The Toronto Maple Leafs have plenty of questions going into this upcoming season.
Can Tim Connolly stay healthy? Can he be the No. 1 pivot to help Kessel break the 40-goal mark?
Will the special teams be any better?
Will goaltender James Reimer continue to have the same success in the crease as he did at the end of last season?
Have the additions to the defensive core made the team stronger?
And can the Mac-Russian line continue the success they had last year as a unit?
For the sake of Leafs Nation, we had all better pray that they do.
Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur are all coming off of career seasons. Between the three of them, only Grabovski played less than all 82 games—he only played in 81.
Their success was a bright spot in the Leafs season this past year, and the coaching staff and management will be hoping that they can improve upon their play from last season.
With Kulemin posting 57 points, Grabovski 58 and MacArthur 62, they have all set the bar relatively high for the coming year. This was one of the most effective second lines in the entire NHL last season. But was it really our second line?
I would argue that this was more or less the Leafs' first line for all intents and purposes. The only reason that our first line is currently considered so is because of sniper Phil Kessel. Since he is the man who was brought in to be a first-line player, and so much was given away to get him, whoever he plays with must inevitably be part of the first line in Leafland.
In the words of Lee Corso: "Not so fast, my friend."
Lupul-Connolly-Kessel is the projected top line for the start of the 2011-12 season. Looking back at each of their numbers from last season, I took the time to calculate what their point totals would have been had they each played 82 games (Kessel's numbers are unchanged because he did play all 82). Lupul goes from 31 to 47, Connolly from 42 to 51 while Kessel posted 64 last season. These numbers, however, do not reflect how I believe each will play this upcoming season.
It’s true that Lupul was coming off of a major injury last season and wasn't getting the playing time he deserved with the Anaheim Ducks. His point production jumped upon being traded to the Leafs. I think he can plot close to 70 points if he stays healthy this year.
Connolly is the enigma. Health and production will go hand in hand. If he can play 70-plus games, I think he will help Kessel hit the 40-goal mark. And with Kessel plotting that many goals, he will be well on his way to an 80-point season.
This all comes back to the title of this article, however, which I haven't fully addressed: Why the second line will be the most important for the Leafs this upcoming season.
Toronto needs the consistency that this line offers. If Connolly goes down and Kessel goes on another 10-game drought, it will be imperative that the second unit continues where it left off last season, building around the chemistry they have developed so far.
The second line is the most important this upcoming season because it will be able to take the pressure off of the top line, and will either have the opportunity to play against teams second and third defensive units or, as was the case a number of times last season, will be matching up against opposing teams' top defensive groups, allowing the Leafs first line to play against the inferior lines.
Either way, this is why I believe the majority of the Leafs offensive game next season is dependent on the second line playing, at the very least, as well as they did last season. They are a very important piece of the future of this team, and I believe that they should not come up in trade talk. Re-signing Grabovski and Kulemin should be the No. 1 priority after Schenn is resigned.
As far as the Leafs' defensive game, I shall save my opinion on that for my next article. Thoughts?