2009-10 Team Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs
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10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE MAPLE LEAFS
By Pierre LeBrun
GM Brian Burke is in charge of the Big Blue, and in less than a year, he's already brought a ton of change to Canada's favorite losers. If the Habs are the Yankees of hockey, the Maple Leafs are certainly the Cubs.
It's 42 years and counting since the Stanley Cup was paraded in Toronto. The last playoff game at Air Canada Centre was in April 2004 -- five and a half years ago -- when Jeremy Roenick's overtime winner lifted the Philadelphia Flyers past the Leafs and into the second round. Yep, that was a long time ago.
But Burke is here to change all that. More than half the roster has been turned over since last season's trade deadline, and he's not even close to being done.
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Leafs this season:
1. No rebuilding here
Leafs fans hoping for a patient, five-year rebuilding process will be greatly disappointed. Burke isn't going that route. He's retooling, not rebuilding.
"You shouldn't have to go five years," Burke told ESPN.com. "The Pittsburgh model or the Ottawa model, where you pick in the top three [of the draft] three years in a row, that was a pre-cap model. With the enhanced free agency, you should be able to assemble a team.
"And we don't have to beg players to play in Toronto. I think it's the best hockey town on the planet. So when we went after free agents this summer, we got them. Nobody said they didn't want to play here. We've got a great coach, a great building, the best practice facility in the National Hockey League; we have great travel. We didn't have any trouble getting the guys we wanted."
2. Playoffs? Playoffs?
Cue the Jim Mora clip. But the Leafs aren't scared to say the P-word. They believe they have a shot.
"We've been very open about it," Burke said. "Our goal is to make the playoffs; that's our intention. We think this team is good enough. No bold predictions, but we believe we're good enough this year to make the playoffs, and that's our goal."
3. Welcome, Mr. Kessel
Burke was chasing Phil Kessel for months, and the stubborn Irishman got his way, acquiring the 36-goal scorer from the Boston Bruins on the eve of the NHL season. The 21-year-old winger is still recovering from shoulder surgery and hopes to return in November. But he's a major piece added to a team that desperately needed an offensive boost. He's also a young gun who will be part of this Leafs core for years to come.
4. Bay Street Bullies
The Leafs may or may not make the playoffs this season, but one thing is for sure: They won't get pushed around. Say hello to tough guy Colton Orr, rugged blueliner Garnet Exelby, tough-as-nails forward Wayne Primeau and prized free-agent defensemen Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek, two guys who aren't shy about dropping the gloves. Throw in holdover tough guy Andre Deveaux, physical winger Jamal Mayers and always-game-to-go sophomore blueliner Luke Schenn, and you've got the Bay Street Bullies.
"It's part of how of my teams play," said Burke, whose 2007 Cup-champion Anaheim Ducks led the NHL in fighting majors. "It shouldn't surprise anybody who has watched me build teams in the past, and it shouldn't surprise anybody who has watched my press conferences. I don't think you can be effective without a physical presence.
"I know people say Pittsburgh won without a physical presence, but Pittsburgh can put the equivalent of a first-team All-Star at center on every other shift. Other people will say Detroit won without [a physical edge]; I say, 'OK, someone replicate a team that's big and highly skilled and has the puck all night.'"
5. Blue-line upgrade
The additions of Komisarek, Beauchemin and Exelby bolstered a blue line that already included Schenn, Tomas Kaberle, Mike Van Ryn, Jeff Finger, Ian White and Jonas Frogren. It's as deep as any in the Eastern Conference.
"I've always built my teams from the blue line out," Burke said. "One reason we gave up so many goals last season is that we were in our own end of the rink all night. The thinking is, we have some really good first-pass defensemen now with Schenn, Komisarek, Beauchemin [not to mention Kaberle] -- these are guys that get it and get it out."
Look for Burke to deal one of his blueliners at some point. He has too many able-bodied defensemen.
6. Stop the puck
Vesa Toskala was never 100 percent in net last season, and it showed with a subpar season. Swedish sensation Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson arrives with a great amount of hype.
"What we have now is a healthy goaltender and a legitimate backup that we'll play without hesitation at all," Burke said. "That right there is a major upgrade."
