Thursday, October 7th will be a new day for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It marks the opening of their 2010-11 campaign, one that will surely be more fulfilling than the last (right? RIGHT?!?). The Leafs begin the new season against the hated Les Canadiens de Montréal; a tilt that will hopefully send the team on the right track towards an elusive playoff berth. New faces will be added to older ones, creating a mix of skill, physicality, and commitment to defense that could carry this team far. But where exactly will this team go? Who will step up? Who will falter? Throwing caution to the wind, the staff here at PPP sat down to hammer out each of our thoughts and bring them to you, our readers, free of charge.
Continue after the jump...
The Leafs will ice an incredibly young team this season. The average age of the opening night roster last season was 27.4 years old. The average age of the team taking the ice Thursday will be 26. That figure means the Leafs have one of the youngest teams in the NHL. And as with any young team, there are plenty of questions moving forward. No one can honestly say that they know exactly what the organization has right now in certain players. Undoubtedly, this article would be easier to write if the Leafs were a veteran laden team like Detroit. Ignoring the increased propensity for injuries as players age, one knows what to expect from veterans with extensive NHL experience. That's simply not the case when you have such a young team as Ron Wilson does. I know we all hope that players such as Tyler Bozak, Nikolai Kulemin, and Luke Schenn take significant steps this year. But projections and wishful thinking don't always equal results.
That said, there is reason to hope. Since the end of the lockout, six different teams have made the playoffs following a season where they finished in the bottom five of the league. Pittsburgh in 2006-07, Philadelphia and Washington in 2007-08, St. Louis in 2008-09, and L.A. and Colorado last year. So there is certainly precedent for the Leafs having a shot at the post-season. To do so, they will have to improve on a league worst special teams unit. The Leafs have had a post-lockout low penalty kill percentage of 74.7 for two straight seasons. In fact, no other team has had a cumulative PK% lower than 76 since the lockout. We should find out quickly how much of the team's struggles in that department were due to Vesa Toskala (I'm guessing A LOT [Editor's Note: You would be guessing correctly]). Turning around the penalty kill should be the coaching staff's top priority heading into the season. The Leafs haven't escaped the bottom third of the league in that statistic since pre-2005. Is it coincidence they haven't made the playoffs in that time period?
Goaltending is another issue for this squad. Vesa Toskala posted save percentages under .895 in consecutive seasons before a trade sent him to Anaheim in January. Jean Sebastian Giguere replaces Toskala as the Leafs #1 goaltender, bringing a much higher pedigree to the position. Giguere's numbers have dipped over the past two campaigns, but he did post a .916 SV% in fifteen games with Toronto. Are his numbers in Anaheim over the past 24 months due to the death of his father and the loss of mentor and goaltending coach Francois Allaire? Or is he simply nearing the end of his time as a starting goaltender in the NHL? Again, more questions. Giguere enters the last year of a monster contract and his play this season could go a long way to determine his future in the league. His backup will be Jonas Gustavsson, a true athletic talent at the position, but one who still needs significant work to round out his game. Barring injury, expect Gustavsson to remain the backup to Giguere for the duration of the season.
What else can we expect from the Leafs this season? Some members of the PPP staff were kind enough to give their thoughts on a few tough questions.
Question 1: What do you think is the biggest storyline heading into the 2010-2011 NHL season?
PPP: The overall storyline should be whether Brian Burke's entirely revamped organization will gain any traction. The Marlies are packed with his prospects and the Maple Leafs are most definitely 'his' team. The performance of both will call into question whether he will see out his 5 year contract.
Skinnyfish: Will Wilson keep his job if this team is out of playoff contention come December?
mf37: On a macro level: are Brian Burke's moves starting to pay off? Burke has all but completely turned over the player personnel on this club since November 2008. Sure, he started out with a craptacular line-up, but this season Burke's club needs to start producing results or at least show that the team is moving in the right direction. On a micro level: The storyline will be special teams. The only way this team is going to improve its goal differential enough to have a shot at the playoffs is to seriously reduce their goals against on the PK and start cashing in chances on the PP.
Karina: The play of our young talent. Can Nik Kulemin continue his torrid pace from last spring? How will Tyler Bozak fare over a full season? The Leafs will be looking for development in goal scoring from all of their young players, included those already mentioned, as well as Clarke MacArthur and Nazem Kadri. I think the Leafs will score a lot more than most prognosticators are expecting.
Chemmy: The defense. Despite the huge cap space taken up and the pedigree of players like Phaneuf, Komisarek, and Kaberle, the three of them don't produce at a level even half their cap hit.
Birky: What isn't a question mark entering the season? I'd have to go with special teams and goal scoring. The Leafs have to improve on both the penalty kill and the powerplay to have any hope of a playoff berth. Does the team have enough talent up front to outscore the opposition? I'm doubtful.
