2010-2011 NHL season preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

philkessel4.jpgLast season: (30-38-14, 74 points, 5th in Northeast Division, 15th in Eastern Conference) It was another tough season for the Leafs, this time finishing with the second-worst record in the NHL. They weren’t able to reap the rewards of that thanks to trading their first-round pick to Boston in the Phil Kessel trade. Don’t know if you’d heard about that whole thing. Conversely, Leafs fans were tops in the league with gallows humor. Kudos to all who contributed there.

Head coach: Ron Wilson enters his third season with the Leafs and to say he’s hoping things get better might be an understatement. The Leafs have finished last in the Northeast Division in both of his seasons, maxing out at 34 wins and 81 points two years ago. Suffice to say, if there’s no improvement this year, Wilson might want to start sending his résumé and headshot around.

Key departures: F Viktor Stalberg, F Rickard Wallin, D Garnet Exelby, D Jonas Frogren, F Wayne Primeau, F Jamie Lundmark. Losing a pile of players from a team that struggled as badly as Toronto did isn’t a big loss. Stalberg will be missed, but parting ways with him was made necessary to acquire Kris Versteeg.

Key arrivals: F Versteeg, F Colby Armstrong, D Brett Lebda, F Mike Brown, F Clarke MacArthur. Versteeg is an instant improvement along the wing while Armstrong provides a dose of physical play and goal-scoring touch. Brett Lebda, while a depth signing, was a head-scratching addition considering that he got a huge raise to essentially be the team’s sixth or seventh defenseman.

Under pressure: This one is a combo deal. GM Brian Burke and Wilson will share the heat this year. After all, they’re the architects of the team and another season mired at the bottom of the division will only make the fans go insane. They’re tired of the Leafs being the joke of the league. While we can see what Burke wants to do with the team, spending the last three years in last place and not having made the playoffs since 2003-2004 will make any fan base go insane with rage, especially one that pays out the nose for tickets the way Leafs fans do.

Protecting the house: The Leafs do have strengths and they come in goal and along the defense. In goal, Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson make up the two-headed monster. Giguere is the starter and Gustavsson, after a rookie season fraught with injury problems, will learn from him and goalie coach Francois Allaire. Getting consistent play from these two will be huge. After all, Vesa Toskala was so bad last season in Toronto that the record for number of ways a player could be thrown under the bus was broken by November.

Along the blue line, the Leafs are deep and talented. Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle (yes, he’s still there), Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Luke Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson, Jeff Finger, and Brett Lebda make up a nice gaggle of blue liners for Wilson to make some sense out of. While some guys are a bit overpaid (Finger, Lebda) the collection is solid and, ideally, should be one of the better defensive units in the league. Getting to see what the Leafs can do with a full year of Phaneuf leading the charge should prove to be interesting if not talked about ad nauseum.

Top line we’d like to see: Versteeg-Tyler Bozak-Kessel. This isn’t quite the line we’ll see this season in Toronto as Nikolai Kulemin will likely run with Bozak and Kessel, but this would truly be the ‘all eggs in one basket’ line for the Leafs. This would be a line teeming with youth and potential for greatness. As it is, Kessel is already one of the best goal scorers in the league and Bozak is shaping up to be a good play maker. Add in Versteeg and his knack for finding the net as well as his killer rapping skills and you’d have the most fun line in the NHL on and off the ice.

Oh captain, my captain: Dion Phaneuf wears the Leafs ‘C’ now and if you thought him dealing with Sean Avery was tough, just wait til he bears the brunt of the Toronto media if/when things start to get tough. The pressure will be on Phaneuf from the get-go to make sure things stay strong in the Leafs locker room and whether or not he can be an effective leader will certainly put under the microscope. Here’s to hoping he’s ready for the bright spotlight in hockey’s capital city.

coltonorr1.jpgStreet fighting man: We don’t suppose you’ve heard about how ‘truculence’ rules the day in Toronto, have you? Well let us introduce you to the ring leaders in the truculence movement in Colton Orr and newly acquired Mike Brown. Orr lead the Leafs with 23 fighting majors last year while Brown had 14 with  Anaheim. Safe to say that if anyone in Toronto is wronged, someone will be there to answer for them. Keep an eye on possible occasional call-up Jay Rosehill who fights like a cornered animal with a rage complex.

Best-case scenario: The Leafs get a rejuvenated season out of Giguere and the defense plays as strong as it looks on paper. Meanwhile, Kessel scores 40 goals, Versteeg adds 30, and Bozak emerges as the play maker they dreamed of. Mikhail Grabovski puts it all together to become a two-way force, Luca Caputi and Armstrong have above-average seasons and Nikolai Kulemin rides a hot year by Bozak and Kessel to jump up the scoring ranks. Orr and Brown freak out of opponents the second they jump on the ice and lead the Leafs to the eighth seed in the playoffs and give any one of Pittsburgh, Washington or New Jersey the scare of a lifetime in the first round.

