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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    Lightning strikes: Bolts even series with Islanders

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    Tyler Johnson began the playoffs as a game-time decision for the Tampa Bay Lightning in their series with the Detroit Red Wings. He’s now among the top point producers this post-season.

    Needing a win to even the series before it shifts north to Brooklyn, the Lightning earned a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday afternoon. Series tied, 1-1. As for Johnson, the diminutive but skilled forward, he led the Bolts with a three-point night and is up to 10 points in the playoffs.

    He opened the scoring versus the Islanders and finished it with an empty-netter to negate any late comeback attempt.

    Still without Steven Stamkos, the Lightning got another strong game from Jonathan Drouin, who entered this series without a goal. But he changed that, giving the host team a two-goal lead in the opening period of Game 2. That goal would be the eventual winner.

    Corey Perry: ‘I take a lot of blame for what happened’ after Ducks bounced in first round

    GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 11:  Ryan Getzlaf #15 and Corey Perry #10 of the Anaheim Ducks watch from the bench during the first period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on April 11, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    After a first-round playoff loss that resulted in the firing of coach Bruce Boudreau, players were forced to answer for such a disappointing end to the Anaheim Ducks’ season.

    The Ducks were last in the West at the holiday break but went flying up the standings in the second half of the season, claiming the Pacific Division. But they couldn’t close out the Nashville Predators in the opening round, despite a 3-2 series lead, and Boudreau was sent packing.

    Ducks GM Bob Murray then let the players have it, blasting the core group and their performance, especially in the first two games of the series, and strongly suggesting there would be some big changes in Anaheim leading up to next season.

    “I take a lot of blame for what happened,” said Corey Perry, as per the Ducks’ website. “I didn’t score a goal. I take a lot of responsibility. I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform.”

    In seven games, the 30-year-old Perry, who just concluded the third year of an eight-year contract with a cap hit of $8.625 million, had four assists. But, as he said, no goals.

    On Boudreau’s dismissal, Perry added: “He did a lot for my game. It’s tough when you know the reason somebody got fired is because we as a team and as individuals didn’t perform to where we needed to perform, and that’s the hardest thing. You lose four Game 7s at home, and he has nothing really do with what we did on the ice. We’re performing, we’re playing and we have to hold ourselves accountable. And I think a lot of guys are doing that.”

     

    Marquette, Michigan is your Kraft Hockeyville 2016 winner

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    Huge congrats to the community of Marquette, MI and the Lakeview Arena — after an exciting voting process, Marquette has been named the winner of the Kraft Hockeyville 2016 competition.

    As a result, Lakeview will receive $150,000 in arena upgrades, and will host an Oct. 4 preseason game broadcast on NBCSN between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes.

    More, from the NHL:

    Marquette is rich in hockey heritage and Lakeview Arena stands as a pillar of the community, stimulating the local economy since it opened in 1973. Lakeview Arena’s semi-pro Marquette Iron Rangers signed the first female professional hockey player in North American history, Karen Koch.

    Lakeview Arena will prioritize energy efficiency updates with the grand prize money in addition to other arena upgrades to ensure future generations of Marquette players are able to enjoy skating at Lakeview Arena for years to come.

    “We’ve seen amazing participation across the country in Kraft Hockeyville USA’s second year,” said Nina Barton, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Kraft Heinz. “This year’s contest led to millions of votes from passionate hockey fans, and we’re so proud America has chosen the spirited, well-deserving community of Marquette as Kraft Hockeyville USA 2016.”

    Marquette was just one of more than a thousand communities across the country that submitted stories showing their hockey spirit and passion.

    The runner-up, Rushmore Thunderdome of Rapid City, S.D., will receive $75,000 to use toward arena upgrades.

    For more on this year’s Kraft Hockeyville competition, click here.

    2016 Lady Byng finalists: Barkov, Eriksson and Kopitar

    Slovenia forward Anze Kopitar, left, and Sweden forward Loui Eriksson battle for the puck in the second period of a men's ice hockey game at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
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    The low penalty minutes and high point totals are in, and thus we have the 2016 NHL Awards’ three finalists for the Lady Byng Trophy: Aleksander Barkov, Loui Eriksson and Anze Kopitar.

    OK, the actual definition for the award is that it goes “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

    Same difference, eh?

    Barkov really made a breakthrough this season with the Florida Panthers, scoring 59 points versus just eight penalty minutes. He only has 34 PIM in 191 career regular season contests.

    You can see Eriksson and Kopitar representing their respective countries in this post’s main image. Eriksson enjoyed his best (and maybe last?) season with the Boston Bruins while Kopitar hopes to win the 2016 Selke as the Los Angeles Kings’ defensively adept – yet apparently courteous – forward.

    It’s unclear who wins this “fight,” but one would assume it wouldn’t be a dirty one.