Toronto Maple Leafs - Conference Underdogs will Surprise in 2010

Smiley GimbelCorrespondent IAugust 20, 2010

Toronto Maple Leafs - Conference Underdogs will Surprise in 2010

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    One thing that bothers me with sporting forecasts is that no one ever has any balls to out on a limb and make a prediction that flies in the face of the previous year’s statistics. Further to that, they typically just transpose the previous years standing, with the odd team sliding up a tad or down a tad.

    But when does it ever play out like that?

    Who would have said that Phoenix last year would jump out from 79 points in 2008/09 to 107 points in 09/10. Who had the balls to predict that leap in the standings, considering the ownership fiasco that occurred just that past summer?

    Who would have said that Buffalo with 113 points in 06/07 would not make the playoffs the very next year?

    Carolina wins the cup then fails to make to playoffs.  Who saw that?

    Well here I’m throwing my balls to the wall and saying that the Leafs will not only make the playoffs – but they’ll finish in the 4, 5 or 6th spot in the conference.  Or better.And here’s why:

     

Goaltending

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    This is the classic “addition through subtraction”.  Simply put, we don’t have Toskala anymore.  And good riddance!

    Giggy will be looking to establish himself as a bonafide number one goaltender again with this being the last year of his contract.  He has the skill, desire & credentials to pull it off. I expect he’ll start around 45-50 games.

    And the monster will just want to prove he’s a net-monster as appose to a gila-monster.  We know he has the skill & we’ve seen him shine after the Olympics last year – once his confidence came back.

    And they’ll have a much improved defence in front of them.

    The team save percentage will hover above .905 for the season.  Bank on that.

Defence

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    Honestly, there’s nowhere to go but up.

    But that aside, who would have thought the Leafs defence could be so bad with the line-up they had last year? No one - as this was supposed to be their one, lone strength.

    A lot went wrong. Namely, the new players who signed started playing outside their comfort zones to prove they were worth the signings. Add  to that, a sophomore jinx with Schenn, and injuries. 

    Toskala letting in 40 foot flutterballs on the short-side didn’t help.

    This year they’ll settle down and start playing to their strengths, with real goalies in front of them.

    Beaucheman,  Komisarek, Phaneuf & Schenn will be blocking shots and playing tough in front and behind the net. Kaberle and “Uzi” Gunnarson will exert their excellent transition games.

    Kaberle in particular will get 50 assists and will make the all-star team.  How’s that for putting my balls out? He’s also in his contract year, and he won’t have the rumour mill on his back weighing him down.

Top-Six

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    Do they have “legitimate” top six forwards other than Kessel? For the most part the answer is no.  But what they do have is vastly different than what they had the year before.

    The top six they have may not have carved themselves a reputation as “top-six” but their overall skill level is markedly improved from last years group.  And they’ll get the top-six minutes to display their skills.

    I’m saying here that Bozak will get 70 points minimum. He’ll get 70 points because unlike Stajan, he has the skills to get 70 points.  Remember Bozak’s first goal?  Could you picture Stajan scoring that? Not on your life.  Bozak’s plus/minus might not be so great compared to his points totals but that’s to be expected.

    Kadri will have a dominant rookie season. I predict at least 50 points from him. He will dazzle us in the offensive zone.  But he’ll make us cry in the defensive zone.

    Versteeg will also be an offensive catalyst, and he’ll get us 60 points.

    Kessel will score between 40 & 50 goals.  I predict 44.  That’s providing he stays healthy, which he should as his shoulder’s holding up just fine.

    I also predict a rookie will come out of camp and stick with the team providing the top-six with even more fire power & energy.  I say one of either D’Amigo, Mueller, Dale Mitchell, or Stefanovich.

    I’m banking on D’Amigo to be that player.  He’ll ride the first 40 games on energy alone, and he has the skating skills to keep up, and the hand skills to put it in the net. 

Bottom-Six

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    Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown, Colton Orr will provide the sandpaper toughness that was lacking in the last few years. Armstrong will have games where he’s playing well enough to shift to the top-six.

    Sjostrom’s speed and energy will open up lanes & Caputi will bang in the corners and crash the net. Adding a motivated Hanson and/or Mitchell will give the bottom-six some needed scoring skill and speed.

    Adding Raffi Torres might be a nice addition as well – if the cost is low enough.

    And then there’s Grabovski. 

    It’s my opinion that Grabovski is better than what people give him credit for.  Better defensively.  Better offensively.  And better personality-wise.  Who cares that he was involved in a bar-fight in Vancouver.  People assume he was the one being the jerk. I’ve been a bouncer for 10 years and I’ve seen about a million scenarios in which good people are drawn into a bar fight. We don’t know what happened, and either way it proves that he’s a feisty individual.

    Plus he had a fight in practice with Jason Blake - thats thumbs up in my book!

Special Teams

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    You certainly wouldn’t know it based on their play last season, but Ron Wilson’s specialty is in improving the special teams on the teams he coaches.

    This is another one where there’s no place to go but up.

    Kaberle & Phaneuf quarterbacking the powerplay  with Versteeg, Kessel and Bozak up front will certainly pop more in then they were able to last year.

    But much more importantly, their penalty killing will improve drastically with Toskala out of the picture. I’ve eaten pastry less flakey than that guy!

    I’ll paraphrase Ron Wilson, who early in the season last year said ... “at some point on the penalty kill, the goalies gotta make that save.”

    But aside from that, expect more shot blocking, more energy, more speed & a much better penalty killing percentage!

Final Standings

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    My predictions for the top 8 in the Eastern Conference

    Tampa Bay

    New Jersey

    Ottawa

    Pittsburgh

    Washington

    Toronto

    Philadelphia

    Buffalo

    There you have it - balls to the wall man!