Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Can't Fight This Feeling

james reimer lupul leafs
I am fighting an opponent I can't win against: my heart.

Those are the words of the incomparable Jose Canseco. Of course, he spelt opponent 'apponent', but his words still carry meaning. 

Those words might as well describe my feelings towards the Maple Leafs. No matter what they put me through, they still grab hold of my heart and refuse to let go.

This off-season the Leafs have made changes to their line-up once again, and just like some idiot that never learns, I’m drinking the Kool-Aid. The heart is a powerful thing. Consequently, I’m convinced this season is different from all the others! Hmm, that sounds eerily familiar.

But I’m not such an idiot that I think this team is the 1976 Montreal Canadiens reincarnated (that reference hurt). There are reasons to seriously doubt the Leafs and I acknowledge them (and hate them).

With the season gearing up, here are five reasons to be optimistic, five reasons to be pessimistic, and five reasons to be realistic about the upcoming season.

Reasons to be Optimistic

1. We got a goalie!

Remember last season when the Leafs were supposed to be far superior to some of the previous years simply because they didn’t have Vesa Toskala? Well, they weren’t. J.S. Giguere battled injuries and inconsistency, whereas Jonas Gustavsson battled both poor play and a rational hatred of his teammates.

Thankfully, the Leafs’ white knight, James Reimer, rode gallantly into Toronto in January to save the Leafs from another miserable finish. Reimer’s .921 SV% was the highest by a Toronto netminder since 2002-2003 when Ed Belfour posted a .922 SV%.

Reimer is the first home-grown hope in net since Felix Potvin burst on the scene in the 1990s. If Reimer can simply provide the Leafs with stable, average goaltending it will go a long way to ending the Leafs’ interminable playoff drought.

2. Ending the season strong

The Leafs went 24-15-7 once James Reimer took over the team and began an 18-9-6 run at the beginning of February. Their record with Reimer netted them 55 points in 46 games, extrapolated over an entire season this results in 98 points; their record starting in February netted them 42 points in 33 games, resulting in 104 points extrapolated over the course of a season. My God! Those are playoff numbers.

Of course, the Leafs have played well down the stretch for the past five seasons and it hasn’t resulted in a playoff berth yet ( But there’s just something different about this team. I can feel it. That too sounds oddly familiar...

3. Upgrades

The Leafs have made upgrades at key positions. I’ve already covered that James Reimer is a major upgrade in net from the past few seasons and that will be crucial.

The defence should also be better. Yes, Beauchemin is gone and although he was effective, albeit out of his element, he was not missed after being traded.

Cody Franson is an upgrade over Brett Lebda, which isn’t very hard, but it’s still an upgrade.

John-Michael Liles isn’t a true upgrade over Tomas Kaberle, but he hasn’t suffered through years of relentless beating by the Toronto media, so he should at least have greater motivation than Kaberle did last season.

Upfront, Joffrey Lupul played at a higher level in the second half of the season than Kris Vertsteeg did during the first half of the season. Lupul was able to find chemistry with Phil Kessel on the first line, something Versteeg was never able to achieve.

Tim Connolly is an upgrade over Tyler Bozak on the first line. Since the lockout, Connolly has averaged 0.83 points-per-game, which is close to 70 points over a full season, although the chances of a full season from Connolly are nil (see: pessimism section).

And the third line centre is now either Tyler Bozak or, hopefully, Matthew Lombardi, both of whom possess higher offensive talent than Tim Brent did. Lombardi has the better two-way game, but Bozak is still young, so hopefully isn’t a lost cause defensively.

The line-up is far from perfect, but, on paper, it's a lot better than last year.

4. System depth – no, really, I’m being serious!

After years of owning a barren cupboard, the Leafs system is finally stocked with some legitimate prospects. There is no sure-thing star, but there is enough talent to make up another wave of quality players to replace some of the current players on the roster.

By adding Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles to the defence, the Leafs now have 7 NHL calibre defencemen (yes, I’m including you, Mike Komisarek). Keith Aulie is waiver exempt, so it would not surprise me if he spent some time in the AHL this season if he struggles.

The influx of defencemen also means that both Jake Gardiner and Jesse Blacker can spend a full season in the AHL, which will be excellent for their development. The Leafs won’t be forced into rushing either. Even if there are injuries at the NHL level, which there will be, the Leafs can start Matt Lashoff, who can be a decent fill-in over the short-term.

The Leafs’ newfound depth at centre also means they can let Joe Colborne spend a full season in the AHL. I’m all for letting the kids develop. The Leafs aren’t so desperate for the playoffs that they will risk rushing some of their younger players. Some in Leafs Nation may want that, but it isn’t the right decision. Be patient!

5. Don’t be such a negative Nancy (or Nigel)

Negative people suck. Haven’t you ever been around someone who constantly complains and sees the world through a glass half-empty attitude? Those people suck. Don’t be them.

I don’t see how you can be negative when everything looks like it’s slowly turning around in Toronto. Can’t you just feel the optimism surrounding this team and the entire city in general? The Leafs are starting to build in the right direction and so are the Jays. The Raptors, well, they’re still garbage, but there probably won’t even be an NBA season, so who cares. Basketball aside, this could be the dawn of a new era in Toronto sports! One that isn’t shitty!

Don’t you want to get in on this early before all the bandwagoners start to hop on?

Reasons to be Pessimistic

1. Special Teams

This past season was actually the Leafs' best year killing penalties under Ron Wilson and they were still 28th in the league. If the Leafs do not improve their penalty kill there is no way they make the playoffs. None.

The power-play hasn’t been all that better. It was 22nd last year. Tomas Kaberle led the power-play about as well as a blind squirrel.

Let's just move on.

2. Goals?

The Leafs received career years from Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, and Nikolai Kulemin, plus had Phil Kessel score his customary 30 goals, yet still found themselves in the bottom half of the league in offence, ranking 23rd.

The big question remains: will the Leafs score enough goals to make a substantial jump in the standings?

Montreal made the playoffs despite scoring two fewer goals than the Leafs, but they also allowed 42 fewer goals. So maybe the better question isn’t who is going to score, but…

3. Who is going to stop the goals?

On paper, the Leafs have a good defence. But I said the same thing about the team before they acquired Dion Phaneuf in 2010 and they ended up being brutal. This wasn’t just blind Leafs patriotism either; I remember Montreal fans conceded the Leafs defence looked pretty good, or at least improved, after signing Komisarek and Beauchemin (on paper of course).

Accordingly, I’m not taking anything for granted this season. The Leafs defence should be good, but the team hasn’t finished better than 25th in goals against since the first year after the lockout when they ranked 21st (yet they still gave up a whopping 3.21 goals per game that season).

Sure, the poor goals against is intrinsically related to the quality of goaltending, but the players in front of Reimer will have to play a better style than ‘hey, let’s just hope Reimer bails us out’.

I’m waiting for the Leafs to show me they can play defence before I proclaim them the second-coming of the 1995 New Jersey Devils.

4. Tim Connolly’s Precarious Health

The Leafs new number one centre hasn’t played over 75 games since 2002-2003. In three of the last five seasons he has played less than 50 games; in one of those he only played two games. He’s injured pretty much every part of his body in his NHL career, which include two serious concussions that caused him to miss close to two full seasons.

Connolly's chances of staying healthy for an entire 82 games is improbable. If he manages to play 70 games it will be outstanding.

Your new number one centre, Leafs Nation! Well, at least for some of the season.

5. Ron Wilson is still the coach

The Leafs may have replaced both Keith Acton and Tim Hunter as assistant coaches with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, but Ron Wilson still remains.

