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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    Islanders agree to terms with Dennis Seidenberg

    BOSTON, MA - JUNE 08:  Dennis Seidenberg #44 of the Boston Bruins skates against Mason Raymond #21 of the Vancouver Canucks during Game Four of the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 8, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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    Word surfaced on Wednesday morning that the New York Islanders were expected to sign veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg.

    On Wednesday night, the team announced that it has officially agreed to terms with him on a one-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but according to TSN’s Darren Dreger earlier in the day the value is reported to be $1 million.

    Seidenberg is currently playing a significant role for Team Europe, a surprise finalist against the heavily favored Canadians.

    The 35-year-old defenseman was unexpectedly bought out by the Boston Bruins over the summer. He had two years remaining on his contract, with a cap hit of $4 million.

    Seidenberg was a key part of the Bruins’ Stanley Cup champion team in 2011, but injuries limited him to just 61 games last season, and his average ice time fell below 20 minutes for the first time since he was with the Hurricanes in 2007-08.

    He’ll likely take on a bottom-pairing role with the Islanders, below Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic, Johnny Boychuk, and Calvin de Haan. He may even be the extra defenseman, pushing the likes of Thomas Hickey, Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, and Scott Mayfield for a spot in the lineup.

    Related: Seidenberg shocked by Bruins’ decision

    Rieder’s agent thinks trade from Coyotes is best for both parties

    GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 02:  Tobias Rieder #8 of the Arizona Coyotes in action during the NHL preseason game against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena on October 2, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    It seems that Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba isn’t the only unsigned restricted free agent that might be looking for a fresh start somewhere else.

    Arizona Coyotes forward Tobias Rieder also seems to be ready to explore other options.

    It’s already been known that Rieder is frustrated in his current negotiations with the Coyotes and will not attend training camp once he is finished playing for Team Europe at the World Cup.

    On Wednesday afternoon, his agent, Darren Ferris, told Arizonasports.com’s Craig Morgan via email that he thinks it would be best for both parties if the Coyotes simply trade his client at this point, and that Rieder is “really disappointed” with the team.

    More from Arizonasports.com:

    “It’s unfortunate that a good kid gets treated this way. He never balked at the defensive role they made him play, and they don’t seem to value the intangibles he brings to the team.”

    The Coyotes do not seem to have any interest in actually dealing Rieder at this point.

    There’s a lot of rhetoric here, and that really should not be a shock considering the circumstances, but when looking at the numbers that are being talked about this doesn’t seem like a situation that should be beyond repair. A middle ground isn’t that far off.

    According to Rieder’s agent, he is seeking a two-year deal worth $2.5 million per year. The team is reportedly holding strong with either an offer at $2.2 million per year, or a lower one-year qualifying offer. Again, that’s not a huge gap in terms of asking price. In actual salary it’s a total of $600,000 over two years, while the cap hit is only an extra $300,000 each year. For a young player that is already fairly productive and still has some upside to get better.

    The middle ground in those two numbers would be a cap hit of $2.35 million per season.

    The 23-year-old Rieder has played two full seasons in the NHL with the Coyotes and is coming off of a 14-goal, 37-point performance.

    Originally a fourth-round draft pick by the Edmonton Oilers, the Coyotes acquired Rieder in a 2013 trade for Kale Kessy. Seeing as that Kessy has yet to play a single game in the NHL and only recorded 12 points in 56 AHL games a season ago it’s been a pretty good deal for the Coyotes.

    Now they just need to find a way to make sure they can continue to benefit from it by trying to bridge this (relatively speaking) small gap in contract talks.

    NHL odds: Coyotes biggest long shot to make playoffs in 2016-17

    GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 26:  (L-R) Christian Dvorak #18, Luke Schenn #2, Radim Vrbata #17, Dakota Mermis #43 and Max Domi #16 of the Arizona Coyotes celebrate after Schenn scored a first period goal against the Los Angeles Kings during the preseason NHL game at Gila River Arena on September 26, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    With Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dylan Strome all in place, the Arizona Coyotes have an exciting core of young talent that should have a bright future in the NHL.

    From a big picture outlook, there are plenty of reasons for optimism surrounding the Coyotes.

    Vegas, on the other hand, isn’t a big believer in the Coyotes chances for the 2016-17 season.