Question 2: Who do you think will be the biggest surprise for the Leafs this year?
mf37: The answer depends on your baseline expectations. Nik Kulemin will continue to develop into a great two-way hockey player and should crest the 20 goal mark. Conversely, I didn't think Christian Hanson had it in him to make this club. He's been the biggest surprise in camp. He has been much more physical, assertive, and one of the few Leafs consistantly willing to drive to the opponent's net. That said, how big of a surprise is qualifying to be the 4th line center on a team that many would argue doesn't have a single NHL caliber pivot?
Chemmy: Kris Versteeg. He's going to erupt this year.
PPP: The entire defense. Even by getting the team to middle of the pack in terms of 5-on-5 goals against and 5-on-4 goals against would save the team around 24 goals based on last year's numbers. That's not even accounting for a truly improved penalty kill and competent goaltending.
Karina: J.S. Giguere. He won't return to Conn Smythe form, but he'll get back to his career average (Editor's note: Since 2001, Giguere's overall save% is .919). He'll give the Leafs confidence that the big save will be there when they need it.
Skinnyfish: Kris Versteeg coming into his own as an offensive player and approaching 30 goals as well as Tyler Bozak cementing himself as a legitimate first line center.
Birky: Francois Beauchemin. He was really good in the second half last season, even though nobody seems to give him any credit. His play will really shine this year while playing in front of Giguere.
Question 3: What Leafs player will be the biggest disappointment?
Karina: Dion Phaneuf and/or Jonas Gustavsson. I admit that I have an irrational crush on Phaneuf, but people shouldn't expect him to perform better than he did in Calgary. I also expect trouble between Ron Wilson and Phaneuf to surface come mid-season. Gustavsson may have a rough year. With Toskala gone, his play will be under far more scrutiny.
Skinnyfish: Clarke MacArthur. I just don't see him turning into a 20 goal scorer like Wilson does. Expect him to be replaced in the line-up by Nazem Kadri come New Years.
mf37: A soiled bed sheet tied from post to post would be an upgrade on Vesa Toskala, yet the Leafs goaltending remains an enormous question mark. Jonas Gustavsson has looked pretty rough in pre-season, but in his rookie year he put up middling numbers. He was 60th in save percentage with a .902. Anyone expecting him to crack the top 30 goalies or challenge as an NHL starter will likely be disappointed. Those who see him as a bargain euro still trying to learn the game likely won’t be disappointed. Same goes for Giguere. He’s been on a steady decline for years. Anyone expecting the Conn Smythe winning goalie should have their foam TV bricks and a lots of alcoholic beverages handy. Speaking of unrealistic expectations, I think Grabbo will have a season that’s perfectly aligned with 2nd line centres the league over, but he will take heat for not putting up bigger numbers.
Birky: Carl Gunnarsson and Jonas Gustavsson. Gunnarsson has had a terrible preseason, and I'm not even sure he'll be on the ice on Thursday. Outside of John Mitchell, he's the only guy who may have played himself out of the lineup. Gustavsson can still be a #1 goaltender, but his game remains raw. I'm not sure he made any improvement over the summer. He needs to keep a clipboard with him on the bench, which is where he should be for a lot of games this season. He wasn't ready for the workload he received last year.
Chemmy: Colby Armstrong. The Leafs are paying $3 million a year for a third line winger who occasionally hits.
PPP: Colton Orr. He'll only kill Matt Carkner two times this year.
Question 4: Which Leaf will have a bounce-back season?
Chemmy: Mikhail Grabovski. His production was fine last season, but the MSM will make a big deal about his improvement.
mf37: Dion Phaneuf will likely score 12 to 15 goals and put up close to 30 assists. I’m not sure that’s enough to warrant his salary, but it’s certainly an improvement on the 2 goals he scored during his first half-season with the Leafs.
PPP: This is going to be a three way tie between Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The first two will validate Brian Burke's belief that they could anchor a mean-spirited defence and the latter will prove that he has moved past his personal issues and has returned to the form that saw him backstop the Ducks to a Stanley Cup. Okay, not that good but much better than anything the Leafs have gotten from their goaltenders since the lockout.
Skinnyfish: A bounce back year for Giguere as he works behind a much better defense and forward corps. His numbers will return to something around the league average for a number one goaltender.
Karina: Again, it will be Giguere. Not only will he bounce back, but he will be the key to getting the defense to perform to it's ability. He has a history with Beauchemin, which will help. But it's his communication skills that will really make the difference. Giguere is vocal with the guys in front of him, which should really make a difference because they didn't communicate much at all last season.
Birky: Luke Schenn and J.S. Giguere. Schenn played fairly well in the preseason, and you can see that things may be starting to click. He looks improved when handling the puck. I'm inclined to think that Giguere's performance in Anaheim over the past two seasons had more to do with the death of his father and the defection of Francois Allaire than his game simply breaking down. I expect near league average numbers.
Check back later for Part II: Predictions for individual players and final points!