After the initial frenzy of free agency died down over the past week or so, many people have started to take stock of what teams did and didn't do to improve—and where that leaves the playoff landscape in both the Eastern and Western Conferences. Being situated in the "Mecca of Hockey," the Maple Leafs' moves are scrutinized ad nauseam (and will continue to be).
Since the free-agency period opened, the Leafs have signed Tim Connolly and Philippe Dupuis, and traded for Cody Franson, Matthew Lombardi and John-Michael Liles. They also re-signed restricted free agents Clarke Macarthur, Tyler Bozak, Carl Gunnarsson and Matt Lashoff. A Luke Schenn signing also appears to be an automatic.
I believe the main reason that the Leafs missed the playoffs last year, injuries aside, is that for the first half of the season (and the two seasons prior) the Leafs received horrible goaltending from Giguere and Gustavsson (both of their save percentages were below .900).
Once Reimer took over the reins, however, the Leafs became a playoff team.
Many will question whether Reimer can keep it up and whether guys like Macarthur and Grabovski can duplicate their career years. Who really knows? The point is that all teams have question marks, and since the Leafs added significant depth to their squad, the chances of a downturn this year have been significantly diminished.
In looking at the Eastern Conference, I can say that I fully expect Boston, Philadelphia, Tampa, Washington and Pittsburgh to make the playoffs this year. On that same note, I can also say that I am almost certain that Florida, Ottawa and the New York Islanders will not make the playoffs, though one can never be certain given the parody in today's NHL.
Furthermore, it leaves us with seven teams that will compete for the final three playoff spots in the East: New Jersey, the New York Rangers, Montreal, Buffalo, Winnipeg, Carolina and, of course, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In looking at these teams, it appears that New Jersey, New York, Buffalo and Toronto all improved, while Winnipeg, Carolina and (yes) Florida stayed the same.
I am certain that somebody will chime in, saying that Florida added a ton of depth and character, but I will argue that they lost some of that late last season in salary dumps. They also significantly downgraded in goal by letting Tomas Vokoun walk, replacing him with the enigma that is Jose Theodore.
Now, on to the Leafs. My personal opinion is that the only thing separating the Leafs from the Habs last year was goaltending. The Habs had an entire year of All-Star-calibre goaltending from Carey Price, while the Leafs had half a season of All-Star goaltending from James Reimer.
And before Habs fans talk about the Habs' special teams, I will say that as far as the penalty kill goes, your best penalty killer is always your goalie. Also, the Habs' power play, believe it or not, was only three percent more efficient than the Leafs'.
I feel that the additions of Liles and Connolly will have a positive impact on the Leafs' power play, as Liles can be the quarterback that the Leafs have been lacking since (and perhaps before) Kaberle departed, and Connolly can play both the point and the boards while being an excellent setup man and puck distributor.
The addition of Cody Franson will help the second power-play unit, as Franson has significant offensive flair and an ability to get shots through to the net—something which the Leafs' power play struggled with last year.
In terms of the penalty kill, the additions of Connolly, Lombardi (if healthy) and Philippe Dupuis will help the Leafs when they are down a man, as will the ability of their goaltender to actually make key saves. I see the Leafs realistically improving five-to-seven slots in each area this year.
You can talk about all of the "if's" when it comes to the Leafs, but I could say the same thing about the other teams that are competing for the final playoff spots in the East.
The Rangers, while improved with the addition of Richards, are now anchored by injury-prone stars in the aforementioned Richards and the ever-injured Marian Gaborik, while stalwarts Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky also tend to get into injury trouble, given their win-at-all-cost mentality.
Where would the Habs be without tremendous goaltending from Carey Price? And what happens when Andrei Markov has his yearly major injury to deal with?
The Devils look primed to make the jump up to the top eight, but Parise's health is a concern coming off a major knee injury, and Martin Brodeur, the one-time iron man goaltender, has shown decreased durability and periods of ineffectiveness that weren't there for the large majority of his career.
Buffalo is much improved; however, if Miller and Roy are injured again, will they have enough steam to make it into the Top Eight? I am splitting hairs with the Buffalo theory, but I digress.
The Jets are a young and talented team playing in front of a passionate home base of fans. However, which Ondrej Pavelec will show up this year and can Dustin Byufuglien replicate last year's results?
As for Carolina, they failed to upgrade this offseason. So, while having Cam Ward in net and Eric Staal up front are reasons in themselves to say they will compete for the playoffs, I feel that of the seven teams competing for the final three spots, Carolina may be the least likely to squeak in. They lost a key contributor in Eric Cole and, in my mind, they failed to replace him.
So, will the Leafs make the playoffs? There are so many factors, it's tough to say. I'd say it's close to 50/50, but to say they aren't legitimate playoff contenders is to ignore the facts. In any case, it should be an interesting season in Leaf Land.
See more on this topic in my article at http://thehometownfan.com/4/post/2011/07/2011-2012-nhl-season-taking-a-brief-look-at-some-recent-transactions-in-the-east.html.
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