Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Word Up: A Leafs Season Preview

mikhail grabovski carlton bear leafs
The NHL season starts on Thursday, which indicates my life is close to regaining meaning.

I'm too excited, there's no time for coherent intros. Let's look at the Leafs' forwards, defence, and goaltending, describing them in one word (and then if you're unsatisfied, many words).

Forwards – Work-in-progress

This is considered one word on a technicality. I'm off to a roaring start.

I'll let you in on a little secret: the Leafs already have a first line centre and he played on the first line the whole year. Mikhail Grabovski was by far the Leafs' best centre last season and combined with Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur to create a first line effective in all three zones. The real problem with the Leafs isn't the first line, it's all the others.

Phil Kessel is a first line player, too bad nobody he plays with is. One player does not make a first line.

The Leafs hope that Tim Connolly can mesh well with Kessel and become the set-up man that helps Kessel crack the 40-goal barrier that Leafs Nation and Brian Burke hope he really can. Connolly's history indicates he will - when he's healthy. Unfortunately, the early signs indicate that's a dream, as he's already talking about missing Thursday's opener against Montreal. Encouraging.

Kessel's other linemate, Joffrey Lupul, has battled his share of injuries as well, but is a potential 20-30 goal scorer when he's in the line-up. The major concern will be keeping him in the line-up, which is worrisome considering he will have to play very big if his linemates are really Kessel and Connolly. Think about it: who is getting the puck on that line?

The most interesting player in the bottom-six is Matthew Lombardi, a player the Leafs hope they hit a home run on after giving up an empty burlap sack to get him. They will have to be patient considering he hasn't played in an entire year, but players like Patrice Bergeron are prime examples that one can come back and play effectively after missing such a long period of time. Or he could get hit in the head again and turn into the next Marc Savard.

The other hope is Matt Frattin, a player who led the NCAA in goals last season and looked dangerous in a one-game call-up at the end of last season. He will start on the third line, but has shown good versatility during the preseason playing on the top two lines as well.

At some point Nazem Kadri will get a call-up, and Leafs Nation can only hope it's because he's clearly too good for the AHL and not because the Leafs make a desperate move to salvage another wasted season.

I'm mixing the Kool-Aid, but even I wonder if the Leafs will score enough this season. Hopefully, the defence make less of a pressing issue.

Defence - Emerging

For the past two seasons the Leafs’ defence was advertised as a team strength. I know I promoted it as one of the best in the league, blaming the 2009-2010 debacle on Vesa Toskala and a few players trying to do too much. Well, honestly, the defence wasn’t very good and really only started to visibly improve after both Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin were traded and the Leafs received solid goaltending from James Reimer.

Dealing Kaberle and Beauchemin coincided with Dion Phaneuf elevating his game to the level that was expected when the Leafs traded for him. Whether this improved play was because he was now comfortable in the dressing room as captain without a few of the veterans or simply because he had fully recovered from a knee injury is uncertain, but the Leafs just hope that this play carries over into the upcoming season.

Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie also saw increased responsibility with the departure of Kaberle and Beauchemin, and they responded by playing much better to end the season. But Aulie will begin the season in the AHL as Jake Gardiner, the former first round pick acquired for Francois Beauchemin, looked fantastic during the preseason and forced the Leafs into re-organizing their line-up. Gardiner's emergence has also made Carl Gunnarsson expendable, at least in the eyes of Leaf management (my own personal views differ), and reports are the Leafs are exploring options to parlay Gunnarsson into a scoring forward.

The two newcomers – John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson – will bring an offensive edge to the blueline and will hopefully ignite a dormant power-play. Franson is particularly interesting because of his age and size, but Leafs Nation should also temper their expectations because he did receive highly protected minutes in Nashville – although when you have the best defensive tandem in the game it’s understandable. Initially, Franson will be the team's seventh defenceman, at least until a trade is struck, which says more about management's commitment to Mike Komisarek than Franson's actual level of play during the preseason.

Luke Schenn epitomizes the emerging word I used to describe the defence. He’s slowly turning into a hard-working, rock-solid defenceman who can hit, block shots, and maybe, just maybe, have a decent offensive game (although that likely won't ever be considered a strength, Schenn is at least working on ensuring it isn't a liability).

At this point the Leafs defence is young, big, and mobile, so the potential for greatness is there. However, I want to emphasize the word young. This is a group that will still go through growing pains, so describing them as a top-10 unit is probably premature. But it might not be after this season.

Oh, and there’s Mike Komisarek. Well, he can’t get much worse, can he?

Goalies – Proselytizing

Yup, I’m busting out the big words in this post. This makes up for cheating on the forwards. Proselytizing means to convert someone.

At this point, the Leafs entire season rests on their relatively unproven goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson (they of 102 games of NHL experience).

Reimer was a revelation last season, but his save percentage dropped each month, which is frightening, especially considering the other option is the Monster, a goalie so bad last season that I almost jumped off the bandwagon (I'm very loyal, so it takes a lot for me to give up on a player; case in point: I'm the only person who still supports Mike Komisarek's existence).

For this reason, Leafs Nation might just take to collectively praying that James Reimer is not a reincarnation of Jim Carrey (Net Detective) and that the Wizard of Oz gave Jonas Gustavsson a functional heart over the summer. If Reimer falters and Gustavsson is still plagued by ‘I hate my team syndrome’, we’re in for a long season. That is unless Ben Scrivens or some other unknown out-James Reimers James Reimer.

But if James Reimer is the number one goalie we all hope for, then you might see a lot more people make the journey to the tiny Mennonite community of Morweena, Manitoba; a journey to a newfound mecca, to see where the saviour was born.

Too much pressure? Welcome to Leafs Nation.


Ted said...

I love that your continued support of Komisarek has now degraded to comments such as "he can't get much worse, can he?"

I think, much like my fantasy hockey team, the Leafs are gambling on injury cases to come back to full-form, and young defensemen playing out of their minds.

And yes, all my comments will now relate to my fantasy team.

Matt Horner said...

Yup, even we few Mike Komisarek defenders tire of coming up with nice things to say about him.

I think Jake Gardiner will help Komisarek return to some semblance of his former self and that might be reason enough to keep him with the club.

Also, your fantasy team should be called the Tim Connolly All-Stars on account of their injurious nature.

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