While I am not yet ready to make formal predictions on the upcoming season (that’ll come in a couple weeks) I believe that the Leafs have the potential to be a dramatically improved team and could/should contend for a playoff spot. Last year was a disaster year for the Leafs and nothing went right for the team, at least until late in the season when the team seemed to come together a bit. Here are the three keys to watch for during the Leafs upcoming season.
Giguere/Gustavsson – The Leafs have suffered through several seasons of inconsistent and troubled goaltending, and that is being generous. For much of the past 4 seasons it has been downright awful. Giguere is probably past his prime and no longer an elite goalie but he is a dependable presence in goal which they haven’t had. Even with just dependable goaltending the team should be much improved. In Gustavsson there is more upside potential than in Giguere and combined they should provide the Leafs with the best goaltending they have had since before the lockout.
Tyler Bozak – The Leafs have an abundance of decent wingers (Versteeg, Kulemin, Armstrong, etc.) and one very good one in Kessel but their center ice position is a bit uncertain. Bozak is the key here. He finished strong last season and ended up with 8g, 19a, 27 points in 37 games which is pretty solid performance for a rookie. Had he scored at that pace for the full season he would have ended up with almost 60 points to lead all rookies. If the Leafs are to become a middle of the pack offensive team the Leafs Bozak needs to repeat that performance, if not improve on it, for a full season. I think he has the potential to score 20 goals and 70 points which would give the Leafs an unspectacular, but more than decent first line (with Kessel and Kulemin). Bozak also represents the down low playmaking presence on the PP that the Leafs desperately lacked for much of last season.
Phaneuf/Versteeg/Armstrong – For much of the past 5 seasons the Leafs have lacked any true identity or personality. They had a bunch of decent players but none of whom really could light a spark for their teammates. Phaneuf, Versteeg and Armstrong should all play with more passion and intensity than the guys they replaced and should give this team with an identity. It isn’t just about the truculence and toughness that GM Brian Burke desires, but the energy and passion that they bring that can be contagious. A healthy Komisarek will help as well as might Caputi or Kadri should they make the team, either right from camp or as a mid-season callup. These guys are like the Tucker’s, McCabe’s, Robert’s and Domi’s of the past. Energy players that define what it is to be a Maple Leaf and have a contagious passion for the game.
If Giguere/Gustavsson can provide dependable to good goaltending and Bozak can be a 65-70 point player and the contagious energy of Phaneuf, Versteeg and Armstrong spread throughout the team, there is no reason to believe that the Leafs cannot be in the hunt for a playoff spot. Getting off to a good start to the season to build some confidence would be helpful but there are a number of reasons to be optimistic about the Leafs upcoming season.