It is undeniable that the Toronto Maple Leafs 2011-2012 season is jam-packed with question marks. Brian Burke will be depending on many roster players who either have extensive injury histories, or are entering only their second or third NHL season.
Relying on young players to improve on their previous bodies of work can be risky, but may also pay off if most can match expectations set by management and fans.
Brian Burke has shown he is not afraid to take on reclamation projects such as Dion Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi. He seems to enjoy rolling the dice on players who have fallen out of favour with their previous teams, and gives these players a shot with a prominent role on the Leafs.
The fate of the Toronto Maple Leafs upcoming season heavily relies on these types of risky players. Ones that could either have a career year with the right line chemistry, or have a season to forget.
This article outlines my predictions for the 2011-2012 Toronto Maple Leafs roster, showing which players should improve and which players could decline compared to their previous seasons.
Last Season: 68 GP, 13 Goals, 29 Assists, 42 Points
Next Season: 74 GP, 15 Goals, 39 Assists, 54 Points
Connolly should respond well to full-time first line centre duties. Having a sniper like Phil Kessel and a physical goal-scoring winger like Joffrey Lupul on his line will give him two great options to dish to.
He'll also get tonnes of power-play time, so there is no reason why Connolly can't be a minimum 50-point player next season, if healthy.
Last Season: 82 GP, 32 Goals, 32 Assists, 64 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, 37 Goals, 30 Assists, 67 Points
With a skilled playmaking centre finally on his line, there is no reason to think Kessel's goal total will decline next season. Although skilled, I don't think Connolly has the ability to make Kessel the 40-50 goal scorer we all know he can be.
Another 30-plus goal season is all we can expect for now, which I'm sure is just fine with Leafs fans and management.
Last Season: 54 GP, 14 Goals, 17 Assists, 31 Points
Next Season: 70 GP, 23 Goals, 18 Assists, 41 Points
Although it won't be an amazing feat to improve on last year's totals, Lupul should have enough of a bounce back season to put him back on the map as a legitimate goal-scoring winger in the NHL.
I still think he'll have minor injury issues next season, but putting up over 20 goals will make his 4.2 million dollar cap hit easier to digest. He may just become an option to move at the trade deadline to a contending team in need of scoring depth.
Last Season: 81 GP, 29 Goals, 29 Assists, 58 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, 24 Goals, 27 Assists, 51 Points
I think many Leafs fans will disagree with me, but i'm predicting a slight decline in production from Grabovski next season.
My reasoning is that the line of Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur should see a slight decline in ice time compared to last season.This line was basically the Leafs first line for the majority of last year due to the consistency of their production, which should change in 2011-12.
Now that Kessel and Lupul have a legitimate playmaking centre on their line, they should get the majority of ice time, including on the power play. This should create a slight dip in production from the second line.
Last Season: 82 GP, 21 Goals, 41 Assists, 62 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, 19 Goals, 34 Assists, 53 Points
Clarke MacArthur had a great 2010-11 season, considering the bargain basement one-year contract he accepted last summer. Next season will bring higher expectations for MacArthur, which may create some added pressure to produce.
I think he can still put up at least a 50-point season, which is more than enough production to justify his new 6.5 million dollar contract. To expect MacArthur to improve on last season is a little unfair considering he almost doubled his career high in points last year.
If MacArthur settles in as a perennial 50-point winger with the Leafs for years to come, this would be just fine with me.
Last Season: 82 GP, 30 Goals, 27 Assists, 57 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, 34 Goals, 29 Assists, 63 Points
Along with Phil Kessel, I think Nikolai Kulemin is one of the few players currently on the Toronto Maple Leafs where the sky is the limit in terms of his potential. I believe Kulemin can hit 40 goals one day if surrounded by the right players.
If Kulemin is given first power play unit time with Connolly and Kessel this season, he'll have a great opportunity to improve on his career year in 2010-11.
Last Season: 82 GP, 15 Goals, 17 Assists, 32 Points
Next Season: 74 GP, 10 Goals, 16 Assists, 26 Points
With the signing of Tim Connolly, Tyler Bozak was officially bumped from the No. 1 centre spot on the Toronto Maple Leafs, and fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Bozak has the speed, hands and faceoff ability to be an NHL centre for a very long time, although he's found trouble thus far putting all of these tools together to be an effective top-six forward.
With the pressure of being the man in charge of making Phil Kessel a 40-goal scorer off his back, he can continue to work on his defensive game playing on the third line with Colby Armstrong and Nazem Kadri.
Considering his power play time will be significantly reduced compared to last season, Bozak's production will almost certainly decline.
