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Toronto Maple Leafs: 7 Bold Predictions for the 2011-12 Season

Curtis NgContributor IIIAugust 20, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs: 7 Bold Predictions for the 2011-12 Season

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    Bold predictions can be tough to make.

    On one hand, it might be tempting to "predict" what most people already expect from a certain player or team (e.g., Phil Kessel scores 30+ goals again).

    On the other hand, it might also be tempting to get carried away with excitement and predict something totally unrealistic (e.g., Phil Kessel scores 50+ goals).

    Leaf fans often get criticized for being a little nutty, and I really don't blame the critics. In this slideshow, I present seven predictions for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2011-12 season, which I hope will not come across as either too cautious nor too outrageous.

    Enjoy!

7) MacArthur, Grabovski, and Kulemin All Have Career Years...Again

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    Clarke MacArthur

    Best season (points) prior to 2010-11: 17G, 14A, 31P (2008-09 with the Sabres)

    2010-11 stats: 21G, 41A, 62P (all career bests)

    Mikhail Grabovski

    Best season (points) prior to 2010-11: 20G, 28A, 48P (2008-09 with the Leafs)

    2010-11 stats: 29G, 29A, 58P (all career bests)

    Nikolai Kulemin

    Best season (points) prior to 2010-11: 16G, 20A, 36P (2009-10 with the Leafs)

    2010-11 stats: 30G, 27A, 57P (again, all career bests)

     

    MacArthur truly had a break-out season last year, doubling his previous best point total. Is it unreasonable to expect him to double them again this coming season?

    Okay, maybe.

    However, while I don't expect any of these three guys to absolutely crush their new records, I can see them setting new ones again this year.

    The trio had amazing chemistry last year, and now that MacArthur has had a full year to acquaint himself with Toronto, I don't see why all three can't keep the good times going.

6) Leafs Will Have 4 30-Goal Scorers

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    The last time the Leafs boasted three 30-goal scorers in one season was back in 1995-96 when Mike Gartner (35), Mats Sundin (33) and Doug Gilmour (32) all hit the 30-goal plateau.

    Last season, we almost did it again. Kessel had 32 and Kulemin hit 30 on the dot. Grabovski narrowly missed, finishing with 29 goals.

    The last time the Leafs had FOUR 30-goal scorers was way back in the 1989-90 season when Gary Leeman (51), Daniel Marois (39), Vincent Damphousse (33), and Ed Olczyk (31) all reached the 30-goal mark.

    Well, this is the year, Leaf fans.

    Kessel and Kulemin will score at least as many goals as they did last year.

    Grabovski will improve enough to break the 30-goal barrier for the first time in his career.

    And you know what? Joffrey Lupul will break 30 goals as well.

    Not only do we have a centreman in Connolly for Lupul and Kessel to play with, the centreman on that top line will have someone other than Kessel to pass to.

    Lupul potted 28 goals in his sophomore year with the Ducks; I see no reason why a healthy Lupul can't surpass that number this coming season.

5) Kessel and Phaneuf Make the All-Star Game

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    This past season, in Raleigh, N.C., poor Phil Kessel suffered the indignity of playing at the 2011 All-Star Game. He was ruthlessly mocked for being one of the best players in the league.

    (Prediction 5a: Kessel gets picked a little higher than 30th this time)

    As for Phaneuf, many people (and players) consider him to be massively overrated.

    It's true that he really didn't play too well until about the second half of this past season. It's also arguable that he hadn't done anything at the time to deserve the 'C'.

    Near the end of last season, however, we started to see glimpses of the old Dion: hard hits, scary slapshots, and even scarier glares.

    Instead of simply hitting the puck as hard as he could, like he did at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, he later started to sacrifice a bit of power in favour of accuracy, which proved to be wise and effective.

    I see Dion doing three things next season:

    1) Returning to his old Calgary self;

    2) Showing Leaf fans that he really did deserve the captaincy; and,

    3) Making the All-Star Game as a result

    As a little added bonus, the 2012 All-Star Game will be held in Ottawa, so the more Leaf representation there, the better.

4) Kessel and Bozak Have + Years

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    Let me start by saying that I don't think the +/- stat is overrated, misleading or useless.

    It is true that players will often get a minus slapped on them for stepping onto the ice at the wrong time. However, nobody ever said that +/- was a precise measurement of a player's defensive abilities.

    I will also admit that players will often have lower +/- stats when playing on a bad team or higher stats playing for a better team.

    That's why I don't fault Kessel for being a -20 last year or Bozak for being a -29. Kessel didn't have enough skill beside and behind him to back him up, while Bozak was forced into a role he wasn't suited for.

    I don't want to preach too hard on +/- right now, so I'll just finish this slide off with a couple tidbits of information.

    In a 9-3 rout by the Leafs last year over the Atlanta Thrashers (remember them?), Brett Lebda was a -3. Only a player as "skilled" as Lebda could have pulled that off.

