Saturday, September 25, 2010

Optimism Abound

nazem kadri leafs happy
It’s the start of another season and since January 31st the Leafs have made drastic changes to the line-up that started last year so poorly.

The beginning of every season provides ample opportunities to get overly excited and make rash predictions about how the season will fare. Let’s just say I’m glad I started this blog after the start of last season, otherwise there would be a very erroneous prediction forever engraved on the internet.

This year is different. I’m certainly still optimistic about the Leafs’ chances this season, which is my usual September feeling, but I also recognize the reasons I should be pessimistic. The Leafs did finish second last a year ago.

Without a first round pick (yet again) Leafs Nation will be fully committed to a winning season. Tank Nation is dead. With the season about to begin here are five reasons to be optimistic, five reasons to be pessimistic, and five reasons to be realistic about the upcoming Leafs’ season.

Reasons to be Optimistic

1. The No Toskala Corollary

I can’t stress how much of an improvement Giguere and Gustavsson are over Toskala and Gustavsson.

A surgically repaired Vesa Toskala was essentially worse than an injured Vesa Toskala considering his save percentage actually dipped from .891 in 2008-2009 to .874 last season.

This atrocity put an unfair burden on Jonas Gustavsson in his rookie season. Not only did the Monster have to battle two heart surgeries early in his career (making every Leafs fan dredge up fears of Luca Cereda), but he was left out to dry by a terrible team in front of him.

Everything turned around with the arrival of Giguere, who provided a calm stability in the nets, which the Leafs have sorely lacked for years. Giguere’s arrival also coincided with an upturn in play by the Monster who finished the season going 7-3-1 with a .910% and 2.80 GAA.

Can we lay the blame for the disaster of 2009-2010 on Vesa Toskala? Sure, let’s roll with it. You owe us a second overall pick, Vesa.

2. Muscle Milk

Everyone has been drinking protein shakes like crazy this summer considering most of the young players have packed on major muscle this off-season.

One of the major criticisms about the Leafs centre depth is that they are undersized. It’s true that none of the Leafs’ centres are hulking, but Tyler Bozak is 6’1 and close to 200 pounds while Nazem Kadri is 5’11 and over 185 pounds. As a comparison, Sidney Crosby is 5’11, 200 pounds and no one criticises him for being undersized.

Even Luke Schenn, a hearty 215 pounds last season, is up to 235 pounds. He’s now built like a small truck.

3. Bounce Backs, Baby

Both Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchmin had bad years last season. Both tried to do way too much at the start of the year to justify their large contracts and endear themselves to their new fan base.

Komisarek in particular was horrible. Then he seemed to simplify his game and he played pretty well. Then he hurt his shoulder and was out for the season. It wasn’t a very good first season in the blue and white.

Without Komisarek and before the arrival of Phaneuf, Beauchemin was miscast as a number one defenceman and suffered terribly playing against the opposition’s best forwards each night. He routinely made bad pinches and seemed lost at times. After Phaneuf arrived Beauchemin seemed to relax and looked visibly relieved to no longer be the alpha dog on the blue line.

If the Leafs receive bounce back years from both players and get the two defencemen everyone saw in Montreal and Anaheim the Leafs should have one of the better defences in the league.

This is where my optimism really lies. I’m a big believer in bounce back years and primarily base my fantasy sports strategy around it.

4. A Full Year from Phil the Thrill

Kessel missed the first month of last season, including training camp, yet still put up 30 goals despite being the only real first line talent on the team. Being relentlessly checked by opposing defenders didn’t stop Kessel.

A full off-season to gain strength should help, as should a full training camp, which makes it exciting to see what Kessel is able to do over a full season. He’s the first Leaf since Mats Sundin capable of hitting 40 goals (and we’re talking about early-2000s Mats Sundin).

If that doesn’t excite you then you should probably watch this clip.

5. No First Round Pick

Is there any better reason for optimism? If you can’t convince yourself to be optimistic for a Leafs’ season when they have no first round pick I think you’re too far gone.

Reasons to be Pessimistic

1. Jonas Gustavsson’s Unspectacular Numbers

Even though the Monster finished the season on a strong note his numbers over the course of the entire season weren’t spectacular. Jonas finished the season with a 16-15-9 mark, with a .902% and 2.87 GAA.

Leaf fans were treated by Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft routinely performing below the .900% mark, so it seems incredible when a goalie actually surpasses this save percentage, but that isn’t exactly a lofty goal.

The Monster is still only 25-years-old, but his rookie season suggests he’s far from a sure-thing and shouldn’t be counted on to shoulder a heavy workload.

