Most editorials I’ve read lately suggest the Toronto Maple Leafs have marginally improved, but are a long shot to make the playoffs.
Yes it has been a long time since the Leafs made the postseason, but the light shining off Lords Stanley’s cup might finally be in sight. The 2009 version of the Leafs certainly has a different look this year. Burke, first, added Bozak and Hanson from the college ranks. Then he unloaded Kubina and his cannon accounting for 14 goals and -15, for essentially Garnet Exelby and Wayne Primeau. Add tough guy Colton Orr and a couple of free agent defensemen, Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin, and one might ask the legitimate question of whether the Leafs are building for the pre-lockout NHL or to take on the 1970’s Bruins and Flyers teams.
Will le petite Habs skate circles around the bruising new Leafs and win games on the power play?
Comparing the Leafs and Habs teams of a year ago is quite the role reversal. I predict it won’t be Van Ryn whose face breaks the glass this year! Look closely at what Burke has assembled at the Leaf blue line: He has established a great mix of strength and toughness on each side of the defensive pairings with the likes of Francois Beauchemin, Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Garnet Exelby, Finger, Kaberle, Van Ryn, and Ian White. Expect these defensemen to move the puck out and shoot from the point.
What happened to the Toronto goaltending last year?
Anyone who saw the Leafs play last year knows that many games could have been won with even average goaltending, and the playoffs would have been achieved with the Leafs winning their share of the shoot-outs.
It made so much sense when it was revealed that Toskala was playing injured. After season-ending surgery it is not that hard to imagine that he could regain his form of 2007-2008. Could Toronto finally hit the jackpot with Jonas Gustavsson, after the debacle that ended the promise of the Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask era and turned into the Raycroft and "Cujo" Steven King horror show between the pipes. Add a side note about Clemmenson being run out of town because he won a playoff series with the Marlies, and yes Leaf fans the percentages are with us. Jonas Gustavsson looks like the real deal and will have every opportunity to succeed with a strong defence and Francois Allaire to tutor his ascension to become Leafs No.1 goalie.
Up front Lee Stempniak, hopefully, is settled in Toronto and finally ready to put up the numbers expected of him when we acquired him, and that goes double for Jason Blake. Would it be a miracle if Blake scored 40 goals this year? Well he has done it before and, given the promising season he had last year, maybe he is due. Mitchell was used and depended on, and often looked like one of the better Leafs last year, but he quietly accumulated a team worst -16. Realistically, for a rookie it was definitely trial by fire and a year of experience and strengthening is bound to make his game stronger this time around. This same point must be made for Luke Schenn as well. I believe a year of conditioning and experience will show why Burke went after this pick.
Back on topic, this will be the year of Ponikarovsky, who was the team's plus-minus leader last year at +6, and Grabovski, and I don’t think at the end of this season anyone will be able to say the Leafs don’t have any firstst-line players.
After first being acquired, Grabovski had flashes of genius, yet the length of the NHL schedule and opponents being able to target the few Leafs stand-outs slowed him down significantly in the second half of the season. Kulemin looked good on the shootout a few times, but still hasn’t lived up to the promise and ice time he has been given to this point. Stajan had a career year last year and seems to get better every year, though many don't seem to appreciate his effort in Leaf-land.
The Leafs can count on secondary scoring from Hagman and the cast of young players: Tlusty, Stalberg, Bozak, Hanson, and new addition Wallin, who really will have every opportunity to succeed. If you add Primeau, Orr, and Mayers as a promising fourth line to mix things up and to change the momentum of games, the Leafs have the proper ingredients for Ron Wilson to mold into a cohesive winning unit.
With the exuberance of youth and the Leafs tough defensive core, Leaf Nation will be on an emotional high all season; the result of extraordinary effort, big punishing hits, tight checking, and last year's 10th best scoring unit. The Leafs have all the ingredients of a winning team if they can stay out of the penalty box and win 50 percent of their shoot-outs.
No Heatleys, Kovalevs, Andropovs, or Zherdevs need apply. Ian White is the epitome of Burke's blue-collar bunch.
In the memorable words of Gene Hackman in The Replacements: He's got miles and miles of heart.
It’s a long season and there are always lots of surprises, but once in the playoffs this is a team that will be hard to beat at tight-checking, playoff hockey. The Leafs are due...and will make lots of noise this year, year two of the re-build. No question.