This week we head east from Winnipeg and land in the town that hockey seems to have forgotten, Toronto. 1967 was a long time ago, as was 2004, which is the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup and made the playoffs, respectively. Brian Burke has been patiently impatient in building the Leafs roster to fit his image of what a team should be.
Projected 2011-12 Lineup
|P Kessel||T Connolly||J Lupul|
|N Kulemin||M Grabovski||C MacArthur|
|N Kadri||T Bozak||C Armstrong|
|M Brown||D Boyce||C Orr|
|Spares||M Lombardi (injury)|
Phill Kessel will start the season with the best centre he has had in his Leafs tenure, the newly signed Tim Connolly. Connolly is an upgrade, although some have argued that he isn’t a true #1 centre, and his injury history makes the signing a risk. I am of the opinion that the fomer Sabre will have a renaissance alongside Kessel and Lupul and the trio will combine for 90-100 goals. Matthew Lombardi is a wild card, as the forced salary-cap hit from Nashville appears ready to participate in camp coming off concussion problems. If he is ready to go, Lombardi becomes a great 3rd line centre and increases the depth of an already decent forward group. The top two lines are pretty much set, but there will be a stiff competition for the third line and the potential to be a fill in among the top 6 when injuries happen.
|D Phaneuf||K Aulie|
|J-M Liles||C Franson|
Burke has assembled what could be the best blueline in the NHL. Captain Dion Phaneuf blossomed after Tomas Kaberle was dealt to Boston, and Keith Aulie settled in alongside him. The second group of Schenn (one his contract gets done) and Gunnarson is capable at both ends of the ice, and Liles and Franson might be the best 3rd pair in the league. This forces Mike Komisarek to be an expensive 7th option or forces him to another team, if Burke can find a taker for him and his massive $4.5 M cap hit for the next 3 years.
This is the question mark for the team. Riemer stepped in and carried the load over the latter part of the season, but his play didn’t get them to the playoffs. Gustavsson has had his career development slowed by serious health problems and it remains to be seen how he can adapt to the NHL game over the long haul.
Rookie To Watch For
Matt Frattin was the WCHA player of the year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the top player in the NCAA last year. He is a solid 6′, 200 lbs and is a sniper who led the NCAA with 36 goals for the University of North Dakota last year. He will compete for a spot on the team in camp, and could compete with Nazem Kadri for a spot on the roster in a third line role.
Three Burning Questions
1. Is Reimer the real deal?
It is tough to anoint a player with 37 games experience as the saviour, but Reimer became a cult hero to Leafs fans over the second half of the 2010-11 season. The 2006 4th round pick of the Leafs paid his dues in the minors, before finally getting a chance last season. He was rewarded with a 3 year, $5.4 M contract in the off season and will assume the #1 role. He is the latest in a long line of heralded prospects who have come into the organization, the previous who have crashed and burned. The last Toronto draft pick to make an impact in the Leafs net was Felix Potvin, who left the Leafs in 1999.
2. How long will Ron Wilson have to make his mark?
Brian Burke has assembled what, in his mind, is a playoff roster. The rest is up to Wilson to get the team there. Early season struggles will see Burke ship his friend out of town. Nothing short of a playoff appearance will suffice, and if they do not get there, Wilson will certainly take the fall. The leash will not be very long.
3. Can Connolly stay healthy?
The talented centre has played 73 and 68 games over the past two seasons, so injuries haven’t been a huge factor. Tim Connolly must play at least 70 games to have the type of impact he is expected to have. He is the key to Phil Kessel finally blossoming into the player who can score 40 and maybe threaten to 50 goal mark.