2. Ron Wilson

I think I’ve convinced myself that Ron Wilson is a bad coach. I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate. However, you always need someone on your team to hate. You need a lightning rod for criticism. In previous years I blamed Aki Berg (my personal favourite whipping boy), Jyrki Lumme, Nik Antropov (when he took all those high sticking penalties before he became good), Vesa Toskala, and Andrew Raycroft. The Pat Quinn years had some golden selections where I assumed sexual favours were exchanged for playing time otherwise Robert Reichel had no business playing.

This season I can’t find any players to hate. The useless Rickard Wallin is gone; John Mitchell is too insignificant to make a difference either way; and Vesa Toskala has been exiled. I refuse to turn on Kaberle and I genuinely like pretty much all the Leafs. It’s rare. The only way to solve this problem is to hate Wilson. It’s not like he makes it particularly hard. He’s abrasive and employs a sardonic wit that makes him feel a little too proud of himself. I just picture him with a smirk on his face at all times.

Somehow this all fits as a reason to be pessimistic.

3. Special Teams

This is directly tied to the previous reason. The Leafs have owned the worst special teams over the past two seasons under Ron Wilson. Their penalty kill was dead last both seasons and their power-play’s high mark was only 18%.

Adding Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong should help, and technically the Leafs’ penalty kill did improve substantially after the big deals last year (I’m so optimistic I’m having trouble staying fully pessimistic even for the sake of an article), but it’s a stretch to think the Leafs will make the kind of major improvement that will produce substantial change in the standings.

4. Unmotivated Kaberle

For the past few seasons, Kaberle was shopped harder than the liquor store on the day they hand out welfare checks. Do you think there’s any way he puts his body in the way of a puck or dares put his gently body in the way of an oncoming forward? The man hardly shoots the puck as it is. How many times will fans bellow, “SHOOT!” during the season? I’d wager a lot.

5. Tyler Seguin

This should really fall into its own category – bitter. But really, if Seguin starts tearing it up while the Leafs falter it will put Leafs Nation over the edge. I’m just going to leave it at that.

Reasons to be Realistic

1. Phil Kessel’s Health

If Phil Kessel is injured for any substantial amount of time the Leafs’ offense goes from underwhelming to non-existent. He’s the only player capable of scoring every single night and the only player that other teams really need to plan their game around.

It’s highly unlikely that with Kessel out of the line-up for any extended period of time the Leafs will receive enough scoring from young players like Kadri, Bozak, and Kulemin to compensate.

2. Nazem Kadri is 19-years-old

This is not the saviour of the franchise (yet?). Even if he is, it won’t happen this year. People expecting Kadri to enter the league and dominate are being unrealistic. Sure, he could push 50 points, but he could also score less than 25.

Expecting a player this young to propel the Leafs from the bottom of the Eastern Conference is crazy. Please don’t make Naz turn bust. Let him develop. If that means he starts the season in the AHL, so be it.

3. Improvements Around the Eastern Conference

The Leafs aren’t the only team that improved over the off-season. The only non-Eastern Conference playoff team who didn’t improve over the off-season was Florida. They'll be awful.

Atlanta lost Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Kubina, Max Afinagenov, and Colby Armstrong, but they added every non-star from the Blackhawks and have young players like Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom, and Zack Bogosian.

The Rangers had an uneventful off-season, aside from adding Alexander Frolov, but they’re a total enigma. When you think they will be good, they’re terrible. And when you think they will be terrible, they’re good.

The same goes for the Carolina Hurricanes. It seems like they have the same team every season, yet one year they’ll make the Conference Final and the next they’ll be a bottom-10 team.

Tampa Bay made additions to their already solid top-6 forward group and the Islanders have a good group of young, talented players.

The Leafs have improved since last season, but so did a lot of other teams.

4. The Leafs are Super Young

Toronto’s roster is the second youngest in the entire league. Their average age is slightly under 26.5 years. The only team younger is the Colorado Avalanche.

Since the Leafs are young they will make lots of young mistakes. It might be hard at times to watch them go through these growing pains.

5. Don’t Be This Guy


Greg said...

Khadri is starting the year with the Marlies, needs too much work to stay in NHL.

Toskala leaving improves the team by 5-10 points on its own.

Susan said...

Young and talented would be nice, like so many other young teams are. But we don't draft so we don't add young talent much.

Team chemistry is so important, and I'm one (of many) not impressed with Komaserik, if he ever stops losing the puck and losing his man, fine.

Matt Horner said...

Drafting isn't the only way to acquire young talent. Burke has acquired Phaneuf, Kessel, Versteeg, Bozak, and Gustavsson and none of them are over 25. You might have issue with some of the ways he went about acquiring them, but that doesn't mean they aren't young talent.

The Panthers have primarily used the draft as a method for acquiring young players and they have been re-building for the past decade.

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