Leafs Year in Review: Future is Promising
It was a year of growth, rise, and fall. The club had many faces as they kicked off the season with a mix of youth, veteran leadership and previous Stanley Cup winners on the roster. Fans were hoping the Bruins' ownership of the Leafs first round pick would be diminished as the season wore on, and that part did come true. The year was kick-started with an impressive record of 4-0, but that was quickly erased as the Leafs went on a difficult streak, nearly matching their previous year's horrendous start through 25 games. Fans went from elated to miserable in a matter of weeks, and the dream of the Leafs first playoff appearance since the lock-out faded quickly.
President and General Manager, Brian Burke, went from being considered brilliant in his acquisitions of Dion Phaneuf, J.S. Giguere and Kris Versteeg to the enemy for throwing away yet another season with a line-up that seemed to have no chemistry. That said, the free agent signing of one Clarke MacArthur was the main highlight, while goaltender Jonas Gustavsson would suffer a sophomore slump and more heart-rate problems. Times were tough, Ron Wilson had no control, and seemingly no respect from his players, and Leafs fans resorted to the only thing that made sense at the time - throw waffles.
Their first target was veteran defenceman Francois Beauchemin. In turn, Brian Burke made him the first player to be moved off the roster. The Anaheim Ducks, Beauchemin's former team, came knocking to return the Stanley Cup winner to his rightful destination. Headed back Toronto's way was power forward Joffrey Lupul, prospect defenceman Jake Gardiner, and a conditional fourth round pick. The return paid off immediately. Some fans were frustrated with the decision to move Beauchemin out of the line-up, but Lupul came in and gave something the Leafs lacked - a talented power forward who could rejuvenate sniper Phil Kessel.
But it didn't stop there. Brian Burke's next decision was to move out newly acquired Kris Versteeg. "I was once told if you make a trade and it doesn't work, fix it," said Burke during his press conference, and he did just that. Versteeg didn't fit in at all on the Leafs club and spent most of his time on the third line and manning the point (unsuccessfully) during powerplays. Nonetheless, Burke still managed to strike a deal with an Eastern Conference club by moving the grinding forward to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a first and third round pick. Some felt the Leafs lost the deal, others were impressed Toronto managed to even secure a first round pick for a complimentary player. I felt the deal was appropriate for both clubs as it provided the Flyers with more depth and the Leafs managed to get back into the first round of the upcoming draft, even if it is a late pick. At the age of 24, Versteeg will certainly get better, but being another smallish forward with some scoring ability was simply just another wash of a player on the Leafs current roster.
Then the real business came down. What would the Leafs do with defenceman Tomas Kaberle? There were rumours over the summer that Kaberle and head coach Ron Wilson did not get along and that he would walk at the end of his contract, but those were squashed rather quickly with Ron Wilson stating he had conversations with Kaberle and felt their relationship was fine. Whether that was true or not did not matter, the Leafs were shopping Kaberle and the Bruins were interested all season long. More rumours ran rampantly over who would be available for a possible deal. Some sources stated the Leafs would land forward Blake Wheeler, others mentioned the possibility of Mike Ryder in a deal of cap for cap, while summer rumours of Marc Savard continued to swirl, but when it was all said and done, the hockey world was shocked (even if they don't want to admit it). Brian Burke managed to secure a blockbuster deal for a defenceman whose only offer the club received last year was a late first round pick from the San Jose Sharks. Toronto gained a first round pick in the upcoming draft, prospect Joe Colborne, and a conditional pick for the aging, puck-moving blue-liner.
Bruins fans were happy to get Kaberle, but not for Colborne, and Leafs fans (FINALLY) got the last laugh when it came to a deal with the divisional rivals. Looking down history lane, the Leafs lost goaltender Tuukka Rask for flop Andrew Raycroft, and suffered a blow of two first round picks and a second for young sniper Phil Kessel. Acquiring a similar return for Kaberle as the Bruins did for Kessel made the two deals under Brian Burke's tenure more acceptable and now the Leafs enter this year's NHL Entry Draft with two first round picks for the first time since 1993 when the club drafted Kenny Jonsson 12th overall and Landon Wilson 19th overall.
Goaltender J.S. Giguere suffered groin injuries all season long and desperate times called for desperate measures. In came prospect goaltender James Reimer, and the Leafs season was about to turn around. The Leafs collective goaltending hovered around a 0.900 save percentage mark and a goals against average of 3.00. James Reimer came in and impressed for a few outings before suffering a blow-out loss to the Phoenix Coyotes. Back the Leafs went to Giguere for a few more losses before Reimer was inevitably recalled from the Toronto Marlies. He went on to play 36 games from January to April (earning more appearances than both Giguere and Gustavsson) and pulled the Leafs from a bottom five pick to nearly cracking the post-season.
It was a run for the rookies, so to speak, as the Leafs average age dropped to 25.915, marking them as the fourth youngest team in the league. Both Clarke MacArthur and Phil Kessel broke the 60 point mark, which had MacArthur nearly doubling his season best 35 points in 2009-10, and Phil Kessel besting his career year by four points and posting his third consecutive 30 goal season. Mikhail Grabovski also created a highlight year for himself by earning a dozen more points than his best season, as well as nearing the 30 goal mark for the first time in his career. Line-mate and summer RFA re-signings Nikolai Kulemin also came back with a vengeance this year proving why he wanted over 3M per season for a wage as he netted 30 goals, nearly doubling his all-time best, and posting a near 60 point season.
