Toronto Maple Leafs: Four Questions That Must Be Addressed by Next Saturday

Connor McAulayContributor IOctober 9, 2011

Toronto Maple Leafs: Four Questions That Must Be Addressed by Next Saturday

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    The Leafs followed up an exciting shutout of the Montreal Canadiens at home on Thursday with a complete defensive collapse in the third period against the Ottawa Senators. Despite the photo finish, the Toronto Maple Leafs head into a week-long break with a 2-0 record—enough to make any Leafs fan happy.

    The young team has shown flashes of brilliance in their first two games of the season, however, their classic "40-minute game" style of play has put them in hot water more than once already.

    With a week off between now and their next game and two key players returning to the lineup, the Leafs have some questions that will no doubt need to be answered before taking the ice against Calgary, in what has already been dubbed a "must win" game.

    So without further ado, I give you four questions surrounding the Leafs going into this week of valuable practice time.

What Does the Return of Key Players Mean for Matt Frattin?

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    Before Toronto's season opener, Matt Frattin had been called in to take the place of the injured Nazem Kadri. Kadri had been the projected favourite going into camp but was given a run for his money by the versatile Frattin before being sidelined for a month with a knee injury. With Both Connolly and MacCarthur unable to play until Saturday the 16th against Calgary, Frattin was asked to step up yet again and play alongside Toronto's most productive line.

    On paper, Frattin hasn't been all that effective playing the wing; in two regular season games, Frattin has recorded no points and is an unimpressive minus-1. However, what the stats don't show is how he's handled himself.

    Playing alongside Grabovski and Kulemin comes with its share of ice time and certain expectations. I don't think that Matt has disappointed; in his two games with the Leafs, Matt has taken five quality shots on goal—good enough for third on the team. He plays hard and has a great habit of chasing the puck in deep. Although Frattin has yet to record a point playing on the second line, he's proven himself to be a capable NHLer and a potential asset on the third line.

    However, with two key players set to return in a week's time, Frattin's future has become uncertain. With Connolly taking his place as the team's first line centre and MacCarthur returning to complete the Mac-Russian line, it only makes sense to most that Bozak and Frattin drop down to will play alongside Colby Armstrong on the third line.

    Simple, right? Wrong.

    Both David Steckel and Philippe Dupuis have played on the third in in both games. The line itself has been very unproductive, posting no points, with each player in the negative. Although it looks worse on paper than it actually is, this line will likely be altered in the coming week of practice. This, combined with Matthew Lombard being given more ice time and Mike Brown's great hustle on the fourth line, leaves a surplus of talented bottom six players fighting for spots. 

    Will Matt Frattin be able to hold his own against a healthy Matthew Lombardi and a determined Philippe Dupuis? A better question may be does he even have to? How much built up depth do the Leafs need before Brian Burke starts shopping around? What's more, if Wilson opts to go without Frattin at all, will demoting him negatively effect his play? Or could more good come from playing big minutes with the Marlies?

    These are very big questions! Although I'm not insinuating that Frattin will be traded, it will be interesting to see which positions he is asked to play while coach Ron Wilson tries to set up the Leafs bottom six.

Who Is Destined to Be the Leafs Real First Line Centre?

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    If you answered Tim Connolly, you may be wrong.

    He was the headlining deal made in Toronto over the summer. The story is that Tim Connolly was signed to the Maple Leafs after it became apparent that there was nothing bigger available. The former Buffalo Sabre had a poor health record coming into Toronto, but Leafs management advertised him as the player who would feed Kessel to his much anticipated 40-goal season. For the most part the fans bought it, as long as he could stay healthy.

    Much to the amusement of Buffalo Sabres fans, Tim Connolly has missed both regular season games with an "upper body" injury. Although it is believed that Connolly will be in good enough health to return next Saturday against the Flames, the team has yet to confirm anything.

    I don't have anything against Tim Connolly; I know he's a talented centre who brings some nice experience to the team and could very well use said experience to improve Phil Kessel's offensive production. However, there are no guarantees that Connolly will remain consistently healthy, which leads me to ask my next question.

    Could Matthew Lombardi centre the Leafs' first line? At this point in time, it feels like a long shot; Lombardi was clearly playing less minutes tonight against the always tough Senators and will clearly need times to get his legs back.

    That being said, in his '09-'10 season with the Phoenix Coyotes, Lombardi scored 19 goals and picked up 34 assists in 78 games. These numbers aren't exactly those of a star first liner, but if Connolly were to go out late in the season and Lombardi had been slowly earning more ice time, could Lombardi's speed complement that of Phil Kessel on the first line?

    Although I won't speculate, all of the above scenarios are made assuming that Brian Burke hasn't made some sort of blockbuster deal for an all-star centre by then. You never know, right? It goes without saying that the Leafs would prefer a bigger name than Lombardi to replace Connolly in the event that the centre suffers a long term injury. With that in mind, though, if the Leaf's see the same play from Lombardi that Phoenix saw, he may work in a pinch up front.

