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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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    Weight hopes Eberle can re-discover ‘eye of the tiger’ with Islanders

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    This post is part of Islanders Day on PHT…

    Jordan Eberle had a difficult season at times in 2016-17.

    Yet he still managed to score 20 goals, hitting that mark for a fourth consecutive season and fifth time in six years. (He put up 34 goals in 2011-12.)

    You can understand why having a skilled winger to perhaps play alongside center John Tavares — at least that’s the expectation prior to training camp — would be intriguing for head coach Doug Weight as the new season approaches.

    “Jordan, to me, is really, really exciting,” Weight recently told the NHL Network.

    Eberle’s first foray into playoff hockey was a struggle, as he recorded only two assists in 13 post-season games and the Oilers made it to the second round.

    And that is where Weight’s extended comments get interesting, because it sounds like the 27-year-old forward’s confidence took a bit of a hit during his final campaign in Edmonton and, in particular, during the playoffs, when his offensive production wasn’t there and the public scrutiny intensified.

    Several weeks later, Eberle was traded to the Islanders.

    “I want him to come in with that eye of the tiger; that fire back that sometimes gets lost,” Weight continued. “It’s tough. You can get cemented in certain roles, you can have some tough times. But Jordan still produced. He’s a helluva talent and I’m excited to get that confidence back in him and excited for him to get here.”

    It didn’t take long after the trade for discussions about a possible Eberle-Tavares reunion to begin. Playing for Team Canada, they combined for a thrilling tying goal against Russia in the dying seconds of the 2009 World Juniors semifinal.

    One of the Islanders’ top priorities is to get Tavares secured to a new contract, as he enters the final year of his current deal.

    Adding a proven scoring winger to Tavares’ line may also help the team’s captain rebound from a season in which his bottom-line production dropped as well, which would certainly boost the Islanders’ chances of getting back to the playoffs.

    “[Eberle’s] bringing a right-handed shot as a forward that can obviously shoot and score from anywhere,” Islanders forward Anders Lee recently told NHL.com.

    “He’s a playmaker out on the ice and sees the ice extremely well. He can add some extra threats for us on the power play that can really help elevate us.”

    Report: Rangers among ‘final two or three teams’ in running to sign Kerfoot

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    One of the big issues facing the Rangers this offseason was about depth up the middle.

    New York could take a step in addressing that, with a potential solution in college free agent Alex Kerfoot, the former New Jersey Devils draft pick who decided to test the open market.

    From the New York Post:

    The Rangers are among the final two or three teams under consideration by Harvard free-agent center Alex Kerfoot, The Post has learned.

    J.P. Barry, the 23-year-old center’s agent who confirmed the parties’ mutual interest, told The Post that Kerfoot likely would reach a decision no later than Tuesday following a weekend of reflection.

    The Rangers traded Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes and lost Oscar Lindberg in the expansion draft, leaving them in a difficult spot at center heading into the summer months.

    Now 23 years old, Kerfoot played four years at Harvard University — the same school as Jimmy Vesey, who became a college free agent last summer and signed with the Rangers — and had a terrific senior year. He put up 16 goals and 45 points and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.

    The Rangers are facing competition to land Kerfoot, who is from Vancouver and played his junior hockey in nearby Coquitlam. The Canucks are reportedly still in consideration, as well.

    According to agent J.P. Barry, Kerfoot and the Canucks management group reportedly had a “productive” meeting last week.

    Luongo: ‘I haven’t had any issues’ in return from injury

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    Roberto Luongo continues preparations for the upcoming season, after an injury cut his 2016-17 campaign short.

    Luongo’s last game was on March 2. He didn’t play again after that due to reported aggravation of a previous hip injury that had required surgery.

    However, per the Miami Herald on Monday, the 38-year-old netminder has returned to the ice. Luongo then gave a promising update on his status with training camp approaching in a few weeks.

    “It’s good to be able to get back to my regular summer training program. This is my second week … everything feels great and I haven’t had any issues. That’s good,” Luongo told the Miami Herald.

    “It’s comforting mentally to know I can go through a rigorous workout and go all out and not have any issues nor think about it. That’s a big first step for me after going through the ups-and-downs of having to deal with my issue last year. It’s nice to have that piece of mind.”

    Luongo appeared in 40 games for Florida last season. He still has five years remaining on his contract, which carries an annual cap hit of $5.333 million, per CapFriendly. James Reimer, in his first season with the Panthers after signing there for five years and $17 million, played in 43 games with a sound .920 save percentage.

    Once heavily relied upon as a workhorse netminder, starting a career high 75 games one year in Vancouver, the reality is Luongo has a lot of mileage on him and is approaching 40 years of age. As he comes back from this latest injury and considering his age, it will be interesting to see exactly how many starts he gets and who will emerge as the No. 1 goalie in Florida over the course of this upcoming season.

    “Listen, this has always been his team,” Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas told the Miami Herald. “But everyone these days has to manage time better, not just us. Roberto can’t play 60, 65 games a season any more. Reimer shouldn’t either. It only gets tougher every year.”

    Islanders face critical time on and off the ice

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    This post is part of Islanders Day on PHT…

    There is quite a bit on the plate of the New York Islanders. On and off the ice.

    That includes steps toward finding a permanent home.

    That is especially the case given reports last month that this ongoing arena situation — moving from Nassau Coliseum to Barclays Center in Brooklyn to possibly being on the move again to another local destination — is apparently a factor in the delay of getting star forward John Tavares signed to a contract extension.

    Tavares has one year left on his current six-year, $33 million contract. The face of the franchise since the day he went No. 1 overall to the Islanders in 2009, Tavares is a pending unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, provided he doesn’t ink a new contract by then.

    Read more: Poll: Will John Tavares re-sign with the Islanders?

    On the arena front, the Islanders have made their interest in building an arena on land at Belmont Park well-known — a scenario that Tavares believes has “great potential there.” However, it’s been previously outlined that this is a scenario that will still take some time to finalize.

    From Newsday Long Island: 

    Tavares said he is waiting to see what comes of the Request For Proposals issued July 30 by New York state regarding the Belmont Park development. The Islanders, along with the owners of the Mets and a Madison Square Garden-backed sports arena consortium Oak View Group, are expected to pitch building an arena on the 43-acre lot.

    It’s not clear whether the state will select a winner before Tavares would hit unrestricted free agency next July. All bids are due by Sept. 28 and Empire State Development, the state’s primary business development agency which is handling the RFP, has declined to set a timeline after that.

    Of course for Tavares, with an eight-year deal in the offing, he would love to know where he’ll be playing.

    Contract negotiations with star players — especially one that is moving closer toward unrestricted free agency — can provide enough tension for fans. The Islanders are not only facing such a negotiation, but an ongoing arena situation as well, and reports suggest the latter may be complicating the former.

    Meanwhile, the Islanders have won only one playoff series in the eight seasons Tavares has been with the club. They missed out on the postseason earlier this spring.

    Even with a player like Tavares, the Islanders have yet to truly challenge for top spot in the Eastern Conference. For this upcoming season, head coach Doug Weight put onus on the organization to put their star in a position to win and win right now.

    They need to sign their star. They will eventually need to settle their arena situation. And there is added pressure to win as Tavares enters his final year of his contract.
    It’s shaping up to be a critical few months for the Islanders.
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