I am a patient man, but the Leafs have shown no improvement on the penalty kill, which is the most coachable aspect of a hockey club. Brian Burke has given Wilson plenty of different personnel and has made upgrades to the team each season, yet Wilson still cannot make the Leafs anything more than a lottery team. Thankfully, James Reimer pulled the team out of their death spiral and gave Leafs Nation legitimate hope.

Ron Wilson is here to crush that hope.

Reasons to be Realistic

1. James Reimer’s First Full Season as the #1

The last time James Reimer played more than 40 games in a single season was in 2006-2007 when he played in 60 for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL.

Reimer’s save percentage dropped each month last season (.932/.926/.913/.909). That could be due simply to fatigue, or possibly the league beginning to learn and exploit the young netminder’s weaknesses. The latter explanation is obviously more concerning, although you have to expect that Reimer will learn and adjust to the pro game as he develops as well.

Regardless, projecting 60 games for Reimer is liberal. That means Jonas Gustavsson, the man who has yet to live up to his nickname in any way, will be relied upon to provide solid relief. I still have faith in Gustavsson, but it’s hard to get excited about a player who had sub .900 SV%, a 3.00+ GAA, and a Vesa Toskala Award for the league’s worst goalie.

2. Youth Brigade

The Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL, only slightly older than the Winnipeg Jets. The oldest player on the team is John-Michael Liles, who is still only 30-years-old. Accordingly, there will be major growing pains throughout the season for many of these players.

Player development does not take a simple, linear, upward trajectory. Some players might regress this season and some who look like sure locks to make the team might fail to crack the roster out of training camp.

Being one of the youngest teams in the league is a major positive, but that does not necessarily mean the Leafs will reap the benefits this season. But be patient and have faith and it will work out… hopefully.

3. The Leafs finally own their first round pick

You can finally look at this team realistically (or as much as any Leafs fan can). There’s no reason to get overly emotional because if the Leafs start plummeting they at least own what could be a lottery pick. I’m not telling you to hope for this, but I’m just saying you at least won’t have to jump off a bridge because some future MVP is going to Boston.

4. The dreaded 3-point game

The reality of the 3-point game is that pretty much every team with a playoff position in January is likely to be the teams in a playoff position in April.

The Leafs will need to start the season strong, otherwise they risk falling too far behind everyone else in the Eastern Conference and will have little chance of making the playoffs. The Leafs have a troubling habit of falling flat on their face during the first few months, while everyone else in the conference gallops forward, solidifying their positions.

With the three-point game, it means that everyone is always getting a point, or at least that’s what it feels like when you’re trying to mount a comeback. That’s not a good formula for making up ground.

It doesn’t matter how strong the Leafs play down the stretch, if they haven’t banked points early in the season it won’t matter, they’ll miss the playoffs again.

5. Crowded Playoff Picture

The Leafs have improved over the off-season, but so has the rest of the Eastern Conference, especially those that made the playoffs last season.

Washington upgraded their depth and their goaltending; Boston are the defending champs and their roster remains largely intact; Pittsburgh will have Evgeni Malkin back and at some point, potentially, Sidney Crosby; Tampa Bay is loaded offensively and will have a better defence than last season; Buffalo made huge upgrades to their defence and already have a very underrated offense; and New York signed Brad Richards.

The only team that didn’t visibly improve is Philadelphia, but they added a goalie (which they haven’t had since Ron Hextall) and are still a stacked team, even without Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. It’s possible that the Flyers drop from second in the East, but they aren’t dropping all the way out of the playoffs.

The only playoff team that looks doesn't look like a lock is Montreal. However, they should have Andrei Markov (their best player)back and they have young pieces in place that make them interesting.

Of course there will be injuries and some teams may not play to their potential, but it looks like there will be one playoff spot up for grabs. The Leafs will probably be one of four teams in serious contention for the 8th playoff spot. Are you confident the Leafs are better than the Habs, Hurricanes, Devils, and Jets? I hope so, because that's who the Leafs will battle with all season long to end their long playoff drought.

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