The only question Toronto Maple Leafs fans, players, and executives alike are asking as the new season begins is, “Can this be the year?”
A lot of things will need to go right for the organization to end its seven-year post-season drought. But it is quite evident that the hopes and dreams of this troubled franchise rest on the shoulders of it’s 23-year-old netminder.
James Reimer approached hero-like status in his half a season with the Leafs last year, winning 20 games and keeping the team in the playoff conversation until the final day of the regular season.
He was awarded in the off-season with a three-year contract, worth $5.4 million dollars. With the larger contract, come larger expectations, ones Reimer has said are not are large as the expectations he sets for himself.
“We’re not concerned at all (about Reimer),” said coach Ron Wilson to the media on Tuesday. “We expect him to play right where he left off last year, and we’re fully confident in him.”
Unfortunately, that kind of confidence remains to be seen in the Leafs’ offence.
Offensive output will likely hinge on the success of last year’s breakout trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. The unit was one of the more productive in the league last year, totalling 177 points.
“Last year, the scoring was on one line,” Wilson said. “Now, it’s looking more like we’ll have three lines that can score.”
Grabovski certainly appears to be coming into his own. Cliff Fletcher acquired the talented 27-year-old from Montreal in his final move before being replaced by Brian Burke. ‘Grabo’ is starting to get more recognition from media, fans, and his coach for his complete set of skills, and is poised for a break-out year.
A pseudo first line of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and newcomer Tim Connolly haven’t had a chance to play together this preseason, and their effectiveness remains to be seen.
“I am concerned about chemistry and some things like that,” said Wilson. “But some times that’s just a coach worrying about things that don’t exist.”
Connolly is still suffering from an “upper-body injury” he obtained a few weeks ago, and forced Burke to make a move.
The injury, coupled with youngster Nazem Kadri’s knee injury left the Leafs thin up the middle of the ice. Burke responded this past Tuesday by dealing a 2012 fourth-round pick to New Jersey for David Steckel, the league’s best face-off man a year ago (62.3%).
Despite all his won faceoffs, Steckel is probably more well known as the player, then with the Capitals, who accidentally ran in to Sidney Crosby on New Years Day, inaugurating his well-documented concussion issues.
The back end of the team appears to be quite stable, with captain Dion Phaneuf holding down the blue line. The addition of John-Michael Liles will improve a power-play that ranked in the bottom third of the league last season at 16%.
“(Liles) has always added a lot of offence, especially playmaking,” said Wilson. “So, we’re expecting offence from the back end.”
Rookie Jake Gardiner made the squad after an impressive training camp, a decision that likely numbers the days for Carl Gunnarsson. Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson round out the group of defencemen, all big bodies who love to play the physical game.