Toronto Maple Leaf fans have had a lot to be excited about over the last week-and-a-half.
Since the draft, Brian Burke has vastly improved the defense and shored up the center position. It's a sure thing that the Maple Leafs roster on opening day of the 2011-12 will look much different than the roster iced for the last game of 2010-11.
It all started with the acquisition of John-Michael Liles on draft day, followed by the signing of Tim Connolly a few days ago. Then, Burke surprised everybody trading Brett Lebda and prospect Robert Slaney to the Nashville Predators for Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi.
If Connolly can stay healthy for a full season and Lombardi can make a full recovery from the concussion he suffered last year, than the Leafs will experience real depth up the middle not seen since the days of Mats Sundin and Joe Nieuwendyk in 2003-04. Connolly is currently slated to be the No. 1 center between Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul but if Lombardi comes back, he could eventually challenge for that role as well.
If the second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur can continue the play that made them so successful last year, that will take a lot of pressure off of the first line. A third line of Tyler Bozak, Colby Armstrong and Nazem Kadri will allow Kadri to develop his defensive game while also providing some much needed secondary scoring. You can then have a combination of Mike Brown, Colton Orr, Jay Rosehill and Darryl Boyce on the fourth line.
On defense, the acquisitions of Liles and Franson bring even more depth to a blue line on paper that, now without a doubt, has to be one of the best in the league. The Leafs top-six defensemen now consist of Dion Phaneuf, Keith Aulie, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarson, Liles and Franson, with Matt Lashoff and Mike Komisarek on the outside looking in.
In goal, the decision to go with the tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson has and will continue to gather criticism until they prove they are truly NHL goaltenders. If Reimer can show that his performance last season was no fluke, he will undoubtedly be Toronto's starting goalie for years to come. The bigger question will be if Gustavsson overcomes the issues with his heart and gets back to being the goaltender he was that made him the most coveted free agent goalie just a few years ago.
The Leafs also have many prospects that could be ready to contribute in the NHL should the need arise. Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker are two defensemen that might make the NHL full-time in 2012-13, but could show up in spot duty if injuries occur on the defensive line. Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and Jerry D'Amigo could also appear in a few games this season.
There will be a few "what if" questions asked about the Leafs as the season gets closer. If most of those questions are answered in a way that favors the Leafs, they will be in a good position to contend this year.
The biggest question is whether the Leafs have improved enough to challenge other teams in the Eastern Conference that also have been improved. Teams like Florida, Carolina, New Jersey, and both New York teams will all provide a battle that the Leafs will need to win if they want to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
What do you guys think? Do the Toronto Maple Leafs, as they stand now, have a chance at contending this year?
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