These teams may still be a little ways from competing with the Boston Bruins, but it'll at least be intersting top-to-bottom in the Northeast this year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2008/09 Record: 34-35-13, 81 points, 12th in East
Additions: Phil Kessel—F (Trade w/Boston), Wayne Primeau—F (Trade w/Calgary), Garnett Exelby—D (Trade w/Atlanta), Jonas Gustavsson—G (FA), Colton Orr—F (4 years/$4 mil), Francois Beauchemin—D (3 years/$11.4 mil), Mike Komisarek—D (5 years/$22.5 mil), Rikard Wallin—F (FA), Joey MacDonald—G (FA),
Subtractions: Pavel Kubina—D (Trade w/Atlanta), Anton Stralman—D (Trade w/Calgary), Kris Newbury—F (FA), Jeremy Williams—F (FA), Tim Stapleton—F (Trade w/Atlanta), Justin Pogge—G (Trade w/Anaheim), Jamie Sifers—D (FA), Brady May—F (FA), Curtis Joseph—G (FA), Boyd Devereaux—F (FA), Martin Gerber—G (Europe)
There were two ways I can go with this article.
One way is that I can start a counter on how many times I use the words “truculence” and “belligerence” in describing this Maple Leafs' team, or the other way is that being the only time I say those words this article and keep it that way.
I’m going with option two and I’ll tell you why.
Did the Leafs get tougher over the summer? Definitely. Are they going to be one of the meanest teams in the league to play against? Undoubtedly. Are fans going to the Air Canada Center more likely to see someone get punched in the throat rather than a player end up with a four-goal game?
Well, that depends how many people (or who) get punched in the throat, and whose shooting the puck (or in net for the oppsotion), so we'll go with probably.
The point is, I’ve put up with those two words all summer. I’m sick of them, and I’m a Leafs fan. Granted these previews aren’t a source of literary wealth, but even I can sneak a peak at a thesaurus every so often.
So no more with those two words. At least from me. I promise.
We’re Poggin’ the plug on the lights so that the Monster can come out to play…
It’s really unfortunate that Justin Pogge was traded.
To be honest, despite the fact that the most consistent thing about him last year were his struggles with consistency, I think another year in the system would’ve been fine to wait for him. After all, the guy is 23-years-old and cursed by all of those early successes (Like the World Junior gold medal).
I don’t know if this is the last we hear of him or not in the NHL, but frankly I hope it isn’t.
Moving on to goalies that are still on the Toronto roster, the Leafs are in a very curious predicament.
On one hand they have Vesa Toskala. Two years ago Toskala showed the promise that he could be a top-15 starter in the NHL. On a porous (See? That’s the thesaurus at work…) Leafs team that allowed the fourth-most goals against, many saw sanctuary in Toskala.
Last year they felt that, if he was able to continue playing like that, then maybe the Leafs could sneak into eighth place.
Well, a lack of confidence from the coaching staff and management in his ability to prepare, an immobile defense that left him out to dry on a handful of goals per game, and nagging hip and groin injuries stunted Toskala’s growth as a starter, and his season eventually ended prematurely leading to the Gerber Baby Food experiment.
I hate strained peas.
So this season, after trading away the former “Goalie of the Future” in Pogge, the Leafs went to Sweden (Brian Burke literally went there) to bring back netminder Jonas Gustavsson.
"The Monster" brings a ton of promise with him from the land of Sundin and Salming, and could take over the starter's role from Toskala after V-Tosk's contract ends.
While there’s a ton of potential there, the Leafs need one of either Toskala or Gustavsson to take the reigns this year and lead from the crease out because if both falter, Joey MacDonald could stand in for a little, but a seasons worth may be a bit too much.
Bouncing Beauchemin back and forth on the Blueline…
In no particular order here’s what the Leafs defense is going to look like:
Mike Komisarek: Good shut down defenseman with a good contract (when I heard about the signing my first fear was “overpaid”, but $4.6 mil per year is manageable). Playing alongside Tomas Kaberle gives the Leafs a great top-pairing.
May have his face broken by Milan Lucic.
Garnet Exelby: Will score about as many points as ex-Leaf Gary Valk’s jersey number (10). Runs around a little too often looking for a big hit, but the kind of defenseman teams love to have.
May be able to break Milan Lucic’s face.
Mike van Ryn: May be a victim of a numbers game on the Toronto blue line. Was great when he was healthy last year, but that was the key: Him being healthy.
He may also be scared of Milan Lucic.
Francois Beauchemin: Spent four seasons in Anaheim winning a cup, tearing an ACL, and playing behind two of the best in Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. A cannon of a shot from the point, revitalizing Tomas Kaberle’s set-up pass on the power play.