    Lastly, in an illustrious career with 1,494 games played over 19 seasons (and counting), perennial all-star Nicklas Lidstrom has accumulated a lifetime +/- stat of +429. His only minus season was last year, where he was a -2. He has hit at least +40 in a season FOUR times. That's nothing to sneeze at.

    Now that Kessel has a better centre and blueline corps to play with, and now that Bozak has rid himself of all the expectations and pressure associated with being a first-liner, both players should drastically improve in the +/- department.

3) Leafs Finish Top 15 in the NHL in PK

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    The Leafs worked at 77.4% efficiency on the penalty kill, good for 28th in the league.

    Any number of things could have been to blame: a lack of on-ice awareness, a lack of shot-blocking, no-look passing, shaky goaltending, poor coaching, etc.

    Enough was enough, said Burke, so assistant coaches Tim Hunter and Keith Acton were canned in favour of Greg Cronin (formerly of Northeastern University) and Scott Gordon (head coach of the NY Islanders from 2008-10).

    This is do-or-die time for head coach Ron Wilson.

    I think this new blood behind the bench will invigorate the Leafs' PK units as well as light a fire under Wilson.

    Burke has been patient with Wilson, as have Leaf fans, to an extent.

    However, another year of mediocrity will simply be unacceptable. Last year's horrendous penalty killing was a big reason why the Leafs missed the playoffs.

    If we are to have any hope of reaching the playoffs in the 2011-12 season, the PK must greatly improve. I think Ron Wilson can smell the smoke, so I see the Leafs' PK jumping a dozen or so spots in the rankings.

2) Gustavsson Will Be out the Door by Trade Deadline

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    The Monster isn't so monstrous anymore. Once touted as the best goalie not playing in the NHL, Jonas Gustavsson watched helplessly last year as he dropped to No. 3 on the Leafs' goalie depth chart.

    Giguere has since moved on to Colorado, so that leaves Gustavsson as Reimer's back-up.

    Somehow, I don't see Reimer relinquishing the starting position. He simply isn't the type to fold under pressure or adversity.

    I think Reimer will handle a 55-60 game workload just fine, so Gustavsson will be left with the rest.

    I can see Gustavsson starting roughly 15-20 games before being dealt at the trade deadline. He will play just well enough in those 15-20 games to raise his value a bit. He will be a UFA after the 2011-12 season, so it will be a low-risk, high-reward deal for whichever team bites.

    Meanwhile, the Leafs can pick up a veteran back-up either through free agency (if there's anyone good left) or through trade.

    This veteran back-up would be retained for the 2012-13 season to allow Ben Scrivens and Jussi Rynnas (the next two goalies on the depth chart) to develop in the minors.

    In terms of potential suitors for Gustavsson, the first team that comes to mind is the New Jersey Devils. With Brodeur and Hedberg flirting with retirement, it's only a matter of time before one or both hang up the pads.

    I can also see him being moved to a young team like Edmonton, where he could have a healthy battle for the starting position with Devan Dubnyk. Nikolai Khabibulin is 38, so it might be wise to bring in a No. 1a/2 goalie while Olivier Roy continues his development.

    Cue the trade speculation :)

1) Leafs Win a Playoff Series

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    What Reimer was feeling in this picture is what I think all Leaf fans will be feeling next spring.

    The Leafs will not only make the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout, but they'll win a playoff series as well.

    Crazy?

    The teams likely to occupy the top 3 spots in the Eastern Conference are, in no particular order, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals, and the Boston Bruins.

     

    Leafs Record Against the Penguins in 2010-11: 2-1-1

    I know, I know, Crosby and Malkin were missing later in the season. But in free agency, the Penguins lost a couple of role players in Rupp and Talbot.

    I'm not going to say that the Leafs are better than the Penguins, but I can see them standing a chance of winning, so we'll leave it at that.

     

    Leafs Record Against the Capitals in 2010-11: 1-1-2

    The key to beating the Caps is simple: stop Ovechkin. Easier said than done, of course. But with Ovechkin out of the picture, the Caps are a rather average team.

    They've got Neuvirth and Vokoun in net and skilled guys like Green, Backstrom, and Semin playing in front of them, but its easy to forget that the Leafs have skilled guys as well.

    With a better first line, a deadly second line, and an improved blueline, the Leafs could certainly put up a fight against a Capitals team that hasn't improved very much over the past few months.

     

    Leafs Record Against the Bruins in 2010-11: 4-2-0

    I could sense the elephant leaving the room when Phil Kessel finally scored his first goal against his former team in his 10th game against them, on Feb. 15, 2011. He would go on to score another one later in the game.

    The other storyline which made that 4-3 win memorable was that, despite being crunched twice by Chara, Grabovski would pot a couple goals, including the game winner with just over a minute remaining in the third period.

    It was the kind of game that showed what the Leafs were capable of when they put in the proper effort.

    Sure, the Bruins went on to win the Cup. However, the Bruins curse has been lifted and the Leafs have clearly shown that they know what it takes to beat Boston.

    So do the Leafs stand a chance of winning a playoff series?

    With the improvements that the Leafs have made and the relative lack thereof within the rosters of the aforementioned teams, I say: YES.

    Hopefully.

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