The Toronto Maple Leafs are just a few days from opening night, where they will take on the hated Montreal Canadiens.
Heading into the 2010-11 season, there seems to be a sense of renewed optimism from both the players and the fans, which given the team's porous 0-7-1 start, is easy to do.
The Maple Leafs' preseason results have to be taken with a grain of salt. Let’s not forget that just one year ago, the Leafs finished the pre-season with a record of 6-3-0, which is not far off where the Leafs finished the 2010-11 pre-season (5-3-1), which, coincidentally, was the second-best record in the preseason.
Now, preseason is just that, preseason, that said, there is plenty to be excited about heading into the 2010-11 season, including a greatly improved power play, a decent penalty kill and the offensive prowess demonstrated by Phil Kessel who finished the preseason as the top scorer (six goals) and top point producer (10) in the preseason.
Another highlight for the Maple Leafs was the play of Tyler Bozak, who was very solid and newcomer Kris Vertseeg, who, combined with Kessel and Bozak, helped make up one of the hottest lines heading into the 2010-11 regular season.
As is the case for many NHL clubs, the Maple Leafs will have to get off to a fast start if they want to have a successful campaign in 2010-11.
This season the need for a fast start is all the more urgent, as the Maple Leafs will play no less than 15 consecutive games against Eastern Conference foes to start the season.
In fact, the Leafs will not play a Western Conference foe until Nov. 13 when they will host the high-flying Vancouver Canucks.
Needless to say, with so many games against Eastern Conference teams early on, the Leafs have little room for error.
As such, look for head coach Ron Wilson to be demand a lot from his top players and make changes on a dime; simply put, there is no time for pussy-footing around, the Leafs need results early, and if Wilson cannot get them heads are gonna roll, mainly his.
One of the more interesting battles will take place between the pipes where J.S. Giguere and Jonas (who seems to be no longer “the Monster”) Gustavsson, will battle it out for the No. 1 goalie status.
For the time being, it appears as if Wilson will go with Giguere as his No. 1 guy, but that could change quickly, especially if the Leafs get off to a poor start.
On defense, there will be plenty of competition, with no less than eight NHL-caliber defensemen on the roster.
The top six heading into the season appears to be Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Luke Schenn and one of Carl Gunnarsson or Brett Lebda, with Matt Lashoff and Jeff Finger likely getting the short end of the stick on the bench or by being sent down to the farm to play with the Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate, Toronto Marlies.
The Leafs top line of Kessel, Versteeg, and Bozak looks to be on the right track and may emerge as one of the league's best line combinations before long.
The Leafs second unit of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and one of Colby Armstrong or Clarke MacArthur, looks to be solid, but not a line that puts the fear of God in any NHL team.
The Leafs' bottom six is very solid with a good mix of toughness, defensive prowess, leadership and a willingness to go to the net from the likes of Luca Caputi and Mike Brown.
Tim Brent (a player that was not expected to make the team) has looked good all preseason. It will be up to him if he wants to stay with the big club.
All he has to do is continue to be a catalyst in keeping the other team's top lines off the scoreboard, which may be easier said than done.
Nazem Kadri can be expected to be back with the big club if any of the forwards begin to falter, something that should keep everyone on their toes.
Normally, I am a big fan of teams being consistent throughout the season, not too many highs, not too many lows; consistent .560 hockey usually wins you a playoff spot.
That said, if the Leafs can only muster five or six wins in their first 15 games it all over but the crying, the Leafs will miss the playoffs.
A good start to the season is a must. Anything else, would spell disaster and the end of Ron Wilson’s tenure as Maple Leafs head coach.
Until next time,