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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    Julien explains comments about Lundqvist’s ‘acting’

    Claude Julien

    We’re now over two days removed from last Friday’s tilt between the Bruins and the Rangers, but the coaches from both teams seem unwilling to move on.

    Moments after that game, Claude Julien claimed that Henrik Lundqvist did some “acting” on the ice to sell a goalie interference call on Brad Marchand.

    On Saturday, Alain Vigneault fired back by saying that Julien needed to get his eyesight checked. Vigneault also compared Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton in the 2011 Stanley Cup final to Matt Beleskey’s hit on Derek Stepan in Friday’s game.

    Now it was Julien’s turn to address the “issue” at hand.

    Julien clarified his original comment about Lundqvist and he also tackled some of Vigneault’s comments.

    “I think it’s pretty obvious what I said . . . I thought Lundqvist sold it,” said Julien. “Not for a second did I ever question Henrik Lundqvist as a person, or a goaltender or any of that. We all know how good he is as a goaltender, and I know he’s a good person. I’ve met him at the All-Star games and all that stuff.

    Julien on his eyesight: “As far as my eyes, I’m not the one that compared Beleskey’s hit to Aaron Rome’s [hit]. We’ll just leave it at that.”

    It’s time for both sides to move on.

    Good news: Colaiacovo traveling with Sabres

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    It was a scary sight.

    Carlo Colaiacovo fell to his hands and knees after taking a cross-check to the throat from Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson (above).

    Arvidsson received a five-minute major and a game misconduct, while Colaiacovo suffered a dented trachea on the play.

    After the game, both Dan Bylsma and Peter Laviolette agreed that there was no malicious intent on Arvidsson’s part.

    “I don’t think there was intent there to maliciously cross-check,” Bylsma said. “They kind of lose the puck, turn and his stick is right at that level and delivers a blow. When you look at it, it’s a pretty stiff cross-check to Carlo’s neck.”

    “It was tough for Arvidsson,” said Laviolette. “I don’t think he had any bad intentions. He just ran into somebody and the stick got caught a little bit high, but just a tough turn of events.”

    The Sabres defenseman left the game and was treated at a nearby hospital, but there is some good news to report.

    According to the Buffalo News, Colaiacovo was released from hospital and he was able to travel to Detroit with his teammates.

    It’s unclear how long he’ll be out.

    Start the Carr: Habs recall another player from the minors

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    There’s been a lot of movement between Montreal and Saint John’s lately and that continued on Sunday.

    This time, it’s forward Daniel Carr who’ll be getting a stint with the big club.

    Carr has no prior NHL experience.

    The 24-year-old spent four years at Union College before joining the Canadiens organization as an undrafted free agent.

    In his first season as a pro, Carr scored 24 goals (led the team) and 39 points in 76 AHL games with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2014-15.

    This year, Carr has seven goals and 15 points in 20 games.

    Montreal is without forwards Torrey Mitchell, Brendan Gallagher and Alexander Semin.

    Campbell’s perfect snipe sinks Wings in OT


    Brian Campbell doesn’t score as many points as he used to, but he came up with a huge goal against the Red Wings on Sunday afternoon.

    With the game tied, 1-1, in overtime, Campbell skated into the slot and beat Petr Mrazek with a perfect wrister to end the game.

    It was also a pretty nice passing play between Jussi Jokinen, Jonathan Huberdeau and Campbell.

    Dylan Larkin opened the scoring in the second period before Reilly Smith leveled the score with just over five minutes remaining.

    The Wings have blown a lead in three straight games.

    Detroit was up 2-0 and 3-2 in their last game, against Edmonton, before they finally closed the game out with an overtime goal by Niklas Kronwall.

    They weren’t so fortunate against the Bruins on Wednesday, as they lost 3-2 in OT after leading 2-1 with under two minutes remaining in regulation.

    This was the first meeting of the season between Detroit and Florida, but they’ll see each other three times between Feb. 4 and Mar. 19.