Toronto Maple Leafs: 8 Bold Predictions for the 2011-2012 Season
As training camp nears, what better time to start making predictions for the upcoming season. Predictions are a rather hard monster to tame. Sometimes you get it right, but the majority of the time, predictors are usually talking out of their rear ends.
The Leafs are poised to improve upon their 2010-11 season in which they finished in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
With any semblance of consistent goaltending the first half of the year, the Leafs may have made the playoffs. But if ifs and nuts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.
The Leafs head into the 2011-12 season a younger, fresher, quicker group, with as many as six NHL caliber centers vying for four jobs, and nine NHL ready defenseman vying for six open spots.
So, to begin our slideshow, we'll start by discussing...
1. Joffrey Lupul Pots 25-Plus Goals This Season
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The former first-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks in 2002, the 6'1" 200-pound winger is looking to play his first full season since 2008-09 in which he potted 25 goals and added 25 assists.
Lupul will likely be playing on the Leafs' top line with Tim Connolly and Phil Kessel, thus he should have ample open room to get off his accurate shot.
Lupul had a good start to his Maple Leafs career scoring 18 points in 28 games, good for a 53-point average in 82 games, as well as a 22-goal average for the full season.
He has always been labelled with "potential," this year should be the year he lives up to that "potential."
2. John Michael Liles Leads the Leafs to a Top 10 Power Play in the NHL
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With the additions of Tim Connolly, John Michael Liles, a full year likely out of Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, and lastly, having two great line options for a power play should help Toronto out of the bottom third of the NHL for power-play percentage.
John Michael Liles is the big acquisition here as he can quarterback a power play very nicely, and unlike Tomas Kaberle, he isn't afraid to shoot the puck. Last year he got 18 of his 46 points on the power play, and 20 of 31 the year before.
Liles is in a contract year, and I expect him to try his hardest at earning another good sized contract.
With Dion Phaneuf manning the one-time right defense position, expect Leafs goal totals on the power play to rise.
3. Nazem Kadri Scores 20-Plus Goals This Season
Nazem Kadri this year should get a full year to show his stuff with the Leafs. If Matthew Lombardi is healthy and centering the third line, I expect the Leafs third line to be extremely tough to defend with Lombardi's wheels, Colby Armstrong's size and grit and Kadri's vision and puck control. The Leafs could boast three top-six caliber lines, which is a welcome change to the one they have usually been icing night in and night out.
Kadri isn't considered a rookie anymore, but he should still be going through those rookie growing pains. As long as the Leafs hold out and give him a chance to do his thing, Kadri should be fine. I expect him to breakout for a 50-point season this year and score at least 20 goals.
4. Keith Aulie Doesn't Make the Cut Out of Training Camp
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Keith Aulie was a rock last year when he was paired with Dion Phaneuf. He did make some rookie mistakes, but overall, he had a very good start to his Maple Leaf career.
However, after the Leafs traded for Cody Franson this offseason, Aulie's guarantee of making the squad wasn't so much of a guarantee any longer.
Aulie still has the ability to get sent down without clearing waivers, unlike pretty much all of the Leafs defenseman, so I expect him to be sent down, not because he wasn't good enough to make the squad, but because the Leafs still haven't traded Mike Komisarek.
Having both Komisarek and Finger on the minor league roster making over $8 million dollars isn't smart business in my opinion, so look for the Leafs to increase Komisarek's trade value, while Aulie gets top-two minutes down with the Marlies.
5. Matthew Lombardi Plays over 60 Games and Takes over for Tim Connolly
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Yes you read that correctly, I think down the road this season, we will see a change in the Leafs No. 1 center.
Lombardi in my opinion fits better with the top line than Connolly does. Lombardi has wheels, vision and best of all he's an experienced left-handed shot who can feed Phil Kessel passes on his forehand as opposed to his backhand like Connolly.
The last time Kessel played with a left-handed center was Marc Savard and he scored 36 goals. Kessel, despite not having a center to play with since, has really been pretty consistent scoring and averaged 31 goals in two seasons with the Leafs.
Lombardi, in his first year with the Coyotes and a top-line role playing alongside Shane Doan, scored 19 goals and tallied 53 points in 78 games. The Coyotes don't have the offensive firepower the Leafs do, nor do they play a style conducive to scoring goals regularly, so I expect Lombardi to really shine as a Maple Leaf.
6. Dion Phaneuf Returns to His 40-Point Form and Anchors Leafs' Defense
I felt this picture was perfect for the slide. It's the former Leafs anchor Tomas Kaberle in a photo with current Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and Leafs legend Howie Meeker.
Photo aside, Dion Phaneuf was a rock for the Canadian World Championship team, and really did look like he's returned to his Calgary form, before Brent Sutter and Mike Keenan.
He has a power-play partner now who can shoot the puck, quite a few good centerman and likely a big-time role with the Leafs next season. If I had to predict a total, I'm expecting around 15 goals and 30 assists out of the big defenseman.
7. Jonas Gustavsson Has a Better Statistical Year Than James Reimer
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Jonas Gustavsson really? Yes, really! I think Jonas Gustavsson will have a bounce back season this year mostly due to the fact I think James Reimer will struggle a little more this season than last. Teams will have a book on him (go high glove if you can), and I think having the Monster as a backup will prove to be great insurance.
In the early part of the season the Leafs were dealing with having a very old, non-mobile defence along with a team that was truly feeling itself out. What it meant was, it left Gustavsson out to dry on most nights.
This season however I think it will be a different story. Gustavsson will be out to prove his critics wrong, and likely look to finally get a save percentage over .900.
A reasonable prediction if you must ask might be 35 games started, a 20-15 record with a 2.40 GAA and a.910 save percentage. Reimer I think will be closer to 2.60 GAA and a .905 save percentage, granted he will be playing more games.
8. The Maple Leafs Will Miss the Playoffs by 2 Points
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Sadly the Leafs after a very good season will miss the playoffs by one regulation win. The Eastern Conference got a whole lot tougher this offseason, and the Northeast Division is one of the tougher divisions in all of hockey, along with the Atlantic and Central.
Here's a look back at the playoff teams, and some of their big additions:
Washington: Tomas Vokoun, Dmitri Orlov, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik
Philadelphia: Ilya Bryzgalov, Brayden Schenn, Jaromir Jagr, Jakub Voracek, Max Talbot, Wayne Simmonds
Boston: Joe Corvo and Benoit Pouliot. They are defending champs though.
Pittsburgh: Hopefully a healthy Malkin and Crosby, and Steve Sullivan.
Tampa Bay: Ryan Shannon, Mathieu Garon
Montreal: Erik Cole, Peter Budaj, Alexei Yemelin
Buffalo: Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Robyn Regehr, a full year of Marc Andre Gragnani and Zack Kassian.
New York Rangers: Brad Richards
Carolina: Tomas Kaberle, Tim Brent, Alexei Ponikarovsky
Those were all the teams that finished ahead of the Leafs. In my personal opinion, possibly the Lightning, Canadiens, Rangers, Canes and the Leafs will be fighting it out for the final three playoff spots. Eventually I see the Lightning and the Habs making the playoffs, but a surprise team will also be there, the New Jersey Devils.
The Leafs have improved, but still not enough to get them into the playoffs.