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.

Lehtera: Trade from Blues to Flyers will be ‘good for me’

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Let’s be honest. Jori Lehtera felt like a bit of an afterthought in the trade that sent Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues and some significant picks to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Just consider the PHT headline: “Flyers send Schenn to Blues, take on Lehtera’s contract.”

That’s certainly a fair way to look at it, as the Flyers received the 27th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft and a conditional first-rounder in the deal. Would they have gotten such a haul for Schenn if they didn’t absord Lehtera’s $4.7 million cap hit, which expires after 2018-19?

Again, it’s easy to lose track of the human factor, as Lehtera was moved from the only NHL team he’s ever suited up for. While he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the news brought out both good and bad emotions, the 29-year-old believes that he’ll benefit on the ice.

“I have no idea why (the Blues traded me), but I think it’s better for me that I got traded, so I don’t really care why,” Lehtera said. “That’s the business part of hockey. It’s always tough to leave when you know all of the guys and the city. But hockey-wise, it’s going to be good for me. I didn’t play well at the end, but I think a new start will be really good for me.”

It’s been an interesting few years for Lehtera.

His numbers have dropped from his nifty rookie season (14 goals, 44 points) to 2015-16 (34 points) and finally last season (22 points).

Context matters, naturally, as centering a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko inflated his numbers, especially earlier on.

Still, that couldn’t have been a promising trend for both the player and the team.

The challenge will be to really make a mark with Philly. With Claude Giroux, Valtteri Filppula, Sean Couturier, and possibly even Nolan Patrick in the way, Lehtera would have plenty of competition down the middle. It wouldn’t be shocking if he was asked to move to the wing on occasion.

Lehtera certainly has plenty to prove, but he also gets a chance to make a positive first impression. If he can make an impact, then he’ll make Flyers GM Ron Hextall look that much brighter in the process.

Report: Avalanche will soon have AHL affiliate in Colorado

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There are upgrades that improve teams in dramatic ways, and then there are moves that improve quality of life.

Mike Chambers of The Denver Post reports that the Colorado Avalanche will make a tweak that would likely be a big plus in the quality of life category: starting in 2018-19, the Colorado Eagles will be their AHL affiliate. The Eagles will be bumped from an ECHL team to the AHL.

At the moment, the Avs’ affiliate is the San Antonio Rampage (pictured). So, yeah, there will be a nice advantage in a) calling players up and b) management having more opportunities to keep an eye on prospects.

The Budweiser Events Center is about a one-hour drive to the Pepsi Center according to Google Maps, depending upon traffic. So yeah, that’s an easier situation than traveling from Texas.

The Avalanche haven’t made this news official; Chambers cites two anonymous sources. With the change coming for 2018-19, it’s possible that confirmation might not come for a while. More from Chambers:

The Avs, citing their contract with the Rampage, declined comment, but vice president Jean Martineau confirmed the team’s contract with San Antonio ends after the 2017-18 season. Eagles general manager Chris Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Will Rangers fans warm up to Vigneault this season?

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

From the way many New York Rangers fans discuss Alain Vigneault, you’d think he was presiding over the era of 1997-98 to 2003-04, when the Rangers missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons.

Impressive results

From a sheer win-loss standpoint, Vigneault’s been a success, even if the Rangers haven’t been able to win it all. The Rangers’ points percentage has been at .628, almost as strong as his .632 mark with the Canucks, when AV took Vancouver within one win of that elusive Stanley Cup title.

(Breaking: things haven’t gone so smoothly for Vancouver since he left town.)

The Rangers are 192-108-28 under Vigneault. They made an unexpected run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final and also brought them to the 2015 Eastern Conference Final.

Plenty of critics

Of course, Vigneault wasn’t on the ice winning those games, and many would (understandably) attribute the Rangers’ successes to the players, most notably Henrik Lundqvist. In the eyes of many, this team’s successes come despite Vigneault.

Again, the criticisms are often as harsh as they are widespread.

Sometimes people find his defensive pairing decisions maddening. If you want to make some Rangers fans wince, just utter the name Tanner Glass. SBNation Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter provides a portal into such angst, with headlines like “Rangers demise started at the top” and failing grades for his playoff maneuvering.

Twitter can honestly get a little weird with the AV vitriol, although … maybe that’s to be expected? Consider this a random example that’s on the more, well, SFW spectrum:

Not everyone is bashing Vigneault, mind you, but his critics can sometimes resemble a chorus.

