The day has finally arrived: the 2010-2011 season starts at 7pm and ends in June sometime. Whether we will be cheering on the Leafs (why not? wait, please don't answer that) or hoping for some hated rival to fall flat on their face is up in the air. The beauty of a new season, like a sheet of fresh ice, is that there are no markings yet. Sure, you can look at stats, consider players' mentalities or their history, or read season previews dumping on the Leafs but nothing's set in stone.
I've seen a few comparisons to the 1992-93 Leafs lately. I don't know that the parallels are as close as we would be led to believe (maybe 1967ers can educate us) but imagine? God, that kind of run (with Kerry Fraser and Wayne Gretzky retired who would stop the Leafs?) would similarly thrust a stake through the heart of the JFJ Era as the previous run washed away memories of Pal Hal and his evil. I mean, this team is coming off of a strong finish (relative to the rest of the season), added a potent offensive weapon, has a nasty defence (on paper), and a taskmaster coach but beyond that there's not much comparison.
But what do the Leafs have? Well, hopefully this preview will highlight the major changes in the club, what they need to improve, and what they might do well. We'd have published this earlier but we didn't want Burke's puppy christening it so now there's no chance it'll find its way to the top of a Tim Hortons garbage can.
The last season started with a lot of hope after a summer of change (sound familiar?) but there was, in the back our minds, one gaping hole that would eventually torpedo any hope of improving let alone avoiding sending the Boston Bruins a top pick. In the end, it took almost a miracle to get rid of Vesa Toskala. The Leafs started 0-7-1 and the season was over before the month of October let out. Phil Kessel, Brian Bruke's prize acquisition, did not even have a chance to get into the line-up before his role changed from helping the team get into the playoffs to trying to help defray the cost of acquiring him.
Key UFA signing Mike Komisarek started out the season shakily (as did everyone thanks to Parkinson Toskala) and eventually had his rehabbed shoulder give out in January. Francois Beauchemin, another player brought in to shore up the Leafs' defence, tried to seemingly earn his pay cheque every shift and had his play suffer. The powerplay, run by vaunted quarterback Tomas Kaberle, fell from middle of the pack and landed at the bottom of the pile. The fall sunk the Leafs' scoring as it fell from its annual top 11 ranking down to 26th overal
Basically, the Leafs' season was reduced to a painful illustration of Murphy's Law. Brian Burke lamented that nothing he was able to do was able to shame the players to improve. So on January 31st, Leaf fans woke up to news that one of the biggest trades in club history had been completed with the same club that had provided a slumping Leafs team a boost almost two decades previous. Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie arrived in Toronto as Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Ian White, and Niklas Hagman went to the oil patch. If that wasn't enough then Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala, previously thought of as unmoveable, were sent to Anaheim in exchange for Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
The end result was a 93 point pace for the rest of the season but more than that it provided hope that the pieces were put in place to change the team's fortunes. Dion Phaneuf would eventually be named captain of the club and Giguere is now entrusted with providing the Maple Leafs with .900+ save percentage for the first time since the lockout while helping Jonas Gustavsson develop into the team's long-term answer in goal. The short-term impact of the trades were felt but the question remains about whether the long-term effect of the deal will at least begin the team's march back up the standings.
Vesa Toskala has been fired into the sun. This isn't a claim that Giguere or Gustavsson are going to light the world on fire just that I don't expect we'll get 0.880 SV% goaltending.
- Defensive depth. The Leafs are spending $5M on the two guys that will be sitting in the press box. With Beauchemin, Phaneuf, Schenn, Kaberle and Komisarek the Leafs have a very solid d-corps on paper.
- Emerging offensive talent. Phil Kessel is already a 30 goal scorer but he's very young. Is this the year he really breaks out? Is Tyler Bozak going to ride shotgun on a Kessel offensive explosion? The outlook on this team will change dramatically if these two and Nikolai Kulemin have breakout seasons.
- The powerplay had an atrocious 14% success rate which was good enough for 30th in the NHL [Editor's Note: The Leafs play in a 30 team league]. Previous years, it had only been middling but adding those goals to the Leafs' top 10 even strength scoring (more to come in another post) was good enough to keep the Leafs in the top third of the league in goals for.
- The penalty killers, unwilling to cede the limelight to the powerplay, also showed their physical strength by propping up the NHL with a stunning 74.6% success rate. As an aside, how bad was Vesa Toskala? Well, his .874 save percentage was just a hair better than the average goalie's save percentage while shorthanded. That means that the Leafs were almost better off playing all game short-handed with a replacement goalie than playing at even strength with Vesa Toskala. Think about that for a second and try not to kill yourself.
- Scoring depth. If Phil Kessel gets hurt this is a lottery team plain and simple. His absence makes a first line of Kulemin - Bozak - Versteeg and likely depresses all three of their expected point totals. That makes the second line MacArthur - Grabovski - Armstrong. Yuck.
Maple Leafs Off-Season Trades, Acquisitions, and Losses
June 26th - Trade
To Toronto: 2nd round pick (2010)
To Chicago: Jimmy Hayes
June 26th - Trade
To Toronto: Mike Brown
To Anaheim: 5th round pick (2010)
July 1st - Players lost to Free Agency
Toronto signs UFA Colby Armstrong – 3 years, $3M per
Toronto re-signs RFA Nikolai Kulemin – 2 years, $2.35M per
Toronto resigns RFA/UFA John Mitchell – 1 year, $725k
Toronto signs UFA Brett Lebda – 2 years, $1.45M per
Toronto signs UFA Marcel Mueller – 2 years, $900k NHL / $67,500 AHL
To Toronto: Matt Lashoff
To Tampa Bay: Alex Barry and Stefano Giliati
Toronto signs UFA Clarke MacArthur – 1 year, $1.1M
Toronto resigns RFA/UFA Christian Hanson -1 year, $650k NHL / $105k AHL
(Players with an * starting season with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.)
Note: This reflects the perceived depth chart at each player's natural position and not any supposed line combination. Only players with a perceived chance of actually playing for the Maple Leafs at some point this season are listed.
Birky took the lead in putting together a couple of good prediction posts. The first looked at the staff's thoughts on the major storylines of the upcoming season including the team's biggest surprise, biggest disappointment, and thoughts on the team's bounce back player of the year. Using Chemmy's Pythagorean Chart, we tried to predict how many goals would be scored, how many would be allowed, and how many points those totals would translate to: Prediction - 89 points.