Last Season: 50 GP, Eight Goals, 15 Assists, 23 Points
Next Season: 68 GP, 14 Goals, 17 Assists, 31 Points
Armstrong's 2010-11 season was full of injuries, which were the primary reason for his drop in production compared to previous seasons. It seemed he was in and out of the lineup all year, never really able to get in a groove and contribute offense on a consistent basis.
Although Armstrong is far from an elite offensive talent, he is the straw that stirs the drink in Toronto. The Leafs just seem to play better with him in the lineup, as he brings a positive veteran presence to a young roster.
Having pass-first players on this line like Bozak and Kadri will give Armstrong a great opportunity to match his career high in goals (22), although I think injuries will once again get in the way of this kind of production. It comes with the territory when you are basically the only forward in the Leafs top-nine that is willing to play an agitating style of hockey, essentially inviting punishment from other teams tough guys.
Last Season: 29 GP, Three Goals, Nine Assists, 12 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, 13 Goals, 25 Assists, 38 Points
Nazem Kadri should be given his best opportunity yet to stick in the NHL this coming season. As a seventh overall pick in 2009, management is most likely expecting that he can finally be a full time player in the NHL, and I think he'll be able to take this next step.
The third line should provide a low-pressure environment for Kadri to grow an all-around game. Hopefully, he can learn from a guy like Colby Armstrong how to contribute at both ends of the ice.
I think Kadri will be given spot duty top-six forward and power play time when injuries arise, roles that should help with his offensive development. If Kadri can put together a 30-40 point season, he will reassure many fans that hope he can one day become a top-six forward in the NHL.
If Kadri struggles to find his game again next season, Matt Frattin will be waiting in the wings for his shot.
Last Season: 46 GP, Five Goals, Eight Assists, 13 Points
Next Season: 58 GP, Three Goals, Four Assists, Seven Points
Boyce should be in a dog fight with newly acquired Phillipe Dupuis for the fourth line centre spot next season. With Boyce's strong work ethic, he should be able to stick with the Leafs for the majority of the season, although I think he will run into injury issues playing against other teams enforcers.
Playing with Mike Brown and Colton Orr shouldn't do wonders for this offensive numbers, hence the drop in his production. Boyce showed he is more than capable to provide spot duty on the third line if Bozak suffers from injury.
Last Season: 46 GP, Two Goals, Zero Assists, Two Points
Next Season: 59 GP, Two Goals, Two Assists, Four Points
Considering Colton Orr's career high in points is six, there is not much to analyze here. Orr is paid to fight, not score goals.
Jay Rosehill should also get his share of games on the fourth line, possibly more if Orr continues to have concussion issues.
Last Season: 50 GP, Three Goals, Five Assists, Eight Points
Next Season: 72 GP, Five Goals, Six Assists, 11 Points
Considering Brown hit a career high in points last year while only playing 50 games, he seems to have found a decent offensive game with Toronto for a fourth liner.
Brown has great speed and surprisingly good hands for a tough guy, and will have a decent chance to reach more offensive career highs as he plays out his contract with the Leafs.
Last Season: 66 GP, Eight Goals, 22 Assists, 30 Points
Next Season: 75 GP, 11 Goals, 35 Assists, 46 Points
Dion Phaneuf has run into some offensive struggles since being acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010. Although, after fully recovering from his leg injury last season, we saw a resurgence in Phaneuf's offensive game.
I fully expect Dion to continue where he left off last season and show Leafs Nation why he was acquired by Brian Burke and named captain shortly after. We all know the player he can be, and with the additions of Connolly, Liles and Franson, I expect Phaneuf to flourish on the power play.
Last Season: 40 GP, Two Goals, Zero Assists, Two Points
Next Season: 38 GP, One Goal, Zero Assists, One Point
It's nearly impossible to not improve on a season with only two points, but I have a feeling Aulie is set for the dreaded sophomore slump.
All of the clues are there. Aulie had a fantastic half season with the Leafs as a late season call up, playing mostly on the top pairing with Phaneuf. As a rookie with basically no expectations on him, he was able to play a calm, steady and physical game, which complimented Phaneuf's game perfectly.
Next season will come with much higher expectations of improving on his previous body of work in only his second NHL season. Just ask Luke Schenn and Carl Gunnarsson how easy it is to pull this off.
I expect Aulie to struggle early on in the season, which will force Ron Wilson's hand to either demote him to the bottom pairing or let him regain his confidence with the Marlies.
I truly hope this does not happen, but I fully expect it to.
