The question now is: Will the Leafs be a much improved team on the ice?
If there is one weakness on the 2009/10 Maple Leafs it is a lack of offense. Sure the team posted the tenth most goals-per-game in the National Hockey League last season, but even team GM Brian Burke has admitted there is a lack of top-six talent on the roster.
Burke attempted to address this issue just recently by trading two first round picks and a second rounder to division-rival Boston for Phil Kessel. Kessel is a terrific skater who possesses great hands and great vision. Once he was added to the Leafs roster, he immediately became the team’s most reliable scorer. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Kessel is not slated to return before early November, so we’ll have to wait to see how the former Golden Gopher fares without Marc Savard feeding him passes.
The Leafs’ next best offensive forward may very well be Mikhail Grabovski. The rookie forward scored 20 goals and added 28 assists in 78 games last season. He is a good skater, has soft hands and has a real fire to his game. In fact, that last element of his game has caused both Brian Burke and Ron Wilson to grow fond of Grabovski and the 25 year old former Hab should be able to improve on those numbers this season.
Last season, the Leafs were led offensively by Jason Blake. The former UND Fighting Sioux forward tallied 25 goals and 63 points last season in 78 games. Blake played just over 18:00 minutes per game in 2008/09 and was a respectable -2 in +/- rating on a team that had a lot of significant minus players. The speedy winger has pretty good hands but is not exactly known for his passing skills and with a $4 million per season cap hit, if Burke can dish off Blake prior to the trade deadline, it would be difficult to believe that he wouldn’t jump at the opportunity.
The problem with the Maple Leafs is that the team has many of the same-type forward. In Lee Stempniak, the Leafs have a 26 year old forward that has offensive skill but has never topped 53 points in a season. At $3.5 million this season, it is fair to say Stempniak is overpaid; although that is not an indictment of the winger’s motor, as he makes up for his lack of size with a strong work ethic. Rather, Stempniak simply does not have the hands necessary to score 30+ goals in a season.
Alexei Ponikarovsky had a respectable 61 point season in 2008/09. Most impressive about Ponikarovsky’s totals was that he tallied 48 of those points at even strength. He may not be the fastest, but he has started to use his size (6″4, 220 pounds) to his advantage when controlling the puck and is a UFA after this upcoming season. Considering Ponikarovsky only played 15:47 minutes per game last season, with some extra ice-time, Ponikarovsky could quietly enter the 70 point range.
Niklas Hagman is admittedly one of my favorite Maple Leafs. Hagman works hard and plays the game the right way. He sets a good example for the team’s younger players and can contribute at even strength. Hagman is able to play on the power play and penalty kill and would be an ideal third line winger if the team had more offensive talent up front.
In Matt Stajan, the Leafs have a player that some fans think highly of, while others are skeptical. Regardless of your opinion on Stajan, the 25 year old pending UFA had his best offensive season in 2008/09. Some people wrongly attribute that increase in point production to Stajan’s ice-time, even though he played more per game in 2007/08 than he did in 2008/09. While his power play time per game was up a little bit over 30 seconds per contest, entering a contract year, should we be surprised to see Stajan at least put up similar totals this season? I really don’t think so.
Along with Stajan, the Leafs have John Mitchell, a player known for his speed. The 24 year old paid his dues for three seasons in the AHL and worked his way up to the NHL level. In 2008/09, his first full NHL season, Mitchell played just under 14:00 minutes per game, and posted a total of 29 points. Mitchell’s speed causes trouble for opposing defensemen, especially on the forecheck and he should see a little bit more ice-time in 2009/10. If he can move up to around the 18-20 goal mark, the Leafs will be awfully happy.
Most people did not know who Viktor Stalberg was prior to training camp. The big (6″3) Swedish winger played in the NCAA last season and posted respectable totals of 23 points in 39 games. So while the 23 year old clearly has offensive skills, a great skating ability and a good work ethic, as demonstrated this pre-season, he will still need some time to develop.
Along with Stalberg is the more well-known Tyler Bozak. Last season, a signing war took place over the 23 year old Saskatchewan native who posted impressive totals in one and a half season with the University of Denver. Bozak is solid (6″1, 180 pounds) and has terrific skills, evidenced by his 23 points in 19 games in the WCHA last season. He has good puck awareness, good hands and is wise beyond his years. Bozak could contend for the Calder Trophy this season.
