Posts Tagged ‘Can Leafs make playoffs?’

With the upcoming Toronto Maple Leafs and NHL season now upon us, the pundits and experts are out taking their best shots at making some educated predictions as to where the teams will finish in the standings.  Most publications, TV stations and media outlets all concur on one particular fact: the Toronto Maple Leafs will not be a playoff bound team in 2010/11. 

Here is the projected opening night lineup:

Kris Versteeg Tyler Bozak Phil Kessel
Nik Kulemin Mikael Grabovski Clarke MacArthur
Freddy Sjostrom Tim Brent Colby Armstrong
Mike Brown Mike Zigomanis Colton Orr

 

Dion Phaneuf Francois Beauchemin
Tomas Kaberle Luke Schenn
Carl Gunnarsson Mike Komisarek

 

*JS Giguere Jonas Gustavsson

*starter

Making the playoffs is normally thought of as a successful season and the dividing line between playoff and non-playoff teams is often a very fine one.  I thought I would take a look at a few key factors in a playoff and non-playoff season for our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs.  Now, this is based on Ron Wilson being the coach and the team utilizing his particular style and brand of hockey which is a more up-tempo, high pressure fore-check in all three zones.  Whether this is the appropriate strategy given the current makeup of the Maple Leafs remains to be seen and is an issue to be discussed on another day.

The Leafs will have to improve approximately twenty points in the Eastern Conference standings all things considered equal and with a few breaks here and there it can be possible.    Here are a few things to keep an eye as the season progresses and that fine dividing line we spoke about earlier between a successful or disappointing NHL season. 

THE LEAFS WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF: THE LEAFS WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS IF: 
-A few forwards show great internal year over year improvement and development, specifically Kulemin, Grabovski and Bozak -The much needed secondary scoring is not found and teams focus all attention and energy on the Leafs top line
-Phil Kessel remains healthy and productive -Phil Kessel gets injured
-Tyler Bozak can maintain and productive point pace throughout 82 games -Tyler Bozak doesn’t possess the skill or ability to anchor the top line for an entire season
-The goaltending improves and we get a complete season of steady and solid play between the pipes -We get Vesa Toskala type goaltending again, for any stretch of the season
-Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin play the way they are capable of playing -Our relatively deep defense core doesn’t shore up enough to lower scoring chances against
-Luke Schenn continues his development, forcing Ron Wilson to play him 20+ minutes a night -Luke Schenn’s development stagnates, at all
-Our special teams play is markedly improved -Power play and penalty killing rank in the bottom third of the league again
-Dion Phaneuf is rejuvenated and gives the Leafs a physical and offensive spark from the backend -Dion Phaneuf’s declining numbers continue
-Our bottom six forwards continue their strong play, bringing a defensive and physical edge -Our newly formed checking line (Sjostrom-Brent-Armstrong) doesn’t provide a reliable, consistent and sustainable defensive presence
-We go .500 or better in shootouts and OT games -We continue to struggle gaining the extra point in OT/shootouts

 

The Maple Leafs will be improved and I doubt few could argue that much considering the Leafs might have won a few more games if Vesa Toskala simply left his stick and glove lying on the ice in front of his net as opposed to actually attempting to play goal.  He was one of the worst goalies statistically speaking of the last 10-15 years and for a team that was dead last on the penalty kill it’s not hard to see why the team improved so much when JS Giguere came aboard via trade.  The Leafs had absolutely no confidence in Vesa Toskala last season and it showed when they completely melted down late in games on numerous occasions and almost looked shaken when having to kill a penalty off.

I think one fact the ‘experts’ or pundits are overlooking is the internal improvement from a number of Maple Leafs, most notably Nik Kulemin and Luke Schenn.  Kulemin has the opportunity to blossom into an impact two- way forward capable of scoring upwards of 30 goals if he gets a few bounces, he possesses a lethal shot with a quick release and is starting to utilize his impressive size and strength to his advantage. 

Luke Schenn was the 5th overall selection in the draft for a reason.  For such a young defenseman with limited experience Schenn is calm and cool with the puck possessing solid instincts to go along with a huge frame capable of absolutely dominating opposing forwards physically.  Most defenseman aren’t fully developed until around age 25-27 give or take a year and Schenn is well on his way to becoming an Adam Foote type shutdown defender teams crave and simply do not grow on trees. 

Patience is needed with young defenseman more than any other position and I applaud Brian Burke for not using Schenn as a trade chip to acquire a borderline top six forward to appease the fan base starving for another solid scoring threat.  I guarantee teams would be lining up around the block to get a piece of a defenseman clearly ready to take a big step forward.  After a relatively slow start last season Schenn quickly rebounded and was among our best players down the stretch, and still posted 5 goals and 12 assists and was a positive plus 2 on a poor defensive squad.  I think this is the year Schenn takes his place among the games better young defensive defenseman.

So do the Leafs have what it takes to survive an 82 game season and put up enough points to seriously contend for a long overdue playoff spot?

Advertisements

This seems to be the preferred line-up (see below) for Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson, at least early into training camp and preseason.  This line-up would not include John Mitchell, Marcel Mueller, Luca Caputi, Brayden Irwin, Jay Rosehill, Jeff Finger, Brett Lebda, Jesse Blacker and Matt Lashoff, among others.  I think it would be a real shame that Rosehill will not break camp with the team if this line-up holds as with the addition of the extremely effective Mike Brown he has become a bit redundant.