    The folks at Bovada released their playoff odds for the upcoming season and the Coyotes opened as the biggest long shot to make the playoffs (-600 to miss the playoffs; +400 to make them).

    Here are the odds for every team, via Bovada.

    Playoff Odds (From Most Likely to make the playoffs to least likely to make the playoffs)

    Washington Capitals – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -1000 (1/10)
    No +600 (6/1)

    Tampa Bay Lightning – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -850 (17/2)
    No +525 (21/4)

    Chicago Blackhawks – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -800 (1/8)
    No +500 (5/1)

    Pittsburgh Penguins – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -800 (1/8)
    No +500 (5/1)

    St Louis Blues – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -800 (1/8)
    No +500 (5/1)

    San Jose Sharks – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -700 (1/7)
    No +475 (10/4)

    Los Angeles Kings – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -300 (1/3)
    No +240 (12/5)

    Dallas Stars – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -280 (4/15)
    No +220 (11/5)

    Florida Panthers – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -280 (4/15)
    No +220 (11/5)

    Nashville Predators – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -280 (4/15)
    No +220 (11/5)

    New York Rangers – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -280 (4/15)
    No +220 (11/5)

    New York Islanders – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -250 (2/5)
    No +200 (2/1)

    Anaheim Ducks – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -180 (5/9)
    No +150 (3/2)

    Boston Bruins – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -165 (20/33)
    No +135 (27/20)

    Montreal Canadiens – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -165 (20/33)
    No +135 (27/20)

    Philadelphia Flyers – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -150 (2/3)
    No +120 (6/5)

    Minnesota Wild – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -140 (7/5)
    No +110 (11/10)

    Winnipeg Jets – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes -115 (20/23)
    No -115 (20/23)

    Calgary Flames – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +120 (6/5)
    No -150 (2/3)

    Edmonton Oilers – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +120 (6/5)
    No -150 (3/2)

    Detroit Red Wings – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +125 (5/4)
    No -155 (20/31)

    Colorado Avalanche – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +150 (3/2)
    No -180 (5/9)

    Vancouver Canucks – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +180 (9/5)
    No -225 (4/9)

    Buffalo Sabres – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +240 (12/5)
    No -300 (1/3)

    New Jersey Devils – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +250 (5/2)
    No -325 (4/13)

    Ottawa Senators – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +250 (5/2)
    No -325 (4/13)

    Toronto Maple Leafs – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +250 (5/2)
    No -325 (4/13)

    Columbus Blue Jackets – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +275 (11/4)
    No -350 (2/7)

    Carolina Hurricanes – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +300 (3/1)
    No -400 (1/4)

    Arizona Coyotes – To make the Playoffs?
    Yes +400 (4/1)
    No -600 (1/6)

    If you’re feeling bold, the Coyotes aren’t the worst bet to make here. They are certainly not a lock to make the playoffs, but the biggest long shot seems like it is a little much as well.

    Getting into one of the top three spots in the division is going to be tough because Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose had a pretty commanding lead for those spots. But the Coyotes still weren’t that far out of a playoff spot this past season, finishing in 10th place in the Western Conference, nine points out of the second wild card spot. It’s not like they were a bottom-feeder in the NHL. Plus, they made the move over the summer to bring in veteran defenseman Alex Goligoski to help on the blue line and should have Strome, the No. 3 overall pick from a year ago, ready to make his NHL debut.

    Report: Ekblad cleared by Panthers doctors

    NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 30:  Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers poses for a 2016 NHL All-Star portrait at Bridgestone Arena on January 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)
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    Aaron Ekblad has been medically cleared by Florida Panthers doctors, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger.

    That’s a big relief for everyone involved after Ekblad was injured while representing Team North America in the World Cup. The injury was originally reported as a “mild” concussion, though it was later called a neck injury.

    The 20-year-old has since been back on the ice working out.

    “Ekblad is going to be fine,” Panthers coach Gerard Galant said. “You see him out there skating already. I think it was a little scary, but he feels real good. He’s going to skate and see how he feels, but everything looks good.”

    The first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Eklbad had already dealt with at least one concussion during his playing career. He suffered one in an international exhibition game during the summer of 2014, just prior to his outstanding rookie season with the Panthers.