Toronto Maple Leafs: Season May Be Won or Lost Down the Middle
While the Leafs will be a tougher team to play against, if general manager Brian Burke hits the floor running with the likes of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski, and Christian Hanson down the middle they will lose more battles and more games than they win.
Want proof? Here is a sample of the top three centres from the top eight Eastern Conference teams as projected by The Hockey News:
Boston Bruins: Marc Savard, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron
Buffalo Sabres: Derek Roy, Tim Connolly, Paul Gaustad
Montreal Canadiens: Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec, Dustin Boyd
Ottawa Senators: Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Peter Regin
Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal
Philadelphia Flyers: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Claude Giroux
Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Nate Thompson
Washington Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, David Steckel
Outside of Washington—who don’t need great centres to be a great offensive team—the Leafs hardly stack up well against any of those teams.
The Western Conference will be no different for the Leafs, with many of the projected top teams (Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Phoenix Coyotes, Detroit Red Wings, and the Calgary Flames) all look to have deeper rosters at centre.
While Bozak did have a decent rookie season in 2009-10 (eight goals, 27 points in 37 games played) that still only projects to about 18-20 goals and 50-60 points—hardly what you’d expect from your number one centre.
Take a look at the top Eastern Conference teams centres—How do you think Bozak will fair with a steady diet of Crosby, Richards, Spezza, Roy, Savard, Stamkos, Backstrom and Gomez pounding on him night after night?
My guess, not good!
Grabovski (slated to be the Leafs second line centre) will probably struggle to keep pace with the Eastern Conferences second line centres, such as, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, Mike Fisher, Tomas Plekanec, Tim Connolly, David Krejci, Vincent Lecavalier, and Mathieu Perreault.
As for Kadri, well, he has to make the team first and, even if he does crack the lineup, nobody can say with any certainty that he will A) stay with the Leafs all season and/or B) be able to compete at the NHL level this season—we can speculate, but that’s all we can do.
The bottom line is this: when you look at the Leafs lineup down the middle, not many NHL teams are going to be intimidated by a lineup that features Bozak, Grabovski, and Kadri.
Most of the optimism directed towards the Leafs for the 2010-11 season goes to their defense (which, on paper, is one of the NHL’s deepest cast) the goaltending (which has a decent upside in Giguere and Gustavsson) and the ability of Phil Kessel to score and the rest of the wingers to grind opposing forwards down.
All of those qualities should serve the Leafs well this season, but I fear it is not enough for the Leafs to be a playoff team.
A healthy dose of criticism was directed towards the Leafs special teams last season, which were a source of futility and embarrassment for the club in 2009-10.
Many suspect the Leafs special teams will improve in 2010-11, but there is no guarantee. It should be noted that Maple Leafs’ head coach Ron Wilson has a poor record when it comes to special teams, so the improvement will likely have to come from the assistant coaches and the players themselves.
While there is a chance the Leafs combination of grit, goaltending and defense may be enough to catapult them into a playoff spot, most NHL prognosticators are looking for the Leafs to finish anywhere from seventh to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
To be honest, if the Leafs missed the playoffs I do not think anyone would be shocked, especially in light of their top-three centres, who, in my opinion, just doesn’t seem to look like a winning combination.
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Until next time,