1 Kulemin-Bozak-Kessel

2 Versteeg-Kadri-Armstrong

3 Sjostrom-Grabovski-MacArthur

4 Brown-Hanson-Orr

1 Phanuef-Beauchemin

2 Kaberle-Komisarek

3 Schenn-Gunnarsson

Another player I feel could be AHL bound is London Knights standout centre Nazem Kadri.  He hasn’t looked himself (early) and barring a turnaround and some prolonged consistent play I think the AHL is just what he needs to continue his development physically and maybe more importantly, mentally.  It would be a good test for Kadri and the Leafs to see how we would potentially deal with the disappointment of beginning the year in the minor leagues.  Let’s face it Kadri isn’t Sidney Crosby (duh), he still has a long way to go and I think growing up a bit might actually be the first step and when I view him on most nights his overall body language to me screams ‘entitlement’.  Some of the top players in the game have honed their crafts in the underrated and valuable AHL.

So if Kadri is Toronto Marlies bound to begin the year, what are the Leafs options in terms of the most effective line-up?  I think the defence core remains the same until or unless one of the current “top six” either gets injured or is simply ineffective.  That is an extremely deep and promising group of defenders and with Luke Schenn appearing confident early, it will be a real area of strength for the team on the ice and in the front office should Brian Burke feel the need to address his weakness at the centre ice position by moving one of Kaberle, Beauchemin, Komisarek and depending if he gets blown away with an offer and he comes out of the gate strong, Schenn.

Here is my ideal line-up:

1 Kulemin-Bozak-Kessel

2 Versteeg-Grabovksi-MacArthur

3 Caputi-Mitchell/Kadri-Armstrong

4 Brown-Hanson-Orr

Honestly I do like the first line-up with Grabovski on the third line adding some solid scoring depth, but only if Nazem Kadri proves to be big league ready right off the bat, which so far (very early on) is just not the case.  So I moved Grabo up to the 2nd line centre role between newcomers Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur.  This could prove to be a solid goal scoring line with all three players capable of sniping up to 20-25 goals while adding a nice touch of speed and skill to the line-up.  We brought in both Versteeg and MacArthur to pick up the scoring slack so no sense wasting either in a lesser 3rd line role. 

Speaking of the 3rd line, this is John Mitchell’s chance to prove he belongs, likely his last opportunity to do so in the NHL.  He’ll be between Luca Caputi and Colby Armstrong, both players who can skate, hit and hopefully score a few while playing a sound defensive game.  Caputi has shown up to camp in tremendous shape and looks to be bigger, stronger and most importantly faster on his skates.  He has been a big prospect for a few years and he needs to start showcasing that potential this season.  We already know what Armstrong brings, and he will be a fan favourite for his rambunctious style of play.  This could be an effective, abrasive and solid checking style line with the chance to pop in a few goals and make some things happen down low and on the cycle.

The argument for keeping Kadri on the team and playing with the 3rd line unit is simple, give him a chance to stay with the big club and hopefully simplify his game and improve his defensive shortcomings by throwing him into the fire.  It is doubtful the Leafs will want to do this and would likely prefer him starring in the AHL in a more prolific offensive role, but it’s a thought to ponder.

The 4th line is a pure energy and momentum changing line with two solid skating big men (Hanson and Brown) who aren’t scared to get their noses dirty and of course the Leafs heavyweight (Orr).  Mike Brown could prove to be one of Burke’s best offseason additions with his tenacity, strong skating and hitting tendencies and a bonus that he is a great penalty killer.  I like Christian Hanson and I think he deserves to be on this team and I look for a breakout season and a potential move up to the 3rd line depending on how Mitchell/Kadri performs.  Colton Orr brings his usual presence and huge right hand on a nightly basis and he could be the best pure fighter in Leafs history?

A lot of the Leafs success will clearly rest with the defence and as long as we stay healthy and each player plays up to his potential it should be one of the better groups in the NHL.  Goaltending will also be imperative to any potential playoff berth and I think I can safely say (knock on wood) that there is no way it can be any worse than what the sieve named Vesa Toskala provided us last season, especially early when we started so terribly.  JS Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson provide a pretty solid tandem and it finally appears we have a couple solid young tenders in the system in Jussi Rynnas, Ben Scrivens and Reimer.

We can make the playoffs a reality if:

-Phil Kessel stays healthy

-Tyler Bozak and Nik Kulemin play the entire season with Kessel and they continue building (and improving) on their success and chemisty from last season

-Dion Phaneuf scores 15+ goals and returns to the dominating (maybe slightly calmer) physical presence and power play star

-Luke Schenn forces Ron Wilson to play him 20+ minutes due to outstanding play, which in turn allows Brian Burke to move one of our excess defenseman (Kaberle) for a top notch centre

-Mikael Grabovski has a career year (60+ points)

-Nazem Kadri joins the Leafs half way through the season and starts to contribute at the big league level, consistently, adding much needed secondary scoring

-Versteeg, Armstrong, Brown, MacArthur, Komisarek, Beauchemin and Giguere simply play to their career norms, or slightly above

-Jonas Gustavsson’s play forces Ron Wilson to re-think the tandem due to extremely consistent performances

-Improved play from Hanson, Caputi, Mitchell and Kulemin

-Ron Wilson and the coaching staff improve the worst special teams in the history of the franchise, two years running

-We don’t start the year 0-7-1 and we drastically improve our putrid shootout record post lockout

What are your other keys to a successful Maple Leafs season?  What are you looking for from the team this year?  Who are you most excited, nervous, and anxious or worried about?