Tomas Kaberle: Takes over coaching when Ron Wilson gives up (See: Pierre McGuire’s story during Tuesday night’s Pens/Leafs game about how Wilson told Kaberle to “show the team how to pass right”). One of the premier offensive defensemen in the game who doesn’t get enough credit in other markets, and too much in the Toronto market.
Can do this, but doesn’t shoot.
Ian White: Probably the cheapest 30-point defenseman in the world, making him the most trade-able player the Leafs have much to my chagrin. Like van Ryn, the numbers game kills him.
Seriously. We’ve just done six defensemen in point form and we’re at least four away from being done.
Jeff Finger is a great penalty killer and shut-down guy who still owns a slightly confusing contract. He’s a great 3/4 guy, but good luck finding that kind of ice time without someone running into a wall of injuries.
Then you’ve got Jonas Frogren and Phil Oreskovic who are out of the same mould as Finger, and are probably benefited by the fact that they have two way contracts so that they can at least get big time minutes with the Toronto Marlies.
Oh, and there’s also that Luke Schenn kid, but who really needs to talk about a guy who logged the second-most ice time amongst rookies, was the best defender on the entire team last year, is a future captain, and if not for the rambunctious Cal Clutterbuck, he would have led rookies in blocked shots and hits.
And he still fights even after Burke brought in sandpaper. Go figure.
The Oddest Assessment in the world…
For some reason, people keep saying that a team in the top-10 in the NHL in scoring needs to add more of it.
Granted, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin aren’t household names, but the spunky Europeans did fairly well in their first full seasons. Kulemin had 15 goals and 31 points, which is admirable for a higher-scoring version of Darcy Tucker, while Grabovski could have been a Calder candidate if not for a seven-game scoreless streak to start the season and a 17-game goal-less drought partway through the season.
Meanwhile, the Leafs are also carrying over veteran scoring leaders Jason Blake (whose immovable contract led the team with 63 points) and Alexei Ponikarovsky who was two goals away from sharing the goal-scoring lead with Blake.
While neither are franchise material, both are solid scorers who’ll add to the attack, but not push it overboard.
Along with that, last year’s big-time signing Niklas Hagman was also out to prove his contract year was no fluke and I’m fairly certain he did. Coming off of a career-high 25-goal performance in 2007/08, Hagman played 17 fewer games and came up just three goals short of that mark while battling head injuries much of the season.
Speaking of proving themselves, Matt Stajan was able to prove that he had the offensive ability to be a top-six center-man (he just needed the opportunity), while John Mitchell simply wanted to prove he belonged in the NHL. Mitchell certainly endeared himself to Toronto fans with his gritty, all-out style of play, so expect him to stick around for a while.
The addition of Wayne Primeau immediately helps the penalty kill (Which needs it—the Leafs were last in the league when down a man last year), while Rickard Wallin will probably take on much of the same role—especially if his production matches his Minnesota years.
Colton Orr is getting paid $5,000 per penalty minute (or $1,000 a shift), while Jamal Mayers provides solid, low-line leadership and grit, chipping in with the occasional goal and assist in another penalty-killing role.
Then we get in to the youth.
While Ron Wilson said that Nazem Kadri has to score two goals a game to even think about making this team, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s had a great camp for an undersized 18-year old forward. Then again, Victor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak (Who’ll be a great Stephane Yelle-type if his offensive game can’t make the big leagues), and Christian Hanson (a superb penalty killer and a big talent to watch) have had great camps too (Even forming the FROSH line), while Jiri Tlusty is expected by many to make the jump and stick this year.
And we haven’t even gotten to the draftmate of Tlusty, Mr. Phil Kessel.
While I may be soured on the price of two first-round picks thanks to a history of ineptitude and unfortunate results when trading first rounders, the Kessel trade is, simply put, Burke’s defining trade.
If Kessel comes in, scores 30 goals in the four seasons following this one (I’m not sure what to expect this year coming off of his shoulder surgery), and helps the team win a bunch of games, then Burke is a hero. If he comes in and produces along the lines of Lee Stempniak (Who was, and still might, supposed to find his mojo once again in Toronto) and Leafs fans are treated to watch Boston nab two high selections in consecutive years, all of the work he did in revamping the goaltending and defense will be a mere footnote
So what’s it all mean…
Here we go, the Toronto Maple Leafs season.
Like teams two through four in this division, the Leafs have an equal shot at making it as high as second in the Northeast.
If the young forwards prove that they all didn’t have fluke years last year and Vesa Toskala is recovered while the Monster acclimatizes quickly (Hopefully on both counts), the Leafs are set.
If the goalies falter and, for some reason, they start to buy into all this hype that they “don’t have scoring” and, ergo, don’t score…well…then they’re in trouble.
For right now, I have them low in the Northeast for the sake of my sanity (would you actually read these if I just put “FOUR WAY TIE FOR SECOND” for everyone?). Don’t be surprised if they can put it together and jump into the top 10 in the conference though.
4th in Northeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.