Published September 29, 2011
| Sports Network
In recent years, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs haven't been given many reasons to be hopeful about the future.
The arrival of James Reimer as a steadying influence in the crease has seemed to change that. For the time being, anyway.
The rabid, but impatient fan base in Toronto hasn't experienced a Stanley Cup title since 1967, and the current string of six straight seasons out of the playoffs has the faithful eagerly awaiting a player to deliver the Leafs from misery.
The spotlight will be on Reimer this year, as fans and hockey pundits alike try to determine if the 23-year-old netminder is the club's savior or if his impressive 37-game stretch in 2010-11 was just a mirage.
Of course, whether or not the Maple Leafs make the playoffs is not entirely up to Reimer. Toronto GM Brian Burke has made all kinds of moves since taking the reins in November of 2008, but his club is still very much a work in progress.
The team has room for improvement in all areas of the game, but it would be nice if Reimer could take goaltending off that list.
FORWARDS - Considering that the Maple Leafs finished 21st in the league in offense (2.60 goals per game) and 24th in defense (2.99 gpg), Reimer's ability to be a difference maker was a big reason the club even threatened for a playoff spot last season.
Burke hopes Toronto improved on both ends of the ice this offseason and his strategy on offense has been to get better down the middle. The Maple Leafs signed centermen Tim Connolly and traded for Matthew Lombardi this summer to help fix the pivot problem.
In fact, Toronto expects Connolly to jump into the No. 1 center spot alongside top winger Phil Kessel.
The 30-year-old Connolly played his last eight NHL seasons in Buffalo, but he was lured to Toronto this summer with a two-year, $9.5 million contract. His career-high point total of 65 came two years ago and Connolly had 42 points (13 goals, 29 assists) in 68 games with the Sabres last year.
Connolly is known as a playmaker and that bodes well for Kessel, who at 23 years of age has already compiled 128 NHL goals.
Kessel had a solid 2010-11 campaign, leading the team in both goals (32) and points (64), but everything the American sniper does is tempered by the trade that brought him to Toronto and the subsequent five-year, $27 million deal he signed to stay with the Leafs.
Burke gave up two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to acquire Kessel from Boston and the fact that the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Bruins needed those selections a heck of a lot less than Toronto did understandably irks some people. Still, for better or worse, Kessel is Toronto's best player, although his minus-20 rating in 2010-11 needs to get better.
Either Joffrey Lupul or Clarke MacArthur will play the left wing opposite Kessel on the top line. MacArthur was second on the team with 62 points (21g, 41a) last year, while Lupul had nine goals and nine assists in 28 games after coming over in a trade with Anaheim.
Last year's top centerman Mikhail Grabovski will slide down to the second line after turning in career-bests last year in games played (81), goals (29) and assists (29). Although he's not expected to play with Kessel as much, the Leafs have another promising winger in Nikolai Kulemin to stick on the second unit.
Kulemin, the 44th overall pick by Toronto in the 2006 draft, had 15 and 16 goals in 2008-09 and 2009-10, respectively, before exploding for 30 markers last season. The Maple Leafs are counting on the 25-year-old Russian to approach, or even surpass, the 30-goal mark in 2011-12.
Lombardi, meanwhile, should be an upgrade as the third-line centerman, but he hasn't played since suffering a concussion with Nashville in the second game of last season. The 29-year-old Lombardi, who had 53 points (19g, 34a) in 78 games with Phoenix in 2009-10, signed a four-year deal with the Predators last summer. Lombardi was then acquired by Burke in a trade this offseason, and although he is questionable for the start of the season, he has made big strides towards getting back on the ice.
Left wing prospect Nazem Kadri will likely get his first full season in the NHL this year after posting just nine points (3g, 9a) in 29 games last year. The 20-year-old was the seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft and Toronto expects more from him in 2011-12.
It wouldn't be a Burke team without a legitimate enforcer and the Leafs certainly have one in winger Colton Orr, who amassed 128 penalty minutes in just 46 games last year.
DEFENSE - The Maple Leafs' blue line is loaded with size, but big isn't always better and that was the case last year when not one of the club's primary defensemen finished the 2010-11 season with a plus-rating.
Still, there is a ton of potential in the top pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Luke Schenn and the addition of John Michael-Liles and Cody Franson this summer should fill the offensive void left by the departure of Tomas Kaberle.
Phaneuf had his first season as Toronto's captain last year and he compiled eight goals and 30 points despite missing 16 games with a leg injury. The 26- year-old may not be worth the annual $6.5 million cap hit, but he still has a heavy slapshot from the point and is known to deliver huge hits.
While Phaneuf was a ninth overall pick by Calgary in 2003, the 21-year-old Schenn was taken by Toronto with the fifth pick in 2008. Schenn, who had a career-high 22 points (5g, 17a) in 2010-11, is coming along slowly, but the Leafs still believe he has the defensive ability to be an excellent shutdown guy in the NHL.
Carl Gunnarsson is another homegrown defensive prospect and he turned in a decent sophomore season last year, compiling 20 points (4g, 16a) over 68 games.
Liles proved himself as one of the better offensive defensemen in the league over the last several seasons in Colorado and Toronto, which acquired the 30- year-old in a trade this summer, and hopes he can carry that offense over to the Leafs. Liles had 275 points in 523 games with the Avalanche, including six goals and 40 assists last year. His puck-moving ability could help boost a power-play that ranked 22nd in the league in 2010-11.
Franson came over in the trade that landed Lombardi and the 24-year-old is coming off a strong sophomore campaign in the NHL. He recorded 29 points (8g, 21a) in 80 regular season games and added one goal and five assists in 12 playoff contests.
Reimer had an inauspicious NHL debut on December 20 of last year, mopping up after a poor Gustavsson start. However, by the end of year the 23-year-old would garner 35 starts and compile an impressive 20-10-5 record to go with an excellent .921 save percentage and a 2.60 goals-against average.
With Reimer installed as the main man in net the Leafs made an improbable run for a spot in the playoffs, but they wound up finishing 10th in the East and eight points out of a postseason berth. Not bad for a team that had just 13 wins before the New Year.
Reimer will enter this season as the clear No. 1 and that's a whole lot of pressure for a guy who was originally expected to spend a few more years in the AHL before his surprise 2010-11 campaign with the Leafs.
With Reimer earning a three-year, $5.4 million deal in the offseason, and Gustavsson signed through this season, the Maple Leafs let the veteran Giguere walk this summer.
Gustavsson needs to get better this season, even if he's been relegated to backing up Reimer. The man affectionately known as "The Monster" had a scary year in 2010-11, going 6-13-2 with a dreadful 3.29 GAA.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Maple Leafs are still a very young team in the middle of a long rebuilding period, so Reimer fever aside, fans in Toronto should temper their expectations for a playoff run this season. Still, it's hard to ignore how well the Leafs played down the stretch with Reimer and if he's able to pick up where he left off then Toronto could conceivably grab one of the last playoff spots in the East. First and foremost, this season should be about Toronto getting to a level where they compete for wins on a nightly basis. The club has laid many a stinker in recent seasons and until the Leafs prove they can be consistent, they won't be a playoff team.