Season Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs
The most talked about team in hockey, and one of the most difficult to assess this coming season.
A strong start to last year counted for little as the club collapsed down the stretch – but there was no dramatic overhaul of the roster this summer, nor any high profile firings.
Instead the franchise brought some fresh blood in to its front office, and looks to balance its roster in a bid to become a post season fixture again.
The relationship between Toronto and Phil Kessel remains one of the most intriguing in hockey. Or to be specific, the Toronto media’s relationship with the winger.
Kessel scored 37 goals in each of the past two full campaigns, averaging a point per game over the past three years. And yet he still comes under fire!?!?
The Wisconsin native may not be the best public speaker (which is a large part of the problem), but he has become one of the best goal scorers in the league and has to be considered to be among the sports elite talents.
The criticism levelled at the Team USA forward is as confusing as it is unfounded at times – this is a potential Hart Trophy candidate that the local media scrutinises more than any other player – which is frankly bizarre given the lack of #1 centre to play with.
Which brings us to Tyler Bozak, whose $4.2m cap hit and role as the teams first line centre put him directly in the firing line. The simple reality seems to be that the lack of alternatives, and a good personal relationship with Kessel, have thrust the 28-year old in to a role he isn’t really suited for.
James van Riemsdyk seems set to partner Bozak and Kessel at the top of the Leafs depth chart. With the former Philadelphia winger hitting the 30 goal mark last season, it would appear to give Toronto a potent spearhead.
Nazem Kadri and Joffrey Lupul, who seems to have finally found his home in the city, provide strong secondary scoring – though who their line mate might be remains open to debate.
David Clarkson had a disastrous first season with the club, after arriving to much fan fare last summer. Signed through to 2020, the former New Jersey winger damaged a cheek bone in a pre-season fight with Buffalo’s Cody McCormick – with the ‘home town boy’ fortunate not to be sidelined for longer.
Mike Santorelli looks set to centre the teams third line, after joining as a free agent, whilst popular Finn Leo Komarov returns after a season in the KHL.
With Daniel Winnik and David Booth also signing (albeit the latter is hurt already), and existing talents such as Peter Holland, the Leafs depth chart is far more impressive heading in to the new campaign.
The decision to waive Colton Orr and Fraser McLaren has been seen as a positive, as the organisation looks to be moving away from its more ‘truculent’ past, while top prospect William Nylander heads back to MODO for this season at least.
At The Back
The Maple Leafs defence was, rightly, under fire for much of last season.
The club wasn’t strong enough in its own end for large chunks of last season, but has reasons to be positive heading in to the new year.
Captain Dion Phaneuf takes a lot of heat for the clubs defensive frailties, but the ongoing search for a regular partner for the former Calgary man doesn’t help the situation.
In Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly, Toronto has two of the most exciting young D men in the league though – and the addition of Stephan Robidas should provide some strong veteran guidance for the pair.
Cody Franson may miss the start of the new season, but has also become a more important member of the teams defence – even if it took a little time – but question marks remain of whether Roman Polak is an improvement on Carl Gunnarsson.
Petter Granberg got his first taste of NHL action last year, with the 22-year old edging ever closer to the big club. A long term injury, or severe loss of form, could open the door for the young Swede – though he is better served getting regular ice time with the AHL Marlies for the time being.
Between The Pipes
Jonathan Bernier was Toronto’s MVP last year. Without him, the franchise would have been sunk long before their end of season slump.
At 26, Bernier is just entering his prime and can provide Toronto with top level goaltending to move forward with.
Despite a roller coaster relationship with the club over the past 18 months, James Reimer signed a 2-year extension during the offseason to give the Leafs arguably the best tandem in the league.
Behind The Bench
Is any coach more under pressure than Randy Carlyle this season?
Oft seen as stubborn, the preseason suggested he was more willing to try new things this year – but the fact remains that Carlyle is seen as some sort of dinosaur on a club who are trying to move in a new direction.
Biggest Addition – Kyle Dubas
Dubas may not be a 50 goal scorer or an elite shut down D man, but he represents an effort by the club (or perhaps more specifically President Brendan Shanahan) to change their thinking in a bid to be a contender again.
Biggest Loss – Mason Raymond
Raymond finished fifth in team scoring with 19 goals and 45 points last season, all for the bargain price of $1m.
Signing with Calgary during the offseason, it’s hard not to feel the 29-year old could not have helped Toronto again this season – though fitting him in under the cap may have been a problem.
Key Man – Jonathan Bernier
On a team that gives up far too many scoring chances, Bernier’s continued success is vital.
If the former Kings goaltender maintains the high standards he set last season, and the defensive game improves as a whole, the Leafs might have a shot of making the play-offs.
This Seasons Chances…
Were it not for their spectacular collapse, Toronto might have even snuck in to the post season last year.
With a more balanced group of forwards and an improved defence (albeit perhaps only slightly), the club has taken a step forward and is at the very least a bubble team.
Ultimately the Leafs will live and die by their defensive game. They’ll score plenty of goals, and maybe they should embrace that offensive power a little more, but if they are so shambolic along their blue line again no significant progress will be made.
If they do get it together however, there is every chance they could clinch a play-off spot this year.