    A healthy and productive Connolly makes for a very deep Toronto Maple Leafs offence this year, but there is skepticism surrounding his durability, and with the current Leafs lineup the way it is, his departure would leave a gaping hole in the the Leafs' top six this season, especially if they manage to get into the playoffs.

Will Dion Phaneuf Keep Up the Tempo?

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    When people discussed the quality players on the Leafs this fall, most of the attention fell on either Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski or Nikolai Kulimen, or on one of the many new faces in Matthew Lombardi, Cody Franson, John-Michael Liles and the rookie Jake Gardiner. Rarely is it that the captain of the team goes unmentioned.

    Dion Phaneuf collected 50, 60 and 47 points within each of his last three seasons with the Calgary Flames. Upon coming to Toronto, Dion was promptly named captian of the Leafs and became a target for criticism after failing to produce anything close in two full seasons with the club. Phaneuf remains the captian, however, for his presence inside of the dressing room, and he is seen as a very valuable guy to have around.

    Between his preseason and regular season appearances, it has become evident that Phaneuf has stepped up. The massive defenseman has been a destructive physical presence on the team so far—most recently, flattening Ottawa rookie Stepahne Da Costa crossing the Leafs blue line with a great open ice hit.

    Phaneuf has tallied three points in Toronto's first two games and is tied for the league lead in shots on goal by a defenseman with seven. There is no doubt that he's improved: He's been skating a lot faster, joining the rush and even creating a few offensive opportunities of his own. A player of that size capable of starting plays is a great asset.

    Of course, the key word is consistency. Yes, Dion Phaneuf is a leader in the dressing room, and yes, he's able to deliver top notch physical play, but will he be able to contribute offensively on a nightly basis?

    Dion started to show impressive signs of life at the end of last season and thus far has been a great contributor in the Leafs' first two games. Although I personally am a fan of our captain, if Dion stops moving his feet and fails to produce, the Leafs will be in for a very long season, again.

Where Does Cody Franson Fit on the Blue Line?

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    Cody Franson was arguably one of the larger names acquired by the Leafs during the offseason. Unfortunately, his hype has since been overshadowed by the likes of Matthew Lombardi and Jake Gardiner.

    Lombardi came over with Franson from Nashville in exchange for essentially nothing and was seen as a salary dump on Toronto. However, he has since excelled and found himself playing months earlier than projected. Not only that, Lombardi scored the first goal of the Leafs' regular season.

    Jake Gardiner hit camp as the obvious underdog to make a blue line already riddled with depth. While Franson, on the other hand, seemed to be a shoe in to start on opening night. However, much to his obvious displeasure, it was announced that Franson would be the odd man out against Montreal and sat again against Ottawa last night. 

    Franson—a third-round pick in 2005—put up 50 points in 141 games over his last two seasons with the Predators. The BC native also managed to collect six points in 12 playoff games with the Predators last season.

    Although there is nothing particularly impressive about these numbers, people forget that Franson is only 24 years old and has a lot of time to grow; he isn't some has-been defenseman putting up mediocre numbers in his early thirties, or even his late twenties for that matter.

    Although Nashville was never a cup contender last season, Franson—who again is only 24—has seen the playoffs in both of his two seasons in the NHL. This experience, however slight, could become invaluable to a young Leafs team late in the season.

    Another positive aspect of Franson's game is his size: Standing six-foot-five, Franson would be the Leafs' tallest defenseman; putting him two inches above powerhouse captain Dion Phaneuf and one inch above Mike Komisarek—the man deemed to be his greatest competition. Barring the fact he's not particularly heavy, there is no doubt that Franson would be an intimidating player to skate against.

    With all of these positive aspects to his game, why does Franson still find himself as the Leafs' seventh defenseman? Carl Gunnarsson has surprised many thus far by holding his own alongside captain Dion Phaneuf: In two games, Gunnarsson has an assist, two shots on goal and is currently a plus-2. He also made a key shot block late in the game to preserve the Leafs' fragile lead against a fired up Senators team.

    Komisarek, on the other hand, has played a slightly less consistent game on paper thus far. In his first two games, the assistant captain has mustered zero points, zero shots and is currently at minus-1. These stats should make him the obvious choice to be sent down, however, one cannot overlook the fact that Komisarek has been playing with rookie Jake Gardiner, who didn't look very comfortable against Montreal and only started to get his legs moving late against Ottawa.

    Komisarek has the potential to be a skilled hockey player, and he comes into this season 20 pounds lighter with something to prove. It's too early to tell whether this will be a turnaround year for Komisarek, but if he plays to his full potential, Franson may have a tough time trying to take his place.

    I personally feel it's a waste to have so much talent just waiting in the wings. This week-long break will see the Leafs addressing some key issues in their play before meeting with the Flames next Saturday. Perhaps Franson will find himself penciled in if coach Ron Wilson sees him to be a better fit than Gunnarsson or Komisarek. One thing is for sure, though: Until a trade lightens the load on the blue line, it will be a constant battle for that final spot.

There You Have It

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    There it is, I expect all of these questions to be addressed by the time the Leafs take the ice next Saturday. Until then, we'll stay tuned in to see if any major changes occur.