2011-12 season preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

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2010-11 record: 37-34-11, 85 points; 4th in Northeast, 10th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

The Maple Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since the lockout, but last season ended with at least a glimmer of hope. The team put together a spirited run for one of the final spots on the strength of James Reimer’s breakout performance. They ended up falling short of that goal, but that chunk of games secured the young goalie’s future.

Perhaps even more promisingly, GM Brian Burke’s success rate is rising, as he’s almost ‘batting for average’ rather than swinging for the fences with his transactions. Burke seemingly ‘won’ trades involving Tomas Kaberle, John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson, so maybe Toronto will win enough games to end its postseason curse.

Offense

While Phil Kessel’s team-leading 32 goals and 64 points shouldn’t have been a big surprise, the Leafs benefited from an unexpectedly strong season from the Mikhail Grabovski-Clarke MacArthur-Nikolai Kulemin line. One could expect at least a slight drop in their outputs – especially with Kulemin, who scored 30 goals on the strength of an unsustainable 17.3 shooting percentage – but the trio consists of in-their-prime players so don’t be shocked if they score 20-25 goals each.

The more important matter then is finding offense from different players. That’s where the Leafs’ free-agent consolation prize Tim Connolly comes into play. In a world without injuries, he’d be an outstanding playmaking partner for Kessel’s sniping skills, but his health is the elephant in the room.

Speaking of health concerns, Matthew Lombardi provides more evidence that the Leafs are something of a coin flip. If he ends up playing a substantial amount of games, then the team suddenly looks reasonably deep and versatile at center.

Defense

While it’s reasonable to argue that their blue line only really improved from a scoring standpoint, the Maple Leafs should be a far more potent team after Burke’s shrewd moves. Liles is a double-edged sword of a defenseman, but the positive end can produce a 40-plus point season. Combine his potential with Dion Phaneuf’s hard shot and Toronto could create a lot of offense from the blue line. Franson can also come in and provide some strong offensive skill on the second power-play unit (with perhaps potential for more down the road).

That’s not to say that Toronto’s defense doesn’t have any solid stay-at-home types, though. Luke Schenn is a strong defensive defenseman who should help the Leafs win at least a few more tight games.

Now if they could just reanimate Mike Komisarek, they’d really be onto something.

Goalies

Look, it’s understandable that the Maple Leafs lacked many options for goalies this offseason, but hopefully they at least considered having too much of a good thing by adding Tomas Vokoun. Just about any team with an uncertain netminding situation should have considered him, although the only two teams whose interest went public were teams in fair states goalie-wise: Detroit and Washington.

Instead, Toronto will roll the dice with short-term sensation Reimer and disappointing import Jonas Gustavsson. Reimer could go any number of ways: passable starter, rising star or one-hit wonder. Gustavsson needs to play well this season if he wants to avoid being called the goalie version of Fabian Brunnstrom.

Coaching

Ron Wilson was once (fairly or unfairly) known as ‘the coach who couldn’t win the big one’. Now his critics would probably settle for that much, as the innovation-friendly bench boss probably needs to make the playoffs to keep his job. The roster in front of him is a mixed bag again, but at least this time around the mix of good and bad is far more even.

Breakout candidate

If his knee heals up fairly soon, then Nazem Kadri has a chance to finally justify all the fawning praise he’s received the past couple years. Kadri might have been Burke’s consolation prize when Schenn was (hilariously) swiped from him in the 2009 draft, but he’s one of the Maple Leafs’ most promising prospects. Perhaps he’ll start reaching his potential – whenever he can get on the ice, that is.

Best-case scenario

That Kulemin-MacArthur-Grabovski line produces 80-90 goals between them, Kessel and Connolly produce a lethal one-two punch and the rest of their offense gets by. That explosive defense makes Toronto a nightmare from the point and the standings points follow. Reimer produces an outstanding sequel, proving all of his doubters wrong. The Maple Leafs don’t just make the playoffs – they win a round or two.

Reality

The Maple Leafs are a coin-flip of a team. A lot can go right or wrong – from health to encore seasons and prospect breakthroughs – so it’s a bit difficult to forecast their future, especially since they can make up so much ground in a ridiculously promising January 2012 run.

Again, it’s close to 50-50, but the Maple Leafs have enough ‘ifs’ that it’s probably safer to bet on them falling just short of that precious playoff spot. It’s been a long time since Toronto fans have had so many reasons for optimism, though – so don’t count the Leafs out.

Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

It’s official: Red Wings’ playoff streak ends at 25 seasons

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When we look back at the 2016-17 season for the Detroit Red Wings, it will be remembered for some said endings.

It began without Pavel Datsyuk. We knew that their last game at Joe Louis Arena this season would be their last ever. And now we know that Joe Louis Arena won’t be home to another playoff run.

After 25 straight seasons of making the playoffs – quite often managing deep runs – the Red Wings were officially eliminated on Tuesday night. In getting this far, they enjoyed one of the greatest runs of longevity in NHL history:

Tonight revolves largely around East teams winning and teams clinching bids – the Edmonton Oilers could very well end the league’s longest playoff drought this evening – but this story is more solemn.

EA Sports tweeted out a great infographic:

“Right now it’s hard to talk about it, because you’re a big reason why it’s not continuing,” Henrik Zetterberg said in an NHL.com report absolutely worth your time.

Mike “Doc” Emrick narrated a great look back at Joe Louis Arena here: