Toronto Maple Leafs 2011 – 2012 Season Preview
It is that time again folks. The 2011 – 2012 National Hockey League season is roughly a month away, so lets try and figure out where the beloved Toronto Maple Leafs stand going into the season. Most experts have pinned the entire hopes of Leafs nation on one man’s back. That man is none other than Optimus Reim, the Reiminator, aka James Reimer. Reimer came seemingly out of nowhere last season to take the starting goaltender’s job and run away with it. He finished the season with 20 wins in a mere 37 games. No small task considering how bad the other Leafs goaltenders were. Jonas Gustavsson was mediocre at best, and J.S. Giguere was a slip and fall away from retirement. The Leafs were looking for a saviour and Reimer was the man. The question is, was it all him? More importantly, can he do it again?
I may be alone in saying so, but I don’t think that Reimer alone was the reason the Leaf’s fortunes turned around at the end of last season. Once Burke shipped out Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin, and Ron Wilson finally used his brain and parked Mike Komisarek on the bench for the majority of games, the Leafs defence was far more solid. Its hard to imagine that removing three highly sought after (at one point) veterans would improve the Leafs defence, but that is exactly what happened. Burke essentially removed a plethora of ridiculous defensive zone turnovers that left the Leaf goalies hung out to dry. Wilson then inserted Keith Aulie, a refreshed and fully healed Dion Phaneuf, and gave some of more important ice time to kids with something to prove like Carl Gunnarsson and Luke Schenn and the Leafs D looked far more cohesive and competent.
With most of those kids resigned (Luke Schenn pending) and the additions of John Michael Liles and Cody Franson, and the Leafs have an impressive defensive core to build around. People can say that Reimer did it all and stole the show every night, but when the defense in front of you is playing well, it makes the goalies’ life much easier. Keeping the turnovers down, keeping shots to the outside, and blocking plenty of rubber can do wonders for your goalie and his confidence, and that is exactly what the Leafs did to help Reimer look like a stud. He was good, but the improved defense in front of him certainly played a big role in his development.
The problem I see with these Leafs is on the offensive end. They still do not have a top line center. Tim Connolly is a nice piece who can last for roughly 50 games a season, but he is not a legitimate top line center in a league featuring the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Backstrom, Thornton, Stamkos, etc. etc. etc. Connolly certainly has playmaking skills that will assist Phil Kessel in scoring a few more goals, but he cannot seem to stand up to the rigors of a full NHL season and is not really the all star franchise center the Leafs need to ascend to the next level.
However, I do like the newfound depth on the Leafs top 4 lines. Kessel Connolly and Lupul should form a competent scoring line when healthy, Grabovski, Kulemin and the newly resigned Clarke McArthur can hopefully provide the same second line scoring presence that they did last season, but none can be confused with a “top” line in the NHL. The Leafs essentially have a 2A and 2B as their top two scoring lines. I do like their third line’s potential. Tyler Bozak will be much better as a third line center with some offensive upside. His faceoff skills are great, and he has some playmaking ability to help Colby Armstrong and whoever takes the 3rd line winger spot score some goals. I personally hope that Matthew Lombardi can come back strong and put up a healthy 50 points with 3rd line duties plus some spot duty on the PK and the PP.
If one of the kids can step up and be an impact player (here’s looking at you, Nazem Kadri) and the aforementioned players can do what they are capable of, the Leafs could have a good season, and take a lot of pressure off James Reimer. If the defense screws up routinely again, Kessel disappears for 35 games, and injuries take their toll, it will be another long season for the Blue and White, regardless of how good Reimer is. My fingers are crossed!