As a Leafs fan, I am used to hearing "Leaf Bashing" all year round. I find it funny because the only people that ever talk about "planning the parade" are the bashers. I will admit that the Leafs have their fair share of fans who make the rest of us look silly, but for the most part, I think real Leafs fans make less noise about the team than the haters.
I have heard and read too much over the summer about how this team is no better than last year or the year before that. I also hear that GM Brian Burke has done nothing since arriving in 2008.
Well, I won't go all the way back to '08, but I will explain why the Maple Leafs have a better team in 2011-12 than last year's squad.
Tim Connolly and James Reimer
I know that Tim Connolly is not a perennial All-Star first-line center, but guess what, neither is Tyler Bozak.
Connolly has had injury woes in the past, and it is possible that these woes will follow him to Toronto. I still believe that Connolly will be more productive on the first-line if he plays 60 games, than Bozak would be in all 82.
I have nothing against Bozak. I think he will make a great third-line center (also an upgrade from last year), but he was thrown into the fire last season and quite often looked lost. Bozak was in his first full season, and it seemed like the only thing he wanted to do was put the puck on Kessel's stick. Granted, that is what we want, but only when Phil has a better opportunity.
Connolly has been around a long time and he will not feel the same pressure, nor will he throw the puck to Phil if he himself has a better opportunity.
Another new center on the block is Matthew Lombardi. How did the Leafs get Lombardi? Oh yeah, they got him in a trade with Nashville (along with Cody Franson—see defense slide) for Brett Lebda and a prospect named Robert Slaney. Even if this was the only move Toronto made in the offseason, they would be a better team than in 2010.
Back to Lombardi. He may not be what he once was after his devastating injury almost one year ago, but he might be. Even if Lombardi's game does not recover 100 percent, the Maple Leafs still have some depth at center now with a first-liner in Connolly, a second-liner in Grabo, two third-liners in Bozak and Lombardi, and fourth-liners Dupuis, Ziggy, and Boyce.
In the event of an injury, the Leafs have the opportunity to shuffle centers around this year and fill holes with prospects like Colborne and Kadri.
I would say the Leafs look better down the middle this year. I am not saying that they're the best in the league (so relax, haters), I am just saying they look better.
Luke Schenn 'Erasing'
I know that the Leafs have had a good looking D on paper for a couple of years now, but fans have been disappointed. There is reason to believe that this season will be different with returning defensemen Dion Phaneuf, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarson, Keith Aulie, and Mike Komisarek, as well as the additions of John Michael Liles and Cody Franson.
And of course prospects Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, and others will help too.
This group should help bring Toronto back to respectability in the goals against per game department, while also chipping in more offensively than in years past.
James Reimer reaches for a loose puck
The Maple Leafs have not had a consistent goalie since Ed Belfour, and in turn, have not been to the playoffs since his second to last season with the team.
This year, James Reimer comes to the crease with his cool and calm demeanor, his intense work ethic, and his undeniable skill. I am not saying that "Reims" is the next coming of Brodeur, but he is also not the next coming of Andrew Raycroft, Jean-Sebastien Aubin or Vesa Toskala. He has no ego, he wants to get better, and he is a young talent.
I have no doubt that Jonas Gustavsson will be the back-up out of camp, and in his final year of his current contract, it is time to shine or be replaced. Gus is healthy, Gus is heavier, Gus is hungry. I think that he can be a serviceable back-up in the NHL, and hopefully this is the year that "The Monster" proves it.
The Maple Leafs organization has some depth if either goalie does falter or gets injured. Last year, Reimer came out of no where, and one year later, he is the starter. I think that Ben Scrivens is a diamond in the rough, and if anyone makes it to the big club this year, it will be him.
So barring any significant injuries, the Leafs' goaltending will be improved this season.
Jake Gardiner in the 2010 IIHF World Juniors
All teams have prospects and go-to call ups. But for the first time in recent history, Toronto has some exciting ones.
Gone are the days of holding out hope for Johnny Pohl and Kris Newbury, the Andre Devaux's and the Staffan Kronwalls. Now comes the Hobey Baker finalist Matt Frattin, the OHL Champion Jesse Blacker, the first-round pick Joe Colborne, World Juniors Nazem Kadri, and Jake Gardiner.
The cupboard isn't over flowing, but the cupboard is far from bare. The near future looks looks brighter than years past for this group, as the players listed above are more than likely one year, two years max, from making the big club.
Boyce, Gunnarson, and Crabb celebrate
Be optimistic, fellow Maple Leaf fans!
The playoff drought may not end this season, but for the first time since 2007 when people ask me where I think the Leafs will finish, I don't stare at the ground or start to cry. I think about it logically, and answer between 7th and 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Brian Burke is building something here...and he is not finished yet.