If there is any certainty concerning the 2009-10 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, it is that there are no certainties.
Having languished in the cellar of the Northeast Division, and in 12th place in the Eastern Conference for two seasons, the Leafs have taken their first major step forward in the Brian Burke era.
This offseason, Burke bolstered their defense by adding two top-four blueliners in Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin and a solid depth defenseman in Garnet Exelby; built a far more intimidating team with the additions of Komisarek, Colton Orr, and Wayne Primeau; and solidified some depth in net by signing coveted Swedish free agent Jonas Gustavsson.
It is hard to predict where this team will end up in the standings this season.
On paper, they are physical, boast quick, young talent, and have two defensive pairings that many NHL franchises would envy.
On the other side, their top-six forwards are devoid of elite talent, and their goaltending, plagued by inconsistency since the lockout, remains a question mark.
But the games are played on the ice, not paper. And this is why the Leafs could quietly sneak into the postseason, but also not see sufficient improvement in the standings this season.
Whether either extreme, or something in between, occurs depends on five crucial questions dawning over the Leafs as they prepare to open their preseason tomorrow night.
1. Can the Leafs Match Their Offensive Output from Last Season?
In a year where there were few bright spots, the Leafs surprised the vast majority of hockey pundits by finishing 10th in the league in goals despite the clear lack of notable offensive talent on the team.
The Leafs scored 244 goals last season, an increase of 16 from 2007-08.
Some argue that last year's offensive prowess will be difficult to repeat with the deadline trades of Nik Antropov (who had 21 goals and 46 points with the Leafs), and Dominic Moore (12 goals, 41 points). Moreover, there is also the question of Pavel Kubina's productivity (14 goals, 40 points) going unreplaced with his offseason trade to Atlanta.
Even with these departures aside, there were other factors at play: Alexei Ponikarovsky had a career season with 61 points. Jason Blake, while playing with Moore, peaked his offensive output, and scored 25 goals and 63 points.
On top of that, the Leafs were laden with rookies—such as Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, and John Mitchell—leading to the question of a sophomore slump that would decline point production from these players.
It may seem unlikely for the Leafs to be in the top 10 in scoring. However, the top half of the league should still be a benchmark for the team.
This will depend on whether or not players from last season—especially sophomore players—can match their high point productions from the previous season, and whether the incoming players can fill the remaining void.
2) Will Vesa Toskala Bounce Back?
While Burke made a big splash in net by adding Gustavsson and Joey MacDonald—who posted decent numbers on an abysmal Islanders team last season—to secure goaltender depth, it still seems quite likely that, come Opening Day, Toskala will still be the Leafs starter.
Indeed, most projections have Gustavsson getting in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 starts in what will be a transition season to the North American game. Assuming MacDonald pitches in for roughly five starts, that means Toskala can expect somewhere in the neighbourhood of 45 to 50 starts.
The issue, however, is which Toskala Leafs Nation can expect to see.
Will it be the Toskala who made key saves and was fairly decent in net during the twilight of the 2007-08 season, and prior to that in San Jose?
Or will it be the Toskala of last season, who was inconsistent at the best of times, and downright horrible at the worst of times?
Given his surprising move to the injured reserve at the trade deadline last season, it seems plausible that Toskala spent most of last season fighting a groin injury, and that this was the cause for his poor, inconsistent play. The issue, however, is whether or not, despite extensive surgery, his groin can remain healthy.
Also, even if it does, will the injury have any long-term effect on his game?
While I think it's very possible for Toskala to bounce back and put up decent numbers this season, one cannot also rule out that this injury might have more ramifications than meets the eye.
3) Just How Monster Will the Monster Be?
While it may seem odd to have more than one burning question surrounding the Leafs' goaltending this season, one needs to look no further than their statistics in net the past three seasons to see why.
Last season, matters got even worse, as their best goaltender statistically—Martin Gerber—posted a 3.23 GAA and .905 SV%; hardly numbers to write home about.
Enter Jonas Gustavsson.
A highly coveted free agent playing for Farjestads of the Swedish Elite League, Gustavsson posted a 1.96 GAA and .932 SV%, backstopped his team to the Swedish Championship, and has drawn comparisons to fellow countryman and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the process.
His notoriety in Sweden put him on Burke's radar. With the Leafs goaltending having effectively hit rock bottom, signing him would be a low-risk, high-reward move.
But, whether this signing will be low-risk or high-reward remains to be seen.
Gustavsson has yet to prove he will be able to translate his skill from the SEL to the NHL ice surface and competition level. While this season, as mentioned early, is expected to be a transition year for the Swede, does he have the ability to adapt his game?
Admittedly, this is intertwined with question No. 2.
If Toskala can recover, and post decent numbers this season, it will matter less whether Gustavsson is good, average, or even bad (which I don't see as likely, at least in the context of someone who had to watch Andrew Raycroft, an injured Toskala, and an aging Curtis Joseph).
But, if Toskala falters, it might be up to Gustavsson to help the team win. And if his game is lost in translation, the Leafs cannot expect a reasonable amount of progress this season.
4) Will the Leafs Solve Their Defensive Logjam?
The problem with basing your offseason plans on a contingent trade is, should said deal not follow through, problems ensue.
This was the case with what appears to be a defense built around Burke's belief he could trade Tomas Kaberle.
The longtime Leaf, however, could not muster a deal that met Burke's standard before his no-trade clause was re-activated. In the period that Burke attempted to trade Kaberle, Beauchemin and Komisarek were added to the lineup, providing the team with two more blueliners.
Garnet Exelby was also added, but in a deal that saw d-man Pavel Kubina head to Atlanta. Only Anton Stralman—dealt to Calgary for Wayne Primeau—left the Leafs roster without any defensemen being added to the Leafs in return.
This means that nine NHL-caliber defensemen—Kaberle, Beauchemin, Komisarek, Exelby, Luke Schenn, Ian White, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, and Jonas Frogren—will compete for six spots.
Kaberle, Schenn, Beauchemin, and Komisarek are locks to round out the top four, while it seems absolutely certain that White should earn the fifth spot if he isn't used as a forward in a similar style to early last season.
This creates a situation where four defensemen would likely rotate the sixth spot. While this may work in the short term, it seems like someone will have to ultimately go.
5) Can the Leafs Solve Their Penalty Killing Woes?
This is the last question I pose to Leafs Nation, but certainly not the least.
In fact, the other four questions facing this team, the vast improvements made by the Leafs in the offseason, everything, will be null and void if they remain as horrid on special teams as they did last season.
If everything the Leafs have on paper can't improve their efficiency on the penalty kill, the Leafs will not improve substantially from last season.
The Leafs finished with a penalty kill percentage of 74.7 percent in 2008-09. This was not only dead last in the NHL, but by a substantial margin. While most teams were less than one percent apart, the gap between the Leafs and 29th place Atlanta was 1.3 percent.
In other words: atrocious.
With the strides made in solidifying the defense, and trying to get some stability in net, combined with the fact that, well, it really can't get much worse, one would reasonably expect the PK to improve.
But, we can't forget that the standard for improvement can't be last year's Leafs. To be a playoff contender, the Leafs have to have the special teams of one.
Last season, the lowest ranking playoff team on the penalty kill was the Detroit Red Wings at 78.3 percent. But, it also should be noted their power play, at 25.5 percent efficiency, was extremely strong, and far ahead of the Leafs' 18.8 percent.
Assuming a similar output next season, the closest playoff team would be the New Jersey Devils, who had a PK of 80 percent.
So, in short, if the Leafs want to be legitimate playoff contenders, they need to adhere to that 80 percent benchmark. Anything less and the playoffs are just a pipe dream.