It has been six seasons since Toronto Maple Leafs fans have had the pleasure of watching their favourite team compete in the playoffs.
This summer, the Leafs added forwards Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, and Philippe Dupuis while also adding defencemen John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson to a club that came very close to qualifying for the playoffs last year. Even with all of the new additions, they still have a lot of question marks going into next season.
Here are six predictions for the Toronto Maple Leafs next season.
Dion Phaneuf was a big part of the Leafs turnaround in the second half of last season. Once he recovered from a leg injury that kept him out of the lineup for 16 games, he started to show some of the prowess he had during his early days with the Calgary Flames.
He is growing more and more comfortable playing with Keith Aulie. Aulie’s strong defensive play has given Phaneuf more opportunities to join the rush and produce offense.
His game really started to pick up once Tomas Kaberle had been traded to the Boston Bruins, scoring 15 points in 24 games after the trade was made. The thinking here is that Phaneuf was finally able to step up and be the go-to guy on defense instead of Kaberle.
Phaneuf will score 20 goals this year as he continues to return to the form that garnered him Norris and Calder Trophy nominations in years past.
Goaltender James Reimer seemingly came out of nowhere last season and aided the Leafs to an 18-9-6 run that just about put them into the playoffs. He was awarded a three-year contract for his efforts and will be the starting goalie to begin the season.
Is Reimer the real deal or is he just a one-year-wonder? That’s the question Leaf fans are asking. After all, he did come into a situation where it looked like the Leafs were out of the playoff race and the pressure was off.
There really isn’t any indication that he won't be able to keep up his stellar play. He plays his angles well and is rarely out of position. In his interviews he is very smart and down-to-earth, and he is not someone who will crumble under the pressure of being a starting goalie.
Head coach Ron Wilson is on a very short leash this year. Toronto has not made the playoffs during his tenure with the club, and general manager Brian Burke has hinted at making some changes if the Leafs fail to show significant improvement in the first few months of the season.
The Leafs specialty teams have been a mess under Wilson, especially the penalty kill, which has been ranked last in the league two times since he’s been in charge.
Wilson won’t be able to turn the team’s fortunes around and Burke will let him go.
That brings us to assistant coach Scott Gordon, who is a good coach who has yet to be given a legitimate chance at the NHL level. The former AHL Coach of the Year was fired from the New York Islanders last season. In his defense, he wasn’t given much to work with on Long Island.
Gordon likes to employ a system based on speed, which is ideal for a fast team like the Leafs.
Left winger Clarke MacArthur came storming out of the gate last year, posting five goals in his first four games. He was signed for one year at $1.1 million very late during last offseason. Needless to say, the Leafs weren’t expecting much out of him, so his early production was a pleasant surprise.
He developed chemistry on a line with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, and continued to produce for most of the year while earning first-line minutes. He finished the season with 21 goals and 62 points.
His production trailed off in the last part of the year with only two goals in his last 20 games. Keep in mind, he will be playing second line minutes as the Leafs now have an improved first line this year with the signing of centre Tim Connolly. Look for MacArthur to net between 35-45 points this upcoming season.
Ever since he arrived in Toronto, Leaf fans have been waiting for a 40-goal breakthrough season from right winger Phil Kessel.
The critics said that without any quality line mates, Kessel wouldn’t succeed in Toronto. Yet, he still posted back to back 30 goal seasons in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.
The acquisition of left winger Joffrey Lupul in February sparked Kessel’s play last season. Lupul is a big, strong player who can free up open space for Kessel and feed him the puck.
Tim Connolly isn’t the ideal centre, but he is an improvement on Tyler Bozak. Connolly is a pass-first centre that can put up close to a point per game when healthy.
With a full year of Joffrey Lupul and Tim Connolly on his line, Kessel shouldn’t have any problem potting eight more goals than he did last year.
This team is still young, and will continue to improve year after year. Unfortunately, there are just too many teams in the Eastern Conference that are still better than the Leafs this year.
Toronto has some good depth in their line-up, but they are missing the star power that is needed to compete in the East.
The good news is the Leafs are only one or two players away from being a team that can contend. The bad news is those are the hardest players to acquire.
However, Leaf fans should continue to be optimistic. The Leafs are on the right track, and are only a couple of years away from being contenders in the East.