shots and missing the net on countless great scoring opportunities. They managed to score a lucky goal in the final two minutes, as Nazem Kadri slammed the puck into the net after a knucklepuck went wide by defenseman Mike Kostka.
The previous game against the Habs, just like this game, was a sign of what's to come for the Maple Leafs.
It seems the offense goes when Phil Kessel goes, and when he's stalled, the offense stalls.
For the Leafs to get better from here on out, you're looking for more offense from secondary sources, other than Kadri. That means the MKG line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin have to pick up the pace offensively so the Leafs don't end up losing ground on the leaders of the Eastern Conference.
This will be the first time the Leafs play an elite Stanley Cup contender. This is also the first home game for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
This setting has the makings for an absolute blowout if the Leafs aren't careful. With defenseman Jake Gardiner expected to return this week, possibly in this game, he should add some much-needed offensive spark from the back end.
The bigger question is will Toronto's new defensive system end up getting foiled by the Penguins' all-star attack featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and netminder Marc Andre Fleury.
For the Leafs to come close to winning this game, their defensive game will have to be on high alert, their goaltending will need to be strong and come up with a huge save now and then and the offense will need to score in other situations other than the power play.
The result in this game will go a long way toward seeing if the Leafs can handle the upper-echelon teams, even this early into the season.
Last season, the Leafs got owned by the Bruins in all facets of the game—physicality, goaltending, defence, coaching, teamwork, passing, etc.
The Bruins are once again the favorites to win the Northeast Division, and defender Zdeno Chara always gives the Leafs fits when he's matched up against the Leafs' best sniper, Phil Kessel.
What will the Leafs need to do to win this game? Match Boston's physical play, draw penalties and get traffic in front of former Leaf Tuukka Rask in hopes they can score a few greasy goals. They will need their goaltender, whether its Ben Scrivens or James Reimer, to be playing at his best and not allowing soft goals.
Can the young Leafs handle this hard-hitting, physical squad? Tune in Feb. 2nd to see if they can.
Personally, I felt the Ottawa Senators vastly overachieved last season and really rode the likes of Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza to the postseason.
This season, the Senators could make a re-appearance in the playoffs, and this time, it looks legit. The Senators are a fast-skating, offensively gifted team, with newcomer Jakob Silfverberg manning the right wing position on the first line and former third overall pick Kyle Turris coming into his own playing with Daniel Alfredsson on the second line.
Toronto will have their hands full with the Senators and will have to try and shut down an explosive power play that will feature 2012 Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
This game will not only be a test for how the Leafs get up for this game, but it will also be a test for both teams' special teams, as Ottawa's power play could rip the Leafs to shreds if they do not get in the shooting lanes and help out their goaltender. If they rely too much on Ben Scrivens or James Reimer to stop the puck in traffic, this game could get messy real fast.
Be sure to check out Hockey Night in Canada on Feb. 16th to witness another installment of the Battle of Ontario.
This back-to-back set against the Rangers will occur with only 10 games remaining, which means the Leafs could be in playoff contention or possibly have already locked up a playoff spot if all goes well.
A home-and-home against another Stanley Cup favorite—and playing the best goaltender in the Eastern Conference—could spell disaster for the Leafs' playoff hopes.
Again, to beat a great goalie, the best plan is to attack him, get traffic in front of him and, yes, score the greasy goal—Gary Roberts style—from right on top of him.
However, whether or not the Leafs follow this plan is still up in the air, as the Leafs tend to play a more finesse exterior game rather than ram the puck down the throats of the opposition.
Could things change by April? Possibly, but we won't hold our breath.
If the Leafs are in playoff contention, this home-and-home will be the two must-see games of the 2013 season.
If the Leafs are in playoff contention, knowing how close the Eastern Conference is, it could be a race to the finish. The Leafs may have to win the final game of the season to try and secure the final playoff spot, ad if they don't, you could see Dion Phaneuf at a golf course near you.
Montreal, if their team stays like it is today, will likely be fighting with the rats and other vermin in the Eastern Conference's basement. This is a team with little to no size whatsoever up the middle, and one that is still missing key defenceman P.K. Subban, who they will need to re-sign him soon before the season gets away from them.
For Montreal to even stand a chance at the playoffs, goaltender Carey Price will need to stand on his head, and the Montreal offense will somehow need to score at a higher pace for the Habs to inch closer to the playoffs.
Tune in at the end of April to see the conclusion to this quick 48-game season. Will it be the best game of the season, or will it be just another skate in Nathan Phillips Square for the Leafs?