Toronto Maple Leafs: 5 Players Poised for Breakout Seasons
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been steadily improving since Brian Burke took over the helm as General Manager. There are few doubters left in Leaf Land regarding his hockey acumen and prowess at the negotiation table.
Whether by draft, trade or free agency, Burke has put quality players on the roster and given them the chance to succeed.
There are again exciting prospects in the ranks—a novel concept for Leaf GMs of the past.
Some of these lads will be getting their chance to shine for the big club this season. Some veterans will also be getting a chance at a return to glory as well, though for these players it is a second chance.
With camp just around the corner, what could be more fun than speculating about the future of a few players on our favorite hockey team? With that in mind, let's take a look at five Leafs who are poised to have a breakout season in 2011.
Defenseman Dion Phaneuf
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Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf has been maligned by some for not showing the production he once had while with the Calgary Flames and turning the puck over all too often at the worst times. Last season saw him net eight goals with 22 assists—a far cry from his rookie season where he scored 20.
In fact, each subsequent year, Phaneuf has scored fewer and fewer goals—until he came to the Leafs. Now that he has a full season under his belt as Leafs captain, I suspect his production will rise.
Phaneuf has a wicked slap shot that went horribly off-target for most of last season. He took 190 shots but hit on only 4.2 percent of them.
There is no doubt in my mind that his shooting will improve this year as he regains his confidence and comfort level. Those giveaways should also decrease this year, giving him an opportunity to end the season with a positive plus/minus instead of the minus-two rating he had last year.
Being the Leafs’ captain, there is a lot of pressure on Phaneuf to perform, but I am a firm believer that he is up to the task and am confident that we will see bigger things from him this season.
Centre Tyler Bozak
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Tyler Bozak was playing out of position last year—we all know that. Centering the first line was asking too much for a player in his first full season in Toronto.
The expectations put on him were truly over-the-top and it showed in his numbers. He was a team-worst minus-29 while scoring only 15 goals with 17 assists for 32 points—not bad for a third line centre, but terrible for top-line.
This year, Bozak looks to be centering the third line where he will be able to relax and hopefully enjoy himself. With the pressure off, he can focus on his game and not have to press.
Even with this so-called demotion, I expect Bozak will have a banner year, significantly improving on last year’s numbers. Sure he won’t be playing alongside Phil Kessel or Joffrey Lupul any more, but he also won’t be playing against the league’s top lines either.
Winger Joffrey Lupul
Joffrey Lupul came to the Leafs last year with prospect Jake Gardiner in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for Francois Beauchemin. As a cast-off, Lupul was seen by the Ducks as damaged goods after a couple of injury-plagued seasons.
Healthy again, he is poised to play in his first full season since '08-'09, where he put up 25 goals and 25 assists for the Philadelphia Flyers.
There is no reason why the 27-year-old can’t duplicate, or even exceed, those numbers this year. He is in the prime of his career and injury-free.
He will be playing on the first line with sniper Phil Kessel—a player Lupul has already shown to have chemistry with—and newcomer Tim Connelly.
If he can stay healthy and continue to progress, Lupul should have a fantastic year and could top the 30-goal mark.
Forward Nazem Kadri
While they may be entirely correct, I think that we will see Kadri make the case to stay up with the big club with a breakout season. I am not saying he will score 30 goals, but I do think he will do enough.
When Kadri made the jump to the OHL, his production dropped from 1.5 PPG (92 points in 62 games) to 0.35 PPG (22 points in 62 games). The next year with the Kitchener Rangers, Kadri was up to 0.96 PPG (65 points in 68 games).
Then two years with the London Knights saw his production rise to 1.4 PPG (78 points in 56 games) and 1.6 PPG (93 points in 56 games) by 2009. Last year with the Marlies, he racked up 41 points in 44 games (0.93 PPG) while scoring 12 points in 29 games (0.41 PPG) for the Leafs.
Every single year that Kadri has played, he has shown remarkable improvement.
I have no doubt that if Kadri plays with the Marlies this year, he will average well over a point per game. In doing so, he will justify the jump back to the big club. He should just stay with the big club and gain as much NHL experience as possible.
I can see him starting off slowly and building on his point production over the course of the season. I would expect that by season’s end, Kadri should be producing at or around a 0.70 PPG with 12-18 goals—enough to be considered a breakout season in my humble opinion.
Sniper Phil Kessel
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I know what you must be thinking: “How can Phil Kessel be included in a list of players who might have a breakout season? He is already an established player.”
Well, just bear with me as l explain.
Phil Kessel is a great player, no question, and a goal-scoring machine to boot. He is only 23 years old, but has five NHL seasons under his belt remarkably.
Even though Kessel has been playing for a while, he is still so very young and still has a mountain of upside potential. In those five seasons, he has scored 11,19, 36, 30 and 32 goals, respectively.
This year he will score 40.
With Lupul back in form and the addition of play-making veteran Tim Connelly, Kessel should have more time and space with the puck than at any other time as a Leaf.
Along with the general progression you would expect from a talented 23-year-old like Kessel, that should easily translate into a 40-plus goal season for the man—and a tremendous breakout year.