Maple Leafs: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
An 18-9-6 record over the final two months of the season was enough to convince Leaf Nation that finally, just finally, their beloved Buds were on the right track to respectability.
Never mind that the Toronto Maple Leafs finished 10th in the Eastern Conference and missed the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Only Toronto and Florida haven't made the postseason since the lockout.
However, those same Leafs fans might actually be right. The Leafs, we also believe, are on the right track.
GM Brian Burke and his right-hand man, Dave Nonis, have assembled a young roster -- John-Michael Liles is the oldest player at 30 -- and they've improved the depth in the organization.
"This team was the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference from the All-Star break to the end of the year," Burke told ESPN.com. "And it was not some short, meaningless run. This was equivalent of a playoff run where we stayed in the race for seven weeks. That's the team that's coming back, plus the new additions and plus a goalie that established himself and is back for more."
"I want the record clear: We felt that getting Brad Richards was a long shot given that we won't do those wonky deals," Burke said. "We felt that if Tim Connolly wanted to come here on a two-year deal, that's the player we wanted. Those back-diving, front-loaded, cap-circumvention deals -- we don't do those here. So we never felt realistically we had a shot at Brad Richards."
"I really like the moves that we made," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf told ESPN.com.
Are they better? Yes. Is it enough to make the playoffs? Maybe. We'll explain.
1. Stay out of medical ward
The Leafs will need to stay healthy if they have any chance of making the playoffs. Every team says that, of course, but it's really relevant in the case of the Leafs, given the medical histories of Connolly, Lombardi, Joffrey Lupul and Colby Armstrong -- just to name a few. Especially up front, the Leafs thin out in a hurry of top-six, high-end talent if they start losing some bodies.
2. Lombardi's contributions
Lombardi, who missed 81 games last season in Nashville with a concussion, appears almost recovered and ready to help the Leafs sometime in the first half of the season. That's a surprise to many around the league.
"That's a huge bonus for Toronto if he can contribute for most of the season," one NHL GM, requesting anonymity, told ESPN.com. "I don't think Nashville would have even moved him if they thought there was any chance he could be ready for the start of the season. If Lombardi can play, the Leafs made a heck of a trade with the Predators."
The Leafs will be careful with Lombardi and make sure he doesn't play until he's 110 percent ready. But if this guy can play 60 to 70 games, Toronto's playoff chances just went up. He's got wheels, and he's a solid two-way player.
"He's right where Sidney Crosby is right now," Burke told ESPN.com on Sept. 23. "He's been cleared for everything but contact. He's going full-out in practice. We anticipate he'll be cleared for contact in the next little while, and then if he's not ready for the start of the regular season, he'll be ready shortly thereafter."
3. Importance of first half
The Leafs started strong early last October before falling apart. Sure, they put together a big final two months, but in this parity-filled league with three-point games jamming up the standings, it's nearly impossible to get out of a hole that big.
"It's extremely important to get off to a quick start," Phaneuf said. "Like any year, your start is extremely important. The biggest thing is consistency. You can't just get off to a good start and then fall off. We started well last year, but we dug ourselves a hole that we couldn't get out of. We have to learn from that. We had a tough month and lost a lot of points. No matter how we played after Christmas, we just couldn't grain ground. That's how it is every year; it's really tough to move up and get points on the teams you are chasing."
4. Connolly primed for prime time
He could be both brilliant at times and exacerbating at others during his time in Buffalo. The Sabres finally had enough of the enigma that is Tim Connolly and let him walk. Now Connolly steps into the NHL's biggest hockey market, and is asked to center the No. 1 line between Lupul and Phil Kessel. Will he stay healthy and deliver a big season with his talented linemates? Or will he get banged up and fail to play in enough games to have much of an effect? Connolly's addition will be boom or bust. There's almost no room in between.
"I like the addition of Connolly; playing against him, I know how skilled he is," Phaneuf said. "He's a shifty guy."
Said Burke: "With Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, we felt we needed a playmaking center. We believe strongly that Tim Connolly is the guy."
5. Burkie loves the D-men
Well, it's still not Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer from his Ducks days, but Burke has assembled a deep blue-line corps in Toronto, arguably one of the best in the NHL. That is easily the strength of this club.
"We've got a good group of guys on the back end, a good mixture of different styles," Phaneuf said. "I think it's a deep group that can play minutes."
"If the experts look at our team, the first strong point they'll see [is] our blue-liner," added Burke.
"Liles can really skate and moves the puck really well," Phaneuf said. "He's really going to help us and fit into the style that we play and have to play to win hockey games -- that fast, high-temp style. And Franson, he's a big guy that can shoot the puck. He's got a real good shot with a lot of offensive upside. He's really going to help our back end, too."
6. Reimer for real?
Well, this is where the conversation begins and ends for most people when they dissect the Leafs' chances this season. James Reimer might as well have been scalping tickets outside the Air Canada Centre a year ago because nobody would have recognized him. Behold his sensational ascent last season, when he took over the goalie duties over the final two-plus months of the season and fueled a furious rally that fell short. He went 20-10-5 last season with a .921 save percentage. The question is: Can he do it over a full season?
"Because the kid is stable emotionally and works so hard, we're comfortable that he's ready for this," Burke said. "And 'The Monster' looks fantastic, too."
The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson, is back, and hungry to steal some starts and prove his critics wrong.
"It's going to be exciting for Reims to play his first full year," Phaneuf said. "And hopefully carry over from where he left off. And Monster is a real good goalie, too, so they're going to push each other for that No. 1 job."
When the Leafs look up at the eight teams that made the playoffs in the East last season, they see clubs that have these netminders this season: Tomas Vokoun, Marc-Andre Fleury, Dwayne Roloson, Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller, Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist and Ilya Bryzgalov.