Worst-case scenario: Giguere plays as old as he is, the offense continues to sputter and the defense looks shaky and turnover-prone. In other words, the Leafs get a repeat of how things broke down last season. The Leafs end up giving the Bruins yet another high draft choice (yes, they gave up their 2011 first-round pick as well) while Wilson is run out of town as the Leafs finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

Keeping it real: I know things seem dire but it could be helped out immensely by even semi-competent goaltending. The Leafs had the second-most goals scored against them (only the Oilers were worse) and as long as Giguere and Gustavsson don’t pull a Toskala this season, they should be instantly improved. Of course, the Leafs bottom-five offense from last year isn’t totally improved so scoring will be tough going again. Adding Versteeg helps and getting a full season out of Kessel will make things better, but there’s still a lot of questions surrounding the team’s offense. They’ll miss the playoffs, but the signs of life fans are hoping to see will be there and hope becomes the rallying cry next offseason.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Leafs are a 1 with personal regret. I dig the Leafs, I dig their fans, and I know they should have a better team than this but this team needs everything to work out right for them this year to get to the playoffs. Should they prove me wrong, I’ll happily eat a plate of crow and accept all chiding sent my way.

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    Ducks deny rally, end Penguins’ winning streak

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    When Ondrej Kase cashed in on another breakaway opportunity for the Ducks to make it 4-1 in the second period, it looked like that goal would be icing on the cake for Anaheim. Even if it would be especially pretty frosting.

    Instead, that stylish goal ended up being critical, as the Pittsburgh Penguins nearly rallied in the third period to at least send Wednesday’s game to overtime. John Gibson ended up holding down the fort, and with an empty-netter in the dying seconds, the Ducks ended up beating the Penguins 5-3.

    You could call it a game of periods and close calls.

    The Penguins entered the first intermission thanks to a 1-0 Evgeni Malkin goal, but the Ducks dominated the middle frame with their first four-goal period of 2017-18. The Penguins’ prolific power play helped them stay in the game (2-for-4, with both goals coming during that third-period comeback bid), but the rally fell short. Pittsburgh’s winning streak ended at four victories.

    Some bounces went both ways, as Antoine Vermette nearly scored for the Ducks while Carl Hagelin suffered a near-miss. So maybe those missed opportunities cancel each other out?

    From the Ducks’ perspective, this is the latest argument in favor of this team being a threat now that key pieces have returned to the lineup. This win begins what they hope is a successful five-game homestand, as Anaheim still needs to battle for its own playoff hopes.

    The Penguins can’t ruminate on this loss for very long. They head to Los Angeles to face what must be a frustrated Kings team (four straight defeats, only two wins in their last eight games) on Thursday, with little reason to expect any mercy.

    This last stretch of wins improved the Penguins’ outlook, but dropping games in back-to-back nights could make things tense again in a hurry. You can check out that Penguins – Kings game on NBCSN Thursday.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Willie O’Ree celebrates 60th anniversary of debut with Bruins

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    BOSTON (AP) Hockey pioneer Willie O’Ree was honored in Boston on Wednesday on the 60th anniversary of the Bruins forward breaking the NHL’s color barrier.

    At a news conference at the TD Garden before the Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens, Mayor Marty Walsh declared Jan. 18, 2018 to be “Willie O’Ree Day”. O’Ree made his debut in 1958 during a 3-0 victory against the Canadiens at the Forum in Montreal.

    Walsh called O’Ree a Boston legend who changed the city for the better and thanked him for his courage. As part of the celebration, the city dedicated a new street hockey rink in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood to be known as Willie O’Ree Rink.

    A native of Canada, O’Ree, 82, had four goals and 10 assists in 45 games over parts of two NHL seasons. He spent a total of 21 years in pro hockey.

    For the past two decades, O’Ree has served as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador, spreading the message that hockey is for everyone.

    More AP NHL hockey at https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

    Bruins cruise vs. Canadiens in Julien’s return to Boston

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    Don’t blame Claude Julien if Wednesday made him think of better times, and not just because it was his welcome back night in Boston.

    Coming into this one, it was a tale of two teams going in opposite directions, and the teams stuck to their scripts. The Boston Bruins remain red-hot with a 4-1 win, while the Montreal Canadiens are mired in mediocrity .. or worse?

    When you’re as disappointing as the Canadiens have been, plenty of things are going wrong. It was a weak start even with a 1-0 lead and 1-1 first period in mind, and it obviously didn’t get any better.

    Nights like these have to sting for Julien, a coach known for his sophisticated systems and eye for defensive detail.

    There are questions about Max Pacioretty possibly being trade bait. People wonder if Jonathan Drouin or Alex Galchenyuk fit as centers, or if neither work that way. Yet, these performances make you realize that as exasperated as management must be, they may also appreciate more specific distractions.

    Because, frankly, this was a team … non-effort.

    Then again, the Bruins are a red-hot squad, so maybe they shine an especially harsh light on the Habs’ haplessness?

    Boston generated a 32-22 shots on goal advantage in this one, with multiple contributors stepping up. Big guns came through (Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak were among the goal scorers, Patrice Bergeron collected two assists), while David Backes and others added to the fun.

    It was the kind of effort Julien would have been very happy with, if it didn’t come at his expense.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    WATCH LIVE: Pittsburgh Penguins at Anaheim Ducks

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    PROJECTED LINEUPS

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Dominik SimonSidney Crosby — Daniel Sprong

    Carl HagelinEvgeni MalkinPatric Hornqvist

    Conor ShearyJake GuentzelPhil Kessel

    Tom KuhnhacklRiley SheahanRyan Reaves

    Brian DumoulinKris Letang

    Olli MaattaJustin Schultz

    Matt HunwickJamie Oleksiak

    Starting goalie: Tristan Jarry

    [NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Canadiens vs. Bruins; Penguins vs. Ducks]

    Ducks

    Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

    Derek GrantRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

    Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

    Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

    Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

    Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

    Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

    Starting goalie: John Gibson