Keith Aulie replaced Francois Beauchemin on the top defensive pairing alongside captain Dion Phaneuf and appeared in nearly 40 games. He will likely complete the season with 2 goals, no assists, and an incredible -1 considering his point totals. If he hasn't been the surprise of the season (outside of James Reimer) I'm not sure who or what is... well, maybe the waffles. He also had a total of 95 hits during that time and proved to be a slick moving defender with a solid shot.
Carl Gunnarsson came back with a bit of a sophomore slump, but he did earn more points than his rookie season with four goals and 20 points. Rumours came out that he suffered an injury near the end of the summer/early on in the season and had a sluggish start. Toward the end of the year, his game improved significantly and he has shown signs he could be an excellent go-to skater on the back end for the club next year.
Luke Schenn has gotten better and better as the year went on. After coming off his own sophomore slump, the former first round pick came in nearly 20 pounds heavier, stronger, and faster. Anyone who has watched a single game this year would see the young stud power his opponents into the end boards and punish them for daring to test his side of the ice. With 5 goals and 22 points this year, along with a team-leading 248 hits, Luke Schenn has become a cornerstone piece to this franchise.
Dion Phaneuf seemed to be shadowed by the veteran presences on the club, but once Beauchemin and Kaberle were moved out his game was upped with intensity. His leadership qualities began to emerge, his shots were finally starting to find the net, and his talent level began to climb back to the "A" game he once possessed early on in his career. If he can kick off next season where he is ending this one, Leafs fans should be excited. I'm sure he'll also move from his 184 hits this season into the 200+ when it's all said and done next April.
Toronto's last game of the season was a preview of what could come next year. In came Joe Colborne as he centered a line with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. If anyone was wondering if the kid had size and grit, that question was quickly answered as he would continuously charged to the front of the net and take his position for any potential rebounds, tips or garbage goals. He would also kick off a rush through the neutral zone that would lead to his first career NHL point on an assist of a Phil Kessel's last goal of the season.
On Toronto's third line, newly signed College prospect Matt Frattin jumped into the line-up alongside promising sniper Nazem Kadri, and NCAA alumni Tyler Bozak. While fans were only treated to a one-outing viewing of this trio, the chemistry seemed to be there as Frattin was one of the leading shooters for the Leafs in the game. He would constantly drive the crease for any potential passes and challenged for his first NHL goal on more than one occasion. While his size could be improved for his strength in battling in the corners, Frattin showed jump in his game as well as a hard shot when given the time to let it go. He'll need to work on his reaction time over the summer, but signs of what he could bring to the club were certainly there.
James Reimer seemed to have a bit of a sluggish finish in his last game of the season, but that was to be expected with nothing left to fight for. That said, the Leafs weren't going to sleep their way out of their last game as fans were treated to a decent, quick scrap between Mike Brown and Ryan White which had Brown on the right side of the bout. The fight began after Carl Gunnarsson took a solid hit near the Leafs blue-line by the gritty White and earned the attention of both Luke Schen and Brown.
When it was all said and done, the Leafs found themselves on the outside looking in for the 8th year in a row (7th not counting the lock-out), but the feeling this team on behalf of Leafs fans isn't exactly negative. We can all sit back and say "this team should have won those games" when thinking of their performance through November, but all in all it was another year of growth for a young team that is looking for an identity. With Grabovski, Kulemin, and MacArthur breaking out, as well as James Reimer coming out of nowhere and grabbing the bull by the horns, it was a season that was spent trying to find chemistry on a line for Phil Kessel.
Tyler Bozak failed to be the go-to guy, and quite often would ruin his own scoring chances by trying to be that playmaker for the sniping Kessel. It wasn't until Joffrey Lupul joined the scene until we started to see the Kessel of old come alive and, quite impressively, Phil found his way back into a 30 goal season. Now with the potential of Joe Colborne centering the small, gifted American, it looks like the pieces are starting to come together for a Leafs team that could be competing in the post-season for years to come.
Let's also not forget that a healthy Colby Armstrong will be back next year to re-energize the third line, a recently extended Mike Brown will continue to pound his way through the third and fourth line rotations, and Colton Orr (though not missed) will be there to stand ground when the time is right (or whenever he's agitated and takes bad penalties). Marlies stand-outs Mike Zigomanis, who is an absolute face-off machine, gritty forward Christian Hanson, and defensive point-producer Simon Gysbers, will all be in the mix to steal a few spots. Prospect Jake Gardiner as well as Jesse Blacker will also be looking to steal a spot on the defensive depth with a strong pre-season.
It's likely many players that could make the team simply won't because there is so much youth and interesting prospects coming through the system. With that said, both the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Marlies will be exciting to follow next season and with the incredible goaltending of Reimer in the pros, as well as Ben Scrivens (33 GP, 2.33 GAA, 0.924 SV%) and Jussi Rynnas (30 GP, 2.71 GAA, 0.911 SV%) will be competing for two spots in goal. And you can definitely bet that Jonas Gustavsson, who has one more year left on his contract, will be trying to rebound off a sluggish/injury-riddled season.
Nonetheless, this summer Brian Burke and his Leafs will have $35.521M committed to 13 skaters and 1 goaltender. With $15M to spend, as well as the expectation that the salary cap will once again rise by a million or two, Toronto will have more than enough breathing room.
For the first time in many, many years, Leafs fans can be excited again.
Micheal A. Aldred