Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Are the Maple Leafs good enough this season?

Brian Burke didn't make too many changes to the 10th place Toronto Maple Leafs during the offseason. He added two forwards. two defensemen and two assistant coaches. However, the Leafs have already undergone a considerable make over and there are only three players on the roster (Nikolia Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Luke Schenn) who were on the 2008 opening day roster.

The Leafs have been woefully weak at centre since Mats Sundin left for free agency (or was pushed out the door). Since that time, the teams offense has sputtered. The signing of free agent Tim Connolly is expected to address this weakness and hopefully push Phil Kessel to the 40-goal plateau. Connolly is a skilled player with a long history of injuries. I don't see how a change of scenery will have an impact on his health. Still Burke signed him for only 2 years so the risks are relatively low, except Connolly on the sideline isn't going to help Kessel's production. The Leafs were able to pick up Matthew Lombardi's contract from Nashville because Lombardi has yet to recover from a head injury that he incurred 11 months with no certain timetable for recovery. Should Lombardi make it into the Leafs' lineup and Connolly remain healthy the Leafs will actually look good at the centre position. In fact last season's number 1 centre, Tyler Bozak, would be relegated to the 4th line.

Picking up Lombardi turns out only costs the Leafs some cash and cap space but no significant player, prospect or draft pick going back to Nashville. In fact, the Leafs were able to pry away defensemen Cody Franson in the deal which provides the Leafs with another solid young defenseman. In addition, Brian Burke used a second round draft pick from the Tomas Kaberle deal to acquire John-Michael Liles as a replacement for Kaberle on the powerplay.

More important, Burke forced coach Ron Wilson to address the moribund special teams by firing Keith Acton and Tim Hunter and replacing them with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin. The anemic Leaf offense can largely attributed to a weak powerplay. A significant number of goals in the NHL are scored on the powerplay and the Leafs for far too long have had to rely on goals while playing 5 on 5. Too make matters worse, their penalty killing was also weak. If the new coaches can improve the special team situation then a playoff spot is a possibility.

Yet no team makes the post season without strong goaltending. The Leafs management believe they have the real deal in James Reimer based on his 37-game stint last year. They better be right because they have no backup plan. Other than Jonas Gustavsson, no other goalie in the system has even played one NHL game.

Burke has suggested that these improvements are enough to overtake a couple teams in the East and put the Leafs in the playoffs. He wouldn't name which teams he considers to be vulnerable and I'm not sure it's that self evident. Washington, Boston and Philadelphia, despite their emake, are still the cream of the East. Pittsburgh is an elite team even if Sidney Crosby plays only half a season. Tampa Bay certainly looks to be an improving team. Meanwhile the Rangers and Buffalo strengthened themselves considerably during the off season. That perhaps leaves Montreal vulnerable but passing the Canadiens will only put the Leafs in 9th spot. So it will a dog fight once again to make the post season.

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