What Can We Expect From The Toronto Maple Leafs In 2011-12?

July 24th, 2011 9 Comments

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke went into the summer of 2011 with two objectives: Strengthen his forward lines and acquire enough depth up front to give his team a fighting chance at a playoff spot.

Free agent signings Tim Connolly, Phillippe Dupuis and Matthew Lombardi are expected to bolster the Leafs attack down the middle, while defensemen Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles (both acquired via trade) are expected to create offense from the back end—an area the Maple Leafs were abysmal at last season.

Re-signing forward Clarke MacArthur will allow the Leafs to continue to employ one of the NHL’s most dangerous second lines which includes Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin—all of whom had career years in goals, assists and points in 2010-11.

Together, MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin combined for 70 goals (including 21 power play markers) and 97 assists for a total of 167 points—impressive numbers for a trio that many Leaf fans wanted shipped out of town before the beginning of last season (at least Grabovski and kulemin).

The top line should feature the aforementioned Connolly, sniper Phil Kessel and wild-card Joffrey Lupul.

Nobody knows for sure if the trio of Connolly, Kessel and Lupul will be able to develop any chemistry. That said, Lupul played well with Kessel at the end of last season, while Connolly’s play making abilities are thought to be can’t-miss attributes that should make this trio very dangerous.

Of course, health will be a huge factor in making the Leafs’ first unit a success. Both  Connolly and Lupul have endeared a number of injuries over the years, limiting their play and contributing to unfulfilled potential by many accounts.

A collection of young forwards which includes Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Matt Frattin and Marcel Mueller will compete for a spot or two on the Maple Leafs bottom six which will include the likes of Colby Armstrong, Tyler Bozak, Matthew Lombardi (health permitted), Colton Orr, Mike Brown, Joey Crabb and Phillippe Dupuis.

Overall, the Leafs will employ a combination of skill, size and toughness, which, when healthy, should be able to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference—Maybe!

Don’t get too excited though. As I already mentioned, health will play a huge role in the Maple Leafs success at forward. If Connolly goes down for an extended period of time the Leafs will be in big trouble. The loss of Lupul or Lombardi (who is yet to set a date for his return from an early season concussion in 2010-11) will sting, but not to the extent of losing their de facto number one centre.

It is clear that Burke feels that depth at the centre position will have to make up for a lack of a true number one down the middle. Connolly, Grabovski, Lombardi, Bozak and Dupuis represent the most depth the Leafs have employed at centre in a long time, albeit a questionable collection, at best.

The Blue and White will need huge seasons from MacArthur, Kulemin and Kessel, who will all have to find a way to light the lamp on the regular—especially on the power play where the Maple Leafs finished the season ranked 22nd overall in 2010-11.

Clearly, special teams have been an achilles heal for the Maple Leafs. While the forward crew is not solely to blame, special teams have been an area of concern for three straight seasons—the same amount of time both head coach Ron Wilson and GM Brian Burke have been employed by the Maple Leafs.

The penalty kill has been equally inept over that three year span. The buds finished the 2010-11 season with the 28th ranked penalty kill after finishing with the worst Pk in 2009-10 and 2008-09, respectively.

Connolly and Lupul are expected to bolster the Leafs power play as is Nazem Kadri, if he can crack the lineup.

Connolly is also an effective penalty killer. With Connolly expected to perform five-on-five, on the power play and in penalty kill situations, one could make the argument that a notoriously injury-plagued player may, in fact, be the Maple Leafs’ most important player this season—certainly the most important forward.

Tyler Bozak will be given a chance to redeem himself from what many feel was a disastrous 2010-11 season. Bozak’s first and second line duties look to be behind him now, that said, Bozak has the potential to be an effective third line centre, especially if he can continue to develop his checking game.

Colby Armstrong will continue to add an element of grit and offense to the third line. If the trio of Bozak, Armstrong and Kadri can find a way to develop some chemistry it will go a long way in getting the Leafs to the playoffs.

With restricted free agent defenseman Luke Schenn still unsigned there is still a bit of uncertainty on the Maple Leafs backend. Burke is expected to announce a new deal for Schenn in the coming weeks and, while there appears to be little doubt that Burke will sign Schenn to a new deal, trade whispers continue to pop up.

The additions of John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson should bring additional offense to a backend that fell well short of offensive expectations last season, both five-on-five and in power play situations.

Team captain Dion Phaneuf, hard-hitting Schenn, the newly acquired Liles and sophomore Keith Aulie should represent the Buds top-four defensemen, while Franson, Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson will fight it out for the bottom pairing.

The Maple Leafs defense scored a total of 27 goals, including three from the departed Tomas Kaberle and two from Francois Beauchemin who was also shipped out of town.

Of those 27 goals only four came on the power play—three of which came from Dion Phaneuf.

Both Franson and Liles are expected to bolster the Maple Leafs power play. If Liles and Franson fail to score on the PP it will likely mean the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs…again!

Of course, Schenn, Aulie, Gunnarsson and Komisarek will also be asked to score, but given their lack of results historically I wouldn’t expect too much improvement from this group, at least offensively.

Phaneuf will continue to be the main cog on defense, contributing heavy minutes in all situations. The departure of Tomas Kaberle meant much more power play time for Phaneuf—an area he was starting to excel in at the end of last season.

