TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs began the 2010-11 season with hope of ending their six-year drought of missing the playoffs.
With new captain Dion Phaneuf and under the veteran leadership of Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Leafs Nation had nothing short of lofty expectations for this year.
Anything less than a berth into the post-season would be considered a failure for Leafs’ President and General Manager Brian Burke, who took over the club from interim GM Cliff Fletcher on Nov. 29, 2008.
Burke brought in Colby Armstrong, Clarke MacArthur and Kris Versteeg to try and cure their ailing ways of being able to put the puck in the net on a regular basis.
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The Leafs came up just short of earning a berth as eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, however with some of the midseason moves, existing players stepping up and an abundance of room under the salary cap to manoeuvre, the Leafs seem to be on the right track to bring themselves back into contention for the next few years.
Reimer a prime help
The brightest spot for the Leafs was the emergence of James Reimer as a No. 1 goalie. A former fourth round draft pick in 2006, Reimer started the season with the AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies and was thrust into the spotlight with injuries to Toronto’s top two goaltenders, Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson.
Reimer was nothing short of spectacular finishing the season with a record of 20-10-5, a GAA of 2.60 and a .921 save percentage. He gave the Leafs a chance to win every night, and was in large part the most identifiable reason why the Leafs were able to make a late season push.
One of the other benefits is that as a young player, he won’t command a high salary allowing Toronto to allocate their resources to fill spots where they need improvement.
With the $6-million US salary of Giguere coming off the books next season, the Leafs are left with a great deal of resources.
They have a projected $21 million of cap space for the upcoming season. Some of that cap will have be allocated to Reimer who has earned a higher pay check from his $597,000 that he earned this year.
The Leafs also saw the emergence of a top line that didn’t involve their franchise player Phil Kessel. The trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur was arguably the best and most consistent line for the squad all season long.
As a unit, they combined for 80 goals and ranked second, third and fourth on the team respectively in points while missing only one game combined all season long.
Grabovski and Kulemin were also two of the top three players in plus/minus going +14 and +7 on a team that had very few players not in the red. What makes this line special and provides a positive outlook for the future, aside from their durability is their age.
The oldest of the three is Grabovski who will be 27 year old when the season begins next year. MacArthur, 26, will be a restricted free agent this summer and will command more than his $1.1 million salary he earned in 2010-11, but the other two are under contract for the upcoming season.
Burke will do whatever it takes to keep his most productive line together.
However, the Leafs still face the fact that they haven’t had a first line centre since Mats Sundin left the team. There hasn’t been anybody to compliment young sniper Kessel. Tyler Bozak was given that duty this season, but despite first line minutes he managed to gain 32 points in 82 games.
Kadri not quite there
Nazem Kadri, the Leafs first overall pick in 2009 doesn’t seem to be ready to fill that role yet, so the Leafs will have to look to free agency to fill that void.
Another issue that worries Leafs nation is about the team relying on a number of players who have had their breakout years this past season.
Reimer, although showing glimpses of heroism, hasn’t been exposed to NHL snipers long enough for them to learn his weaknesses. Next year should see him exposed more often as the opposition will have more information about the young net minder.
The aforementioned line of Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur also haven’t produced consistently in their careers since they are in their early stages.
The Leafs are also relying on a young defensive corps led by Phaneuf and Luke Schenn. Both players are still in their mid-20s. Toronto will have to add some depth in the form of a veteran blue-liner in the off-season.
The lack of experience especially in the playoffs may hinder Toronto’s ability to make a push for the Stanley Cup anytime soon.
Burke made a number of key moves to set the franchise up for long-term success.
Trading Versteeg for two draft picks to the Philadelphia Flyers, and shipping Kaberle to Boston for prospects and draft picks has put the team in a position to rebuild properly, which they haven’t been able to do over the past few years.
The acquisition of Joffrey Lupul from Anaheim to play on Kessel’s other wing saw many positives outcomes as both players seemed to develop more and more chemistry every time they played together.
The Leafs will use that cap space to aggressively seek a player to slot between Lupul and Kessel. Brad Richards is an unrestricted free agent this year, and is the most highly sought-after player on the market.
If the Leafs were able to sign him, they would have two strong scoring lines that should be able to lift them into the post-season for the first time since the 2003-04.
With the moves made by Burke mid-season and with their existing young and energetic team, the Leafs should be able to end their playoff drought in the upcoming 2011-12 season.
That’s not to say that they will win the Stanley Cup next year, but with the rebuilding that has been done through trades so far and the draft that will take place this spring, the Leafs should be able to deliver to their fans a winning product and the promise of a brighter future.
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