We're heading down the stretch as it's time for another Preseason Preview. This is where we check out the teams going into the season.
Now, the Toronto Maple Leafs
Team M.O.: *Sigh* When I was a kid, I loved the Detroit jersey, but I was always jealous whenever Toronto came to town because their jersey was sweet. Same with the Minnesota North Stars.
Anyway, these guys were heading in the wrong direction until Brian Burke came along and started to manage the team the way he wanted to. He built the Canucks up to being a playoff team when he was their G.M. and delivered a Stanley Cup to the Anaheim Ducks his second year as an executive for the team. He didn't jettison everyone, but he's going to do his best to built a skilled offense, a strong defense, and have two solid netminders that can step in at moment's notice.
Last Season: Last in their division and 12th overall. Not exactly close to playoff contention. Looks like Toronto will draft high and make some aggressive moves during free agency...
Offense: The offense has the tools but they need one of their young centers and step up to take the first-line spot. Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky have been as productive as they can be on a non-playoff team, and that may fall on whether or not Matt Stajan has the ability to take his game up another notch or if Mikhail Grabovski can demonstrate the maturity on and off the ice to make him an effective top-line center. Lee Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin have done admirably in the top-six winger role, but are going to want to step it up this season, especially if they want more bargaining power for when their contracts are up at the end of the season.
As far as the bottom-six goes, I like it, but it could stand to be better fortified, if even only slightly. Niklas Hagman can serve as a top-six winger in a pinch while John Mitchell has provided a creative two-way presence that can even get a few extra points for the team. Wayne Primeau, and Jamal Mayers are household names as far as third liners go, but Primeau needs to stay healthy and Mayers needs to find a bit more to his game. Colton Orr was brought over to police the team and was undoubtedly the most valuable enforcer available through the free agency season, so kudos to Toronto for picking him up. Now, the team has Ben Ondrus and Rickard Wallin as two veteran options that could fill out the lineup, but then there would still be an extra spot for another forward, it may not be wise to have youngsters Jiri Tlusty or Tyler Bozak filling that vacant spot. They have some cap space and should go after a checking-line forward who could fit in with the team. I like Blair Betts myself.
Defense: Brian Burke was absolutely aggressive in rebuilding the blue line and now has a defense that's as good as any other team's in the league. Mike Komisarek was lured away from Montreal and and will provide the team with a monstrous defensive presence. Francois Beauchemin was brought over to provide the team with a strong two-way offensive presence on the back end while Garnet Exelby was brought over to give the team that depth defenseman with the quintessential mean streak that makes a squad valuable.
What's more is Tomas Kaberle will be returning (despite persistent trade rumors) as one the team's best puck moving defenders. Ian White has proven that he can be use effectively in a top-six defender role and has earned a spot on the squad with his excellent work ethic. This leaves Mike Van Ryn, Jeff Finger, and Jonas Frogren to figure out who will be the guys that round out the Maple Leafs. It could be two of them or just one of them if the player they're building around makes the team out of camp...
... All of this seems to be for the youngster Luke Schenn. Burke has come out and said that every player was available but him. He's going to be entering his second year now, but needs to take the steps forward for a player who's essentially having a team built around him. That's a lot to ask for, but if Brian Burke sees that in you as a hockey player, you have the ability to play at that level, whether you realize it or not. It may seem like much, but if he's capable of it, what it will mean for Toronto could mean their first Cup in a generation.
Goaltending: Vesa Toskala may not have had the best individual numbers, but he either won or got the team to overtime more than he lost in regulation, so he really works out for a Number 1A goaltender at worst. The competition's going to be on for the second spot though. On one hand, Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson is signing on the team after an absolutely dominant season in the Swedish Elitserien. At the same time, Joey MacDonald put up some respectable individual numbers on a poor New York Islanders team. Expect the competition to be fierce.
Expectations: Burke really fortified the blueline, has an interesting goaltending situation on his hands, yet has a somewhat below-average group of forwards. The guys slotted for the top-six need to take a big step in their development while Burke should still acquire another bottom-six centerman. If that happens, the Leafs could make the playoffs. Otherwise, there are stronger teams in their conference that they'd have to constantly overcome to make that happen.