The Toronto Maple Leafs began the 2010-2011 season on fire winning their first four games of the season, instantly dispelling critics views on the team. Many prognosticators had them finishing in the cellar of the Eastern Conference, but after the hot start, the view of the Maple Leafs instantly changed from a surprising pessimism, to nauseating optimism in Hogtown.
After the quick 4-0 start, the Leafs began to fall back down to Earth and began losing games and losing ground on a playoff spot.
In the next 32 games, the Leafs would accumulate a record of only 9-19-4 for a grand total of 22 points out of a possible 64 points.
Things looked bitterly awful at this time, and the Leafs were searching for answers.
With the goaltending situation murky at best, injuries at the end of December forced the Leafs hand, as they called up what I like to call "The Answer"
That player was James Reimer.
Reimer came out of nowhere to steal the number one goaltending job away from Jean Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, as his remarkably steady and stellar play lead the Leafs back into the playoff chase down the stretch.
Players like these, who come out of nowhere to play an integral part of the team, are what I will focus on here.
Here is the Leafs top five breakout stars of the 2010-2011 season.
Carl Gunnarsson began the season in the pressbox with the Leafs, losing a roster spot to the likes of Mike Komisarek and Brett Lebda--the irony of that I'll breakdown in a future column.
However, after a brutal start by both of them, in which Lebda would have the worst plus-minus rating of any Leafs player, would eventually lead to a regular spot for Gunnarsson.
Carl took the time in the press box to think over his game and came back to the Leafs on a mission.
He finished the year with 20 points and was a team high -2 on defence for the year, tied with Dion Phaneuf.
Drawing comparisons to Canucks defenceman Alexander Edler, Gunnarsson has impressed many in Leafs Nation and looks to have yet another successful year next year, possibly in Toronto's top four, barring a free agent or trade addition to the Leafs defensive core.
Luke Schenn began the year with some very lofty expectations, and to his credit, he pretty well exceeded those expectations.
Finishing the year as one of the only players with over 200 hits and 150 blocked shots, Schenn has evolved into one of the Leafs best all around defenceman. Comparisons to the now retired Adam Foote never seem to go away, and judging by this past year, those comparisons are valid.
Starting the year as Tomas Kaberle's partner definitely helped, as Tomas' ability to make other players around him better was at the forefront. It happened with Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, Robert Svehla etc, and it happened to Luke Schenn.
His year was eerily reminiscent to that of former Leaf Dmitri Yuskevich, and hopefully for all Leaf fans, he steadily gets better from here on in.
When the likes of Kris Versteeg and Francois Beauchemin were dealt this past year, well before the trade daedline, many experts around pegged the Leafs to be packing in the season.
But it turned out, after those trades the Leafs actually got better. They ended up getting a more consistent scorer in Joffrey Lupul to help Kessel out, and the other play to make his Leaf debut was defenceman Keith Aulie.
Aulie, who comes in at a daunting 6'6" and 225 pounds was a tower of power for the Leafs down the stretch, and helped many Leaf fans forget Beauchemin was even on the team.
Lastly, to Aulie's credit, since his arrival Captain Dion Phaneuf nearly returned to his Calgary form, absolutely taking control on the blueline and hitting everything in sight.
Aulie's defensive play at such an early age was truly remarkable and only good things should come in the years following. Get excited about this player Leaf fans.
I truly wanted to give everyone on this line their own slide, but I felt others needed mentioning. Right now this line is easily one of the best second lines in all of hockey, based on expected production, and what the actual production.
All of them finished with over 50 points, two of which scored at least 29 goals, while MacArthur added 21 goals and finished second on the team in points.
With an new contract given to Kulemin in the offseason, some people were expecting possibly a down year, but that was not the case.
All three of these guys finished the year with career years, and hopefully this was not the best of whats to come.
MacArthur is a restricted free agent come July 1st, and is still in discussions with Leafs management on a new contract. I expect a one year deal with MacArthur worth around $3 million come July 1st.
Heading into this season as the fourth goalie on Toronto's depth chart behind JS Giguere, Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas, Reimer's hopes of a regular job in the NHL with the Leafs were fading quickly.
But as luck would have it, in the months that followed, poor play along with injuries helped skyrocket Reimer's value on the Leafs.
With injuries to all of the goalies above him, Reimer was called up in mid December and has never looked back.
Finishing the year with a 20-10-5 record along with a 2.60 GAA and a .921 SV%, the Leafs now have that elusive number one goalie the organization has longed for since the departure of Ed Belfour prior to the lockout.
Reimer was the first Leaf goalie to finish with a SV% higher than .905 since Belfour as well, so yes, things were that bad.
Reimer's glove hand still has a ways to go before the league stops shooting high glove, but he's easily been Toronto brightest young star this year, and possibly even the team MVP, despite only appearing in 35 games.
Reimer's future is bright and by the looks of it, so is Toronto's.