Toskala is in the last year of his deal and could be trade bait if the Leafs are out of the playoff mix come the March 3 trade deadline.
7. Forward thinking
Jason Blake led the Leafs in scoring last season with 63 points (25 goals-38 assists), good for 54th among overall NHL leaders. On the surface, there's a real lack of goals in this forward group. Hence the Kessel acquisition.
But the hope is that guys such as Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell will find more offense now that they're better protected by the newly added beef in the lineup.
"I want to see what they can do when we're not in our own end all night and they actually have room to maneuver," Burke said. "So I'm counting on internal improvement to make up for the goal scoring we lost in [Nik] Antropov and [Dominic] Moore."
8. Kill, kill, kill
The Leafs were dead last in the NHL last season in penalty killing at 74.7 percent. The blue-line additions, better goaltending and a new penalty killer up front in Primeau should help improve that dismal statistic this season.
9. Olympic exposure
Well, it starts at the top on this team, with both Burke and coach Ron Wilson doubling as the GM/coach tandem for Team USA. Will the fans at Air Canada Centre give them a warm send-off just before the Olympic break to wish them the best in Vancouver? Doubt it. Toronto players with Olympics possibilities include Kaberle (Czech Republic), Komisarek (USA), Beauchemin (Canada), Kessel (USA), Grabovski (Belarus), Hagman (Finland) and Toskala (Finland).
10. A scheduling note
Toronto's first big test of the season will come during a five-game road trip Oct. 24-31 in Vancouver, Anaheim, Dallas, Buffalo and Montreal. The Leafs will need to travel to western Canada twice instead of taking care of the Canucks, Oilers and Flames in one trip like other years; the Leafs play in Edmonton on Dec. 30 and Calgary on Jan. 2.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
• Record: 34-35-13
• Division: Last in the Northeast
• Conference: 12th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Leafs will battle for a playoff spot for most of the season but fall just short, placing three or four points out to finish 11th in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the Northeast Division.
NORTHEAST DIVISION PREVIEW
Experience: Entering 16th NHL season, his second with Toronto
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Ron Wilson enters his second season behind the Leafs bench, having gotten the most he could out of a brutal lineup last season.
He set the tone last season by benching or scratching any player regardless of name or pedigree, sending a message that things would be done right or else. Wilson has a great relationship with his GM and probably has more say in player-personnel matters than the average NHL coach.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT
F -- Phil Kessel
• The 36-goal scorer won't be ready until November at the earliest.
F -- Mikhail Grabovski
• When he's not trying to fight fellow Belarus natives, he's not bad.
F -- Jason Blake
• Led the team in scoring last season but was left off Team USA's Olympic camp roster..
D -- Tomas Kaberle
• The silky smooth puck-mover survived a summer of trade rumors.
D -- Mike Komisarek
• The hard-hitting U.S. Olympic hopeful could be a future captain of the Leafs.
Best Bet: Jonas Gustavsson, G: A stone wall in the Swedish Elite League last season, Gustavsson comes to a Toronto team that is lacking in offense, but blessed with a solid defense. When we say stonewall, we mean stonewall. Gustavsson posted a 1.96 goals-against average in the regular season, and a 1.03 goals-against average in the playoffs as his team won the Elitserien. He allowed 14 goals in 13 postseason games with five shutouts. That's why they call him "The Monster." Don't get too carried away though, as the all-time record holder for career goals-against average in the Elitserien (with more than 100 games played) is Henrik Lundqvist (2.02), followed by Fredrik Norrena (2.06) and then Gustavsson (2.10). We know Lundqvist has experienced some success, but Norrena is also an example of failure by a talented Swedish goaltender. Vesa Toskala will get the majority of work, but Gustavsson's peripheral numbers will be more helpful in fantasy.
Risky Move: Phil Kessel, F: Kessel's breakout season is a sign of superstar things to come for the winger, but not this season. He is out until possibly November after shoulder surgery, after which he'll come back to his new home in Toronto and have to find chemistry with his new teammates. The good news is he'll immediately become the Maple Leafs' best forward and will get all the ice time he can handle, so he still deserves to be drafted. Just don't expect more than 50 games out of him this season.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
INSIDE THE PROJECTIONS
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Toronto Maple Leafs finish this season in Northeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.