We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Team M.O.: The only club in a market that's entirely hockey mad, the Leafs enjoyed a decent level of financial success without having to deliver. However, the fact they haven't made the playoffs since the lockout ended is starting to be met with fan apathy, as the once-full arena is now sold out in paid attendance only. Enter Brian Burke, who's come in to be the architect of a tough brand of hockey that no doubt appeals to the fans in the Toronto area.
Last Season: Last in the Eastern Conference and out of the playoffs. This was the third consecutive year that the team finished last in the division. While that second round draft pick would have been nice, they certainly got a piece of the puzzle that can definitely help them now instead of later.
Offense: Phil Kessel put up five less points than he did playing for a far-superior Boston Bruins squad the season before; he's a pure-goal scorer who's now a veteran player before his 23rd birth day. Tyler Bozak managed to put up 27 points in his 37 game audition last season; the type of camp he's been having so far indicates he will be on Toronto's roster opening night. The newly acquired Kris Versteeg could be one of the most solid moves the team made in the off-season; his production should improve now that he isn't buried on an immense team like the Chicago Blackhawks' squad he played for last season. Mikhail Grabovski gives the team a solid scoring option; he'll be looking to rebound after spending some time in the infirmary last season. Nikolai Kulemin is the two-way guy in a group full of offensive-minded players, but he finished last season playing on Toronto's top-line (even if by default) and will get top-six minutes this season. Clarke MacArthur was signed as an unqualified free agent and has done well thus far to ensure he'll be playing a scoring role for the team. With all these options for offense, there's hardly room for Luca Caputi, and he's been trying a lot harder than some of the other youngsters in the Maple Leafs system. The team won't have him sit in the press box though so if he doesn't get regular ice-time, he'll likely go back to the minors.
Their scoring forwards look good, but MacArthur's the eldest at 25. Will they succeed without solid veteran presence?
Going further down the line shows the bottom-six that focuses on defense and toughness the way most Burkian teams do. People may criticize Colby Armstrong's current salary but he may be one of the best "Number 7" style forwards around. He stands to benefit in Toronto's current system; while defensively solid he has some intriguing offensive potential which could come to life with the Leafs. Mike Brown was brought over in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks and gives the team a solid checking winger who can dish out the punishment. He's kinda small though, so if one of the heavies come knocking, Colton Orr will be around to chill them out. Fredrik Sjostrom didn't quite live up to being a first-round pick, but he's become a solid penalty killer as he's grown in the NHL. John Mitchell missed some time with injury last season yet is poised to be one of the bottom-six pivots for the club.
The Leafs have a slew of players fighting for the last remaining spots in camp though in my mind, two are better options than the others. Mike Zigomanis has returned from Europe and while he's a talented player at a minor level, he's an adept faceoff specialist at the NHL level which is something the Leafs could use. While the team has an abundance of toughness, Jay Rosenhill would act as a further deterrent against the opposition to try anything stupid. Out of the other three candidates for the job, Christian Hanson had a respectable debut in call-up action, but doesn't necessarily stand out in any particular direction and may be better served to go to the minors. Tim Brent has been a lights-out performer at the minor league level, can he make that translate into a major league role? Nazem Kadri may be one of the team's highly-touted prospects, but is he ready for the NHL? Too many questions for a team that needs answers now.
All and all, the group of forwards looks remarkably young (I don't think there's one over 29) so the elder players will have to help the younger ones get along while still figuring things out themselves. Could be difficult, could be beneficial.
Defense: The Leafs have become Dion Phaneuf's team and while his production slipped somewhat when he came over, the team won more often than not with him in the lineup, giving little doubt as to why he was awarded the "C" over the off-season. Tomas Kaberle certainly isn't a lousy option for the next defender, his 49 points last season was actually amongst the best for the team. Francois Beauchemin is a solid second-pairing defender for the Leafs but you'd love to see him do better defensively (he hasn't been a plus player since winning the Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.) Mike Komisarek is coming off both injury and a less than spectacular season; given the depth on the team it's probably better that he's suited to be the Number 4 defender on the club. Carl Gunnarsson started off last season in the minors, but he did very well in call-up duty to warrant inclusion in this year's defensive corp. Luke Schenn's production didn't improve as much as his defensive play did; he'd be on any other team's second-unit if their depth weren't as overwhelming as Toronto's. Brett Lebda's out with a shoulder injury, so that could pave the way for the team to consider Matt Lashoff or Danny Richmond for fill-in duty until Lebda returns. Jeff Finger remains on the team's roster and injured as well, but you can safely assume he'll be reporting to the AHL as soon as he's cleared to play; he wouldn't be a problem if it weren't for the absurd $3.5M salary he received from when John Ferguson Jr. was still running the team.
You can't get any deeper than that along the blueline folks.
Goaltending: It's safe to say that goaltending didn't go as well as Toronto had hoped and the players pegged for the goaltender position are just as anxious to do better too. Jean-Sebastien Giguere battled some injuries and off-ice issues that left him expendable by the Anaheim Ducks but his numbers improved after being moved to the Leafs. He'll look to act as the starter and mentor who will groom Jonas Gustavsson into a bona-fide starter. Gustavsson was thought to go through that last season, but when Vesa Toskala became ineffective for the club, he ended up playing in more contests than either he or the team expected. Though both players are somewhat inconsistent, if they can put it together than they'll be one of the scariest goaltending tandems in the league. James Reimer and Jussi Rynnas look to be holding down the fort in the minors yet both will come guns blazing should something happen to the other goaltenders.
Management: Burke's done well to transform the team into his image and while coach Ron Wilson takes some of the flack for what happened this season, he still managed to coach some pretty successful teams in the past; he'll need to do it again if he wants to have a job come April.
Prediction: Fourth in the Northeast Division... and on the playoff bubble?
Make no mistake, this is a very talented group of players. However, while the defense is remarkably supreme, the forwards are still raw and the goaltending is still somewhat inconsistent. Basically, they need to get their $#!+ completely together to pull ahead of the competition. Will they do that this season?