In Rickard Wallin, the Leafs brought over the former Minnesota Wild center who is known as a responsible two-way player with limited offensive upside. The downside of signing Wallin was minimal, as he costs only $800,000, so the Leafs could do worse.
In terms of depth forwards, the Leafs boast rugged center Wayne Primeau, pugilist Coltor Orr and and dressing room leader Jamal Mayers.
The Leafs are improved up front, but they still have a ways to go.
As solid as the Leafs were offensively last season, the team was just awful defensively. The Buds allowed a terrible 3.49 goal against per contest which placed them last in the entire league. As a result, Brian Burke set out to change the team’s back-end and successfully did just that.
Burke’s first significant addition to the team’s back-end was the signing of former Habs defenseman Mike Komisarek to a five-year deal for a $4.5 million cap hit per season. While I have my reservations in terms of that pricetag for a fairly limited defenseman when it comes to offense, there is no doubt Komisarek brings the exact type of attitude and style of play that Burke covets. Last season, Komisarek only played in 66 games and still led the Habs in hits with 191. Moreover, he led the team in blocked shots with 207. Additionally, the American logged over 20:00 minutes per contest and led the team in penalty killing minutes per game with 3:24. So, the Leafs have added a classic defensive defenseman to the fold.
The next significant defensive move Burke made was to sign the underated Francois Beauchemin. Burke is very familiar with Beauchemin having acquired him from Columbus as part of the Sergei Fedorov trade when he was GM of the Ducks. Beauchemin brings some quality attributes to the table; namely, he is a great skater, good puck mover, can quarterback the power play and plays a physical game. While he missed almost the entire 2008/09 regular season due to injury, Beauchemin logged just under 25:00 minutes per game in the 20 games he played, and played significant minutes on both the power play and penalty kill. His invitation to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp should solidfy any doubts you have about the unheralded rearguard.
Joining Komisarek and Beauchemin in the team’s top four is Tomas Kaberle. Yes, Kaberle is still a Maple Leaf even with all the trade rumors involving his name all summer long. Rumors aside, Kaberle brings a much-needed offensive element to the team’s back-end. Kaberle isn’t physical and loses battles in his own zone (if he engages) but he makes one of the best outlet passes in the NHL, is one of the best passers in the game and has great vision. He may not fit the Brian Burke prototype, but the GM was smart to not trade him for anything lower than full value. With two years remaining on his reasonable $4.25 million contract per season, it will be interesting to see where Kaberle finishes the season.
Filling out the team’s top four is youngster Luke Schenn. The 18 year old led the Leafs in hits last season with 206 and finished third on the team in blocked shots with 119. Schenn is on his way to becoming the long-time captain of this team and surpassed any expectations the organization had for him in 2008/09. Having logged 21:32 minutes of ice time last season, Schenn should be probably slot in around that total again this season–especially considering the two key additions mentioned above.
The Leafs’ final two defense spots will be comprised of the offensively gifted Ian White, overpaid Jeff Finger, injury-prone Mike Van Ryn and rough and tough Garnet Exelby. So, it is safe to say this team is much improved on defense as compared to last season.
Even with Brian Burke’s vote of confidence for Vesa Toskala, it is clear to most onlookers that Toskala is merely warming the net for soon-to-be starter Jonas Gustavsson.
Last season, Toskala posted a horrible .891 save percentage (44th in the NHL) and a 3.26 G.A.A (45th in the NHL). The diminutive Finnish netminder has become a whipping boy for Leafs fans and doesn’t help himself with a tendency to allow clearly weak goals. Sure his defense last season was horrible but a save percentage that low leaves less reason for optimism.
On the other hand, the Leafs signed Jonas “The Monster” Gustavsson this off-season and expectations are sky high for the Swedish youngster. Gustavsson posted a .932 save percentage in Sweden last season for Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League and has looked good in limited time this season. Gustavsson is big (6″3), quick and athletic and I’d be surprised if he was not the Leafs’ starting netminder by game 50 of the 2009/10 season.
Ceiling: The Leafs vastly improve their goals against, improve immensely on the penalty kill and score enough to win a lot of one-goal games. 2nd in the Northeast Division; 6th in the Eastern Conference.
Floor: The Leafs struggle to score, Toskala struggles again and Gustavsson needs a while to develop and the team struggles to live up to playoff expectations placed upon them by Burke. 5th in the Northeast Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference.