James Reimer, Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel

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.

Lightning, Islanders make East playoff races even more confusing

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 01: Ben Bishop #30 of the Tampa Bay Lightning makes the third period save as Ryan Strome #18 of the New York Islanders looks for a rebound at the Barclays Center on November 1, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Whenever you groan at what seems like a quiet trade market, take a step back and ask yourself this: “Who is really out of it?”

For a while there, it felt reasonable to dismiss the chances of teams like the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. Now? There’s probably only a handful of teams that can really be comfortable, at this very point, with calling themselves sellers.

The Islanders took care of their business with a 3-1 win against the fading (probably selling?) Detroit Red Wings, even with Petr Mrazek making a save like this.

Meanwhile, Ben Bishop might just be putting his game together (while Nikita Kucherov‘s game remains very much together) as the Tampa Bay Lightning throttled the Edmonton Oilers 4-1. Bishop might just end up being indispensable – or at least not worth trading – as he’s on a five-game winning streak.

With those wins, the races for the last seemingly available Eastern Conference playoff spots just get that much muddier.*

Third place in the Atlantic: Maple Leafs – 67 points in 59 games, 28 wins, 27 ROW

Second wild card: Panthers – 66 points in 58 GP, 28 W, 25 ROW

Bruins – 66 points in 59 GP, 30 W, 28 ROW
Islanders – 66 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 27 ROW
Flyers – 63 points in 59 GP, 28 W, 23 ROW
Lightning – 62 points in 59 GP, 27 W, 25 ROW
Sabres – 62 points in 60 GP, 26 W, 25 ROW

Wow, that’s crazy-close. Naturally, teams like the Islanders and Flyers lack the luxury of having a third spot in reasonable reach – unless things get truly wild – but that’s quite the congested group of playoff hopefuls.

And, sure, the Bolts are among those facing longer odds, but the way things keep swinging wildly this season, who knows? Especially with a team with a track record of success and high expectations like the Lightning.

* – We’ll arbitrarily cut off the East race at the Devils, but just in case you’re wondering, they have 60 points, the Red Wings have 58 and the Hurricanes have 56. Also, the Ottawa Senators hold the second spot in the Atlantic with 70 points and the Montreal Canadiens lead the division with 72, so that group could see quite a bit of movement over the last quarter of the season.

Forsberg’s hat trick, own-goal highlights Predators’ wild OT loss to Flames

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If you want to summarize the kind of night the Nashville Predators experienced, you could do worse than to draw parallels to Filip Forsberg‘s experiences.

The highs were quite high, you see. Forsberg & Co. carved away at the Calgary Flames’ 4-1 lead as his hat trick (see above) eventually gave the Predators a fleeting 5-4 edge.

We all should have seen more drama coming … and it did. Forsberg ended up being at the wrong place at the wrong time in overtime; the Flames’ 6-5 overtime winner ended up going off of his foot. Ouch.

Mark Giordano ended up being credited with that goal. The game was just a barn-burner.

While it was an up-and-down night for both the Flames and Predators, Pekka Rinne‘s evening was pretty much uniformly dismal.

Rinne was pulled early in the second period after giving up four goals on 13 shots, making way for Juuse Saros (who actually ended up gtting tagged with the loss).

The Flames can breathe a sigh of relief after winning the game despite coughing up a big lead, improving to 64 points and strengthening their grip on the second wild card spot. That “charity point” comes in handy for Nashville, leaving the Predators with 65 points and a game in hand on the Flames.

Serious performance: Blackhawks gain on Wild thanks to Toews’ five points

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If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to make up some serious ground and overtake the Minnesota Wild for the Central Division title, they’ll need wins like these.

It’s only fitting that “Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews did the heavy lifting, generating a hat trick and two assists as the Blackhawks beat the Wild 5-3 on Tuesday.

Yes, Toews was involved in every goal. And yes, the Blackhawks won this one in regulation after beating the Wild in overtime last time around. It’s a nice swing for Chicago:

Central Division title chase

1. Wild – 84 points in 59 games (39 wins, 36 ROW)
2. Blackhawks – 79 points in 60 games (37 wins, 35 ROW)

Yeah, that’s still a substantial edge for Minnesota … but this is a significant swing.

Even beyond the name recognition that comes with Toews & Co., the Blackhawks’ push shouldn’t be surprising. They’re red-hot in February so far, going 7-1-0 despite playing seven of eight on the road (strangely losing that lone home contest).

The Wild have played reasonably well in their own right, yet this loss sends them into a bye week with some frustration … and maybe some questions about whether they can hold the Blackhawks off.

Also, tonight marked a nice milestone for Joel Quenneville:

Matthews, Leafs get last laugh in OT vs. Laine and the Jets

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Hockey fans tend to get their radars up about over-hyping things, particularly promising rookies.

Is it hasty, then, to wonder if there’s something to a rivalry between Auston Matthews (and the Maple Leafs) vs. Patrik Laine (plus the Jets)? If nothing else, the two have come up big in two very exciting games.

Back in October, Laine generated a hat trick as the Jets beat the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. This time around, it was another 5-4 overtime decision … only Matthews and the Maple Leafs took this round.

This isn’t to take anything away from Laine’s performance, mind you. He scored two goals on Tuesday, becoming the rare modern rookie to muster 30 goals. He reminded hockey fans that he only needs the smallest window to make you pay with his deadly, world-class shot.

MORE on that goal and the violence that ensued here.

But Matthews wouldn’t be denied, either, and fittingly did so in a quieter fashion. (Virtually everyone seems a little quieter when Laine’s around, it seems.)

The Maple Leafs’ outstanding rookie managed three assists in this game, giving him 52 points in 59 games. He also has six points in a three-game run and eight in his past five.

Laine? He now has 54 points in 55 games, extending is own point streak to five games (seven goals, three assists).

In other words, it’s really close … just like the games when these two budding stars (and their young, promising teammates) meet.

You might even be tempted to believe the hype.