Glass floor

Of course, any passionate fan base will have its qualms with coaches. People have been discussing “the pros and cons of Alain Vigneault” for ages.

It’s easy to get caught up in your favorite team and ignore the notion that virtually every coach has “their guys.”

In this case, “their guys” means marginal players whose elevated roles leaves fans shaking their heads. Jon Cooper seemingly favored Andrej Sustr and arguably never really trusted Jonathan Drouin. Maple Leafs fans weren’t always thrilled to see, say, Roman Polak getting serious minutes. The list goes on and on.

A turning point?

With that in mind, the 2017-18 season could be an especially fascinating chapter in the love-hate affair between Rangers fans and Vigneault.

Frankly, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton took measures to protect Vigneault from himself, and those changes might just leave fans begrudgingly agreeing with more AV moves than usual … or it might send some over the edge if old habits die hard.

As much as people criticize individual moves, Vigneault made a strong argument that he’s a versatile coach in 2016-17, taking a more modern approach with the Rangers. It mostly worked, and now this team has better tools to improve their transition game.

To an extent, it’s addition by subtraction, as Dan Girardi‘s time mercifully ends, and with it the motivation for AV to give him big minutes. This opens the door for more mobile defenders to get time, such as promising young blueliner Brady Skjei.

The actual additions are most important. Kevin Shattenkirk stands, on paper, as a massive upgrade, especially if he slides into a pairing with Ryan McDonagh (who some believe has been dragged down by Girardi for years).

Another key will be how Marc Staal is used. If the emphasis shifts from Staal to Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei, Brendan Smith and maybe even Anthony DeAngelo, stats-minded Rangers fans might be pleased.

Maybe most importantly for the mental health of some fans, that lure to put Glass in the lineup is also gone.

***

To some extent, criticisms are just the nature of the beast for coaches in professional sports. Vigneault’s been around long enough to realize that.

Even so, the highs and lows of Vigneault can sometimes be quite dramatic, making him a polarizing subject for fans. This season should be especially interesting to watch from the perspective of Rangers fans, whether AV makes changes or continues to frustrate them in familiar ways.

Rick Nash at career crossroads in contract year

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

New York Rangers GM Jeff Gorton has indeed done a great job managing the team’s salary structure. In that context, it might be tough to justify the idea of extending an aging power forward who will be 34 when his current deal expires next summer.

There are more than a few people who believe that the Rangers would be wise to bring Rick Nash back, however. Just recently, Josh Lipman made such an argument for Fansided and a similar thought surfaced from Jackson Heil of The Hockey Writers.

Of course, wherever Nash goes, he figures to see a decrease in pay – maybe a drastic drop – from the $7.8 million cap hit that expires after 2017-18.

For Nash, it’s a fork in the road during what’s been a somewhat odd career.

Nash is closing in on 500 career goals, as the winger already produced 416 in 989 regular-season games. He’s become quite the specialist in New York, scoring 127 goals vs. 97 assists in 315 contests with the Rangers.

On those playoff questions

As Rangers fans likely know too well, there have been some playoff headaches.

It’s wrong to say that Nash has never enjoyed postseason success. In 19 games during their 2015 run, he managed 14 points. He also had four points in what was otherwise a miserable five-game series for the Rangers against the Penguins in 2016.

His strange run of bad luck resurfaced this past postseason, so for all we know, Nash might not ever fully silence critics regarding his supposed lack of “clutch play.”

Best option available?

When people picture Nash’s future, many envision him hitting the free agent market in 2018.

The Rangers might not be so wise to outright dismiss bringing Nash back, though. New York boasts some nice forwards, but it’s plausible that Nash could remain one of their most reliable snipers, even at an advanced age. Lipman points out that Nash easily outclasses other Rangers during his time with the team from a sniping perspective; while he generated 127 goals during that time, the second-most prolific scorer was Derek Stepan, who only managed 90.

It’s worth noting that, despite being limited to 67 regular-season games in 2016-17, Nash still scored 23 goals. Nash generated 42 goals as recently as 2014-15, which was one of his only healthy campaigns with the Rangers.

Now, it’s rarely safe to assume that a player will become more durable as he ages, so that’s another concern to consider.

Still, if the price is reasonable, Nash brings a lot to the table.

The 2017-18 season stands as a year that could have a huge impact on Nash’s future. The Rangers should at least keep an open mind about being a part of his future beyond this next season.