Toronto Maple Leafs Off Season Preview
The Toronto Maple Leafs surprised many (including myself) last season with their playoff berth. More surprising was the fact that they took the eventual Cup finalist Boston Bruins to the brink of elimination in a game seven full of the highest highs, and the lowest lows. The Leafs led in the third period by a huge margin before choking and ultimately losing the series on an overtime winner by stud centreman Patrice Bergeron.
Dave Nonis took the Brian Burke built team and made some interesting additions and subtractions. Gone are enigmatic centreman Mikhail Grabovski, wingers Clarke MacArthur and Matt Frattin, benchwarming defenseman Mike Komisarek, and backup goalie Ben Scrivens. It can be argued that most of that group underachieved last season.
Grabovski had been at times the Leafs’ best overall forward, but was grossly overpaid and that resulted in him being bought out. MacArthur and Frattin were both streaky, inconsistent wingers who had good moments and mediocre ones. Mike Komisarek couldn’t crack the Leaf’s lineup. He was by far, Burke’s worst signing. He rode the coattails of Andrei Markov in Montreal, secured a big contract, and became the NHL’s highest paid pylon. He was bought out and will now give up goals for the Carolina Hurricanes. Ben Scrivens was good at times, but he wasn’t a franchise goaltender so he won’t be missed too much. The loss of Frattin will hurt if he blossoms into a stud top 6 winger with the Kings, which I feel he is easily capable of. He reminded me of a young Joffrey Lupul, and we can see how Lupul has thrived as a veteran after being similarly inconsistent as a young player in the NHL.
Dave Nonis has made some interesting acquisitions to bolster the lineup that was ten minutes away from beating Boston and going to the second round. Much to the joy of Don Cherry, Nonis acquired two Toronto boys. Coming in to replace Grabovski is centre Dave Bolland from the cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. He is a gritty centre, who was counted on to play against the oppositions best forwards. He can agitate, use his body, and score some clutch goals. Who finished the Bruins off in the finals? None other than Dave Bolland. He has his limitations. I don’t see him as a top line center the Leafs have needed since Sundin left. He is a third line grinder who can pose matchup problems as he is more skilled than most third liners. He will likely never top 55 points in a full season and he simply cannot stay healthy, likely due to his physical style of play. Leaf fans can only hope that Bolland stays healthy, scores in the clutch, wins some big faceoffs, and shuts some star players on the opposing teams down.
One of the most polarizing signings in years was the free agent acquisition of David Clarkson. Clarkson started his career as a third line winger in New Jersey, but the starved Jersey offense relied on him to park in front of the net and score some big goals. Clarkson has several 30 goal seasons under his belt. He is a big tough, strong winger who has leadership qualities and a knack for scoring big goals. He helped lead Jersey to the cup finals two seasons ago. Sounds like a stud, but this is not a risk free signing. Clarkson is over 30, doesn’t get many assists, and is a career minus player. Signing a guy like that to a seven year contract is obviously questionable. However, if he can score 30 goals a season for the next four years, intimidate opposing teams, take on a big leadership role, and can ultimately be the front of the net powerplay presence the Leafs have sorely lacked, then he may just prove that he is worth all of that money. There is a reason that he was one of the most sought after free agents on the market.
The last major acquisition of the off season cost the most and could arguably be the biggest impact player. The Leafs traded Frattin, Scrivens, and a pick for the young, talented, but relatively untested backup goalie from the LA Kings, Jonathan Bernier. For years scouts have been raving about Bernier. Had he not been parked on the bench behind Jonathan Quick, who is arguably the best goalie on the planet now, he would be starting in the NHL. It appears that now he will finally get his chance. James Reimer had a great season and really locked it down in the playoffs to get the team to game seven, but ultimately faltered when it counted the most. Nonis wasn’t going to let goaltending be an issue any more, and now the Leafs have one of the best young tandems in the NHL in Reimer and Bernier. Randy Carlisle has said that he will go with whoever gives the team the best chance to win. The question is who that will be. Both of these players are relatively untested and haven’t shown that they can handle the rigours of a full NHL season as a top tier starting goalie. If Bernier is the stud that many predicted he would be, this could be a steal. If he can’t handle the workload, the pressure of playing in the Toronto hockey market, and the immense pressure of expectations, then this will be a dud of a trade.
There is a lot of uncertainty going into the season. Can Bernier be the number one stud goalie? Can Bolland stay healthy and be effective for the entire season? Can Clarkson raise his +/-, score 30 goals and be a big leader? Time will tell. What we do know is that with the realignment of the NHL comes bigger hurdles to qualify for the postseason. Detroit re-enters the Leaf’s division, Montreal, Boston, and Ottawa have all retooled their rosters, and there aren’t many playoff spots going around. Time will tell, but making the playoffs will be a big challenge for these Leafs.