Last Season: 82 GP, Five Goals, 17 Assists, 22 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, Six Goals, 19 Assists, 25 Points
Luke Schenn was not drafted fifth overall in 2008 for his offensive potential. He is a bruising defenseman who is calm with the puck and can make a very good first pass.
Although Schenn's offensive game is not fully polished, he is only 21 years of age and there is lots of time for him to improve. He has seen a slight improvement in offensive production every year, and I believe this trend will continue until he tops out as a perennial 30-35 point defenseman in the NHL.
Last Season: 76 GP, Six Goals, 40 Assists, 46 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, Seven Goals, 31 Assists, 38 Points
Don't get me wrong, a 38-point season from Liles would be fantastic next season. It would most likely earn him a new contract with the Leafs next summer. I just think he will struggle with finding chemistry with a new team, considering he has played his entire seven-year career with the Colorado Avalanche.
Tomas Kaberle suffered from the same problem after being traded to the Boston Bruins after a lengthy career with the Maple Leafs.
Liles should be a very nice replacement for Kaberle on the blueline, and should provide some slick puck-moving abilities while prospects like Jesse Blacker and Jake Gardiner develop with the Marlies.
Last Season: 80 GP, Eight Goals, 21 Assists, 29 Points
Next Season: 82 GP, Nine Goals, 25 Assists, 34 Points
I was very excited to see Cody Franson come to the Maple Leafs this summer, because this is exactly the kind of goal scoring defenseman they needed.
All scouting reports describe Franson as a defenseman with high offensive potential, having the much needed ability to get his accurate point shot through to the net.
The Leafs blueline was one of the worst in the league for offensive production last season, so Franson most likely joining the second power play unit can only spell good things for the team going forward.
Last Season: 68 GP, Four Goals, 16 Assists, 20 Points
Next Season: 75 GP, Five Goals, 19 Assists, 24 Points
Carl Gunnarsson will never be an elite offensive defenseman in the NHL, but should develop into a steady blueliner who could put up 30 points on a consistent basis. He is a calm puck mover who will most likely see power play time on the second unit with Cody Franson.
I don't see Gunnarsson improving much this season, but he'll continue to be one of the best young bottom pairing defensemen in the NHL.
Last Season: 75 GP, One Goal, Nine Assists, 10 Points
Next Season: 55 GP, One Goal, Five Assists, Six Points
I am one of the many Leafs fans who believe Mike Komisarek will never reclaim his steady game in a Maple Leafs uniform. He was once a solid, confident player when matched with Andrei Markov on the Montreal Canadiens. We have yet to see this player, and I doubt we will ever get to.
I think Komisarek will find himself in the press box more often next season, and will only play when others struggle or become injured.
I just hope a trade will come before he can play another game with the Blue and White.
Last Season: 37 GP, 2.60 GAA, .921 save percentage
Next Season: 52 GP, 2.72, .913 save percentage
Although I do think Reimer will get the majority of the games next season, I also believe he will struggle with consistency. It is normal for a young goaltender with little experience to regress in his sophomore season.
Reimer will have the weight of Leafs Nation on this shoulders, and I think it may be too much to handle at times. The only reason why I don't think his season will be a complete Toskala-like disaster is because of his calm and cool demeanor, which seems to keep him from buckling when times get tough.
Jonas Gustavsson should get to play more games next season and prove himself as a steady NHL back up goaltender. In my opinion, the two young netminders will need to work together to get the job done.
Don't get me wrong, I still believe Reimer is Toronto's goalie of the future. I just don't expect him to become an all-star in his sophomore season.
Last Season: 23 GP, 3.29 GAA, .890 save percentage
Next Season: 30 GP, 2.87 GAA, .904 save percentage
If Jonas Gustavsson can stay healthy, there is no reason to think that he can't improve on last season's debacle. He had a hard time keeping the puck out of the net, although I attribute a great deal of his lack of success to the defense in front of him.
If Gustavsson can learn to keep his composure on the ice during bad games, he could become a solid back up goaltender in the NHL. He played some great games in his first season with the Leafs, and I think he can improve on his consistency to help Reimer get this team into the playoffs in 2012.
With so many young players on the Leafs roster, it makes sense that most will improve on their previous seasons. Just how much each player improves will make a huge impact on how good this team can be.
The Toronto Maple Leafs 2011-12 season should be an improvement based on their 10th place finish from last season. They will most likely be knocking on the playoff door when April rolls around, but will still have a hard time making it considering how many Eastern Conference teams improved their rosters this summer.
I have the Leafs offense projected at approximately 239 goals next season, which would most likely put them around the middle of the pack in the NHL. If Reimer and Gustavsson can put together strong enough seasons, the Leafs may have a better shot at the playoffs than expected.