NHL Season Preview ’11-’12: The Toronto Maple Leafs

This is the first in a series of articles that breaks down all 30 NHL teams.  I thought it best to start with Canadian teams, and no team provokes stronger reactions – on both sides of the ledger – than the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Despite the infamous and debilitating Kessel trade of 2009, the Leafs organization is stronger than it’s been at any other time since the lockout. They have a decent group of forwards with a bit more offensive punch than in recent years; they have a nice blend of size and skill on the back end; and they have two decent goalies. But the biggest difference is their prospect pool.

NHL ROSTER

C: Connolly, Grabovski, Bozak, Dupuis, Lombardi (IR)

LW: MacArthur, Kulemin, Kadri, Rosehill

RW: Kessel, Lupul, Armstrong, Brown, Orr

D: Phaneuf, Liles, Schenn, Gunarsson, Franson, Aulie, Komisarek

G: Reimer, Gustavsson

FORWARDS

The Leafs have a solid but unspectacular group of top-6 forwards. MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin was a very good second line last year and should be so again. Whoever plays with Kessel is naturally on the first line, but the would-be top unit of Lupul-Connolly-Kessel leaves something to be desired. Essentially, the Leafs have two good second lines, but nothing that will strike fear into opponents. On the third line, it looks like Nazem Kadri may get a shot on left wing beside Tyler Bozak and Colby Armstrong. If so, that would suggest more of a scoring line than a checking line, as neither Kadri nor Bozak are particularly experienced as NHL checkers. The fourth line would consist of Philippe Dupuis, Jay Rosehill, and Mike Brown – a classic energy line that will play hard and bang bodies. Colton Orr will draw into the line-up on nights where the Leafs want a greater physical presence. While Matthew Lombardi is a good player, it’s unknown whether he’ll be ready to play this season after missing all of last season with a concussion.

DEFENCE

The strength of the team is on defence. Dion Phaneuf remains a talented defenceman, with great size, strength, speed, and a big shot. If he learned to play within himself he’d be more effective, as he tends to get out of position by playing too aggressively. John Michael-Liles is a very good puck mover – an excellent replacement for long-time Leaf Tomas Kaberle. Luke Schenn is a very good young defenceman, but has fallen prey to great expectations in recent years. At just 22, he is years away from his prime, and is still learning how to play at the highest level.  Carl Gunarsson is a very useful defenceman – steady defensively with a bit of offensive ability. Cody Franson is a great pick-up from Nashville – a big right-handed defenceman with good offensive ability who should draw powerplay duties. Keith Aulie is a young shut-down defenceman – a good skater at 6`5 who breaks up plays with his long reach. Mike Komisarek is the only disappointing member of the group – slow and prone to bad penalties, with no offensive ability, and a terrible contract. Committed to $4.5M a year for 3 more years, the Leafs would trade him for a bag of pucks, and not a big bag at that.

GOALTENDING

James Reimer was a revelation last year, guiding the Leafs on an improbable late-season run as they finished with one of the NHL’s best records after the all-star break. However, expectations should be tempered for a 23 year old goalie who has played just half a season in the NHL. Starting the year as the undisputed #1 goalie in a tough hockey market like Toronto will be a much more *gruelling task than coming from the depths of obscurity to a team that’s already out of the playoff picture. Jonas Gustavsson is a big goalie with NHL talent, but just when he was starting to play well last season, he went down with a heart ailment. Hopefully Gustavsson’s heart problems are behind him, as the Leafs will need a capable backup should Reimer falter.

*The story of Steve Mason provides a cautionary tale in goalie development. In his  rookie season in 2009 he won the Calder Trophy and finished 2nd in Vezina voting. His last two seasons were nothing less than disappointing, as he was frequently outplayed by journeyman netminder Mathieu Garon.

PROSPECTS

F: Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne, Tyler Biggs, Greg McKegg, Brad Ross, Matt Frattin

D: Jake Gardiner, Jesse Blacker, Stuart Percy

Forwards

Nazem Kadri has been the talk for some time, but he’s now but one member of a fairly deep prospect pool. Kadri has good speed, slick hands, and great playmaking ability, and is probably the most gifted forward in the Leafs organization outside of Phil Kessel. He needs time to mature both on and off the ice. Joe Colborne is a big, lanky centre who has been unfairly compared to Joe Thornton ever since he was drafted in 2008. Acquired from Boston in the Tomas Kaberle deal, Colborne has great upside, but many scouts complain that he plays the game like he’s 5’6 rather than 6’5. Tyler Biggs is a power forward who plays with an edge. Scouts differ a lot in their opinion of Biggs – some question his offensive upside and his consistency, while others believe that he has the ability to take over a game. Greg McKegg looks like a massive draft steal. A 3rd round pick, he looked more like a 1st round pick last year, scoring 49 goals in the OHL. Brad Ross is a 2nd round pick who brings a combination of skill and nastiness with 167 points and 374 PIMs in his last two WHL seasons. Lastly, Matt Frattin is a late bloomer who followed three very average years at the University of North Dakota with a dominant senior year. Certainly not all these forwards will make an impact in the NHL, but there is a lot of talent there.

Defencemen

Jake Gardiner is the Leafs’ top defensive prospect. He came over along with Joffrey Lupul in the deal that sent Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim. Initially he was drafted primarily as an offensive threat, but after being outperformed offensively by several of his Wisconsin Badger teammates like Brendan Smith (Det) and Justin Schultz (Car), he started becoming more of a two-way presence. Jesse Blacker has improved steadily since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. Last season he was the top defenceman for the OHL champion Owen Sound Attack and gained valuable experience in their run to the Memorial Cup final. Stuart Percy was a 1st round pick in last year’s NHL Entry Draft. He is a good skater, with decent size and skill, but at just 18, it’s hard to say what type of defenceman he might become.

OUTLOOK

The Leafs’ NHL roster is best considered mediocre. They have several good players, but lack the star power required to consistently overpower opponents. With the improved rosters of Buffalo and New York, and existing strong teams in Washington, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay, they will be hard-pressed to get into the playoff picture. However, the future is brighter than it has been in years. Some of the prospects mentioned will make it to the NHL, and others will be used in trades to acquire proven NHL talent.

The Leafs are far from being in serious contention, but the rebuild is finally on.

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