It is always hard to be optimistic about a team that hasn't won a championship, or even made the playoffs, in quite a long time. The Toronto Maple Leafs are certainly a team that hasn't enjoyed a great deal of success in recent years, and for that reason have to deal with a lot of scrutiny and criticism from both fans of organization as well as the haters.
But there is reason to be optimistic if your are apart of Leafs Nation, and not just because it really can't get much worse than not making the playoffs since the lockout. The pieces are in place to at least make a solid run at the playoffs, with off-season additions by Brian Burke that immediately improve the power play, penalty kill, and overall skill on both sides of the puck.
With the 2010/2011 NHL season being one of the biggest roller coaster rides a sports fan can experience, it almost impossible to predict how this upcoming season will unravel. That being said, here is what you can expect from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011/2012.
Fans have been calling for Ron Wilson's head since his first year on the job in Toronto. He has little patience with Toronto media and hasn't done much to fortify himself as a fan favorite like some Leaf coaches in the past (Pat Quinn, for example).
Burke has said time and time again that Wilson's job is safe, and often avoids saying anything negative about his head coach and fellow member of the 2010 USA Olympic Hockey Team.
But the fact of the matter is Wilson has a 101-107-36 record as coach of the Maple Leafs, and if he doesn't have any success soon, it won't be long before he is looking for a new job.
I have never really understood all the negativity surrounding Phil Kessel in recent years.
It does have a lot to do with bitterness from the trade that got him in Toronto, which makes absolutely zero sense considering Kessel had no say in the matter. It also has a lot to do with the fact that Kessel does not much care for back-checking or playing strong defense.
But the reality is Kessel was not acquired to be a defensive savior—he is there to score.
And if he's healthy, there is no reason why this season can't be a breakout year for the 23-year-old.
Kessel hasn't had a legitimate center to complement his talents since he arrived in Toronto. With the addition of Tim Connolly to fill the first-line center role, Kessel's productivity will only increase, and he will finally find his comfort zone in Toronto.
Whether you like Phil Kessel or don't care for him at all, expect big things from the sniper in 2011-2012.
Brian Burke has made it no secret that he loves defense. He builds his teams from the net up and stresses the importance of a solid defensive corps in the playoffs.
Burke has also publicly stated that you can never have too many defensemen on a team, which was part of his Stanley Cup-winning formula on the Anaheim Ducks.
Just by looking at the defense on the Maple Leafs' roster going into training camp, it is nearly impossible to predict who will be dressed on opening night in October against Montreal, simply because there are so many solid players to pick from. The additions of Liles and Franson only add more skill and competition to the Leafs' blue line, not to mention a very solid prospect in Jake Gardiner, who has be labeled a future star on the back-end.
It is going to be very interesting to see who makes the top six on opening night, but whoever it is, you can bet they will be able to handle any team in the league this season.
When Mike Komisarek was acquired from Montreal in 2009, a lot was expected from him to be a solid piece in Brian Burke's puzzle for years to come.
With 14 points in 109 games, it is safe to say that Komisarek has not really lived up to those expectations. He also has a minus-17 plus/minus rating in two years with the Maple Leafs, which isn't what Burke had in mind when he brought him to Toronto.
With Toronto's recent overload of capable NHL-ready defensemen in the system itching to make the opening day roster, I just don't see a spot on the roster for Komisarek.
And in the long-run, it doesn't look like he will be a part of Burke's vision for this team.
The Maple Leafs have one of the deepest pools of prospects in the NHL, thanks to solid drafting and well-designed trades in recent years.
Players like Jerry D'Amigo, Jesse Blacker and Greg McKegg have significantly improved in the past year, and have been very productive for their OHL teams. Others such as Jake Gardiner, Ben Scrivens and Joe Colborne have played a fair amount in the AHL, and have made significant strides toward being a regular NHL player.
Whether or not any of these players—or other other prospects I have not mentioned—can manage to crack the opening game roster in October remains to be seen and, quite frankly, seems unlikely. But the reality of professional hockey is that injuries do occur, and open roster spots present rare opportunities for players to prove they belong on hockey's biggest stage.
With a prospect pool as deep and talented as they come in Toronto, it is inevitable that one (or more) of these youngsters will rise above the rest and emerge as a Rookie of the Year candidate.
James Reimer's debut season in the NHL during 2010-2011 was unbelievable, and there is no doubt in anybody's mind he is the real deal.
Jonas Gustavsson, on the other hand, had an awful year, and a lot of fans and media have given up on him.
I think that is a mistake.
Gustavsson did not perform well last season and also did not get much support from the players in front of him (not to mention his lingering heart problems). But there is nothing more dangerous than a player with something to prove, which is why I believe the Monster will have a comeback season in 2011-2012.
The assumed starting goalie coming out of training camp is, of course, James Reimer. Although I do believe Reimer will eventually come out on top, look for both goaltenders to push each other harder than ever in training camp to earn that No. 1 spot.
Reimer may come out on top, but it won't be as easy as everyone expects.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs in 2012 for the first time since the lockout.
The second half of the 2010-2011 season seemed like a preview of of what to expect from the Maple Leafs for years to come: solid defensive play, outstanding goaltending and clutch scoring in tight games.
There were, of course, many rough patches last season, as there will be for any given team in any given year. But the Leafs closed the season with inspirational, hard-earned wins against division rivals like Boston and Buffalo, which really brought out the character of this team.
With Burke trimming some of the fat from last season (Brett Lebda) and adding more skill/depth, one can only expect the 2011-2012 Toronto Maple Leafs will be a better team—and most certainly a playoff-caliber team for years to come.