Mike Komisarek continues to be a bit of a quagmire. Injuries and a lack of fitness contributed to two straight seasons in which Komisarek fell well short of expectations. Should Komisarek come up short to start the 2010-11 season it is felt that he will be asked to move down to work on his game with the Maple Leafs AHL affiliate—the Toronto Marlies.

Between the pipes the Blue and White will employ 23-year old James Reimer as their number one goalie while the oft-injured Jonas Gustavsson will serve as Reimer’s backup.

Reimer finished the 2010-11 season with an impressive 20-10-5 record to go along with a 2.60 goals against average, .921 save percentage and three shutouts.

Both Reimer and Gustavsson will have a lot of pressure on them as they try to lead one of the NHL’s youngest teams to the playoffs for the first time in what seems like an eternity.

Gustavsson’s injury-riddled past could cast a black cloud on what could be a fairly successful season for the Buds. That said, Look for Gustavsson to be given every opportunity to succeed. However,  if “The Moster” continues to fail to develop his game (he had had difficulty adopting goaltending coach Francois Allaire’s butterfly style) he could become trade bait.

Make no mistake about it—should Reimer falter, the Leafs stand little chance of making the playoffs no matter how well the team plays in front of him.

Burke’s three year overhaul appears to be taking shape. What Burke lacks in talent he has tried to make up for in toughness and depth—whether that will be enough to finally push the Maple Leafs into the playoffs is questionable at best.

While one can easily see the Maple Leafs improving on 2010-11 it will be very tough for this collection of players to make the playoffs. Will they be in the running? Probably. But, when you consider the improvements many of the Eastern Conference teams have made this off-season, there are no guarantees.

Look for Burke to continue to try to make improvements. While Connolly and Lombardi offer a measure of depth down the middle for the Maple Leafs neither one is reliable, which may bite Burke in the butt over the course of the season.

In order to make a significant acquisition up front Burke may need to consider trading one of his big three of Schenn, Grabovski or Kulemin. Burke has often deflected from any trade talks involving these players, but in the right deal, anything can happen.

With the Maple Leafs offense expected to continue to struggle, head coach Ron Wilson would be smart to employ a defense-first style. If you cannot outscore the opposition you’d better be able to keep the puck out of the net, right?

Training camp will go a long way in determining this teams true potential. Burke has his fingers crossed that one of Kadri or Colborne can step up to the plate and become a legitimate offensive threat. Look for Kadri to play the wing this season as it is believed that his defense is just not up to par for a centre.

There is plenty to be excited about, but don’t hold your breath on this team making the playoffs just yet.

Until next time,

Peace!

9 Comments

  1. get rid of wilson and toronto will be a much better team bar none .

  2. lhenriksen says:

    Toronto could win more games with a defense-first or ‘trap’ style of play but their management has long vowed not to institute such a boring system. I like their current, fast-paced game but it’s a more difficult system for young players to execute so they can expect more growing pains while the prospects continue to develop.

    Gerry is right: Wilson has to go.

  3. Stu says:

    Get rid of Burke and you will be better off. The guy has never done shit. He walked into a great team with the Ducks he won, then they barley made playoffs next year. Burke is a joke. He really thought Kadri would be a 100 point getter ? Ahaha. What a dumbass 7th overall pick. He will be a bust, oh well just another one in a long line of fuck ups from Burke.

  4. MarkRitter says:

    I too like a more offensive minded game, but when you consider the players Toronto employs defense first is the way to go. It doesn’t matter what Burke has said in the past, what matters is making the playoffs and if Burke wants to do that his team will have to be a lot more defensive minded going forward. It was interesting to hear Burke talk about Kadri getting a shot on the wing. In his comments Burke suggested that kadri did not posess the qualities he needs (two-way play) from his centres. I think that comment helps suggest that Burke is well aware of his teams defensive struggles and may be willing to allow Wilson to implement change. Time will tell…Thanks for the comment!

  5. MarkRitter says:

    If the team comes out flat to start the season you’ll get your wish.

  6. MarkRitter says:

    Yep, Burke has done nothing…Vancouver sucks, Anaheim never won a Cup and team USA was crap at the Olympics…what’s that you say? Vancouver made it to the finals, Anaheim did win a Cup and Team USA came one goal away from pulling off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history and Burke’s name is all over all three squads…maybe Burkie is alright afterall?

  7. Jeff W says:

    Nice piece, Mark.

    Good to see some sobriety when discussing the Leafs and their playoff chances.

    The Leafs BR page has taken a nose dive since you left. Almost unreadable outside one or two writers.

  8. MarkRitter says:

    Thanks Jeff! Can’t say I miss BR. Haven’t been back seen I left. God bless ’em, just not for me anymore—far too fixated on “lists”, which is not my forte. If only they’d listen, there is a real opportunity to develop some writers there, but they are blinded by reads, which sometimes gets in the way of good articles.

    Be well, and thanks for stopping by.

    Peace!

  9. Ankuran says:

    Classic! If you wanted him to do it, you know he never would’ve. This is one of the most hirioalus pics I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Hockey Fan doesn’t steal it, and Jacob becomes a celebrity.

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