The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that typically enters a season with pretty high expectations.
Usually, those expectations are, sometimes unrealistically, piled on to the team by the fans and media.
Now while fanbases around the league argue that the Leafs' fans are some of the most difficult to put up with, most of them have gotten better in recent years, coming to the sobering realization that in a cap-controlled world, money can't buy happiness—at least not all the time.
The Leafs are still prone to some questionable moves (like paying $3 million for Colby Armstrong), but for the most part, they've done pretty well at rebuilding this franchise.
The young guys are coming along well, and some low-key signings (like Tyler Bozak, for one) could turn out to really benefit the Leafs. Along with that, scouring the globe for talent that wasn't prevalent during draft years (Brayden Irwin and Marcel Mueller) could lead to a few success stories, while Greg McKegg is looking like a steal this year in the OHL.
It may have been a hybrid of a rebuild, but the Leafs look to be going somewhere, much to the delight of their fans.
1) Nazem Kadri will play fewer than 15 games in the NHL this year
Kadri has talent, but everyone that touted him as a Calder Trophy finalist is seeing exactly what came to the surface during the OHL playoffs last year: He has a lot of growing yet to do as a player.
To be honest, the expectations were unfair for the poor kid, not even considering that maybe he wasn't quite ready for the show. The former London Knight developed some bad habits over his last season of junior hockey (taking sloppy penalties and a propensity for holding the puck too long), and it'll take the season to get them out of his system.
2) If Danny Richmond gets called up, he will stick
There's only one way I can see this happening, and that's if Tomas Kaberle gets traded.
If Kaberle goes, then the Leafs will need some mobility on the back end. Richmond has never shown the ability to be able to stick at the NHL level, but he showed well during training camp.
If he puts up solid numbers with the Marlies, he'll get his shot, giving him his best opportunity at showing he can play at the NHL level. Think Anton Stralman with Columbus last year.
3) Phil Kessel scores 40
Consistent linemates will certainly help Kessel's cause, but the crazy-coordinated Kris Versteeg will go a long way in helping Kessel reach the 40 mark. Versteeg actually thinks Kessel can score 50, so expect the Chicago castoff to get his linemate as many opportunities to try and reach that total.
4) Kris Versteeg re-discovers his Blackhawk success
By this, I mean the 50-point level he found in his rookie year with Chicago.
Top-line minutes for a guy with his skills should translate into points, with the only wild card being who plays between the two of them. If Tyler Bozak falters this year, can the two still have success with a revolving-door centre, or does Versteeg move to the middle and take advantage of his multi-position aptitude?
5) Jonas Gustavsson doesn't work as much
After a tumultuous end to his time in Anaheim, Jean-Sebastien Giguere came to Toronto last year and proclaimed that he wasn't interested in a time-share, and he wasn't interested in being a mentor.
The stats proved that (6-7-2 with a .916 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average), so don't expect this year to be any different. Giggy can still start between 50 and 65 games in a season and, if he gets on a roll, Toronto would be stupid to take him out.
6) The Leafs' penalty kill improves....a little bit
But with a full season of a motivated and driven Giguere, Luke Schenn being one-year older, and a healthy, speedy Fredrik Sjostrom, the Leafs have plenty of pieces to deploy when they're down a man.
Don't discount the hard-working Mike Zigomanis, either. While never having been an NHL regular, hard-working players out of his mould understand the value of having quality penalty killers and can adjust and thrive in those roles.
7) Mike Brown leads the team in fights
I only half-heartedly believe this. Mostly because Colton Orr might read this and then fight more people to prove me wrong.
Then, in a fit of rage, he comes after me. That's why there's doubt in my mind.
YOU HEAR ME COLTON?! DOUBT!!!
8) Nikolai Kulemin is good for at least 45 points
Read that article I linked again, and go to where Versteeg starts talking about Kulemin.
See, those are probably the same things that the Russians saw when they paired him with Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin...which is the precise reason I was confused when people were concerned with how much money Kulemin would get over the offseason.
If paying him second-line money was a problem this time around, next contract negotiations it won't be. He'll have definitely earned it.
9) Kaberle has a good year, meaning the Leafs nearly get what they think he's worth
Truth be told, I'm not sure anyone agrees on what Tomas Kaberle is worth.
What we know for certain, though, is that no one agrees on what Tomas Kaberle is worth with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Otherwise, Burke would have traded him because, as he's stated on numerous times, he's in no rush, nor does he have an obligation, to move the player.
Kaberle will have a standard "Tomas Kaberle season" (45-55 points, 20-25 penalty minutes, 1.23 cries of "shooooootttt!!!" from Toronto fans per game), and if the Leafs aren't in contention come the Trade Deadline, he'll look mighty appealing to some teams...Let the bidding war commence!!
10) Marcel Mueller may not get the first call-up, but he does the best (this season)
Mueller can pretty much be grouped in with the following players: Brayden Irwin, Jerry D'Amigo, Kadri, Dale Mitchell, Richard Greenop, Ben Winnett, and Korbinian Holzer.
They're all entering the minors at around the same time, and each have qualities that have made them favorites among sects of Leaf fans.
Why do I think Mueller has the biggest impact out of this group? Because of the fact the he probably had the rawest talent when he came to the Leafs.
For players like D'Amigo and Kadri, they've been able to at least keep an eye on them. Mueller, however, came to the Leafs as a free agent, and has had coaches raving about his size, skill, drive determination and all-around game.
The Stretch (remember, you're supposed to laugh)
Because Leafs fans are so excited about the Leafs' future, the Toronto Marlies become a bigger draw than the big club for a three-month stretch. Confused, the Leafs demote Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg, but attendance starts to sag at the sight of familiar faces.
Bryan Thiel is a senior writer and a columnist for Hockey54.com—The Face of the Game! If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can e-mail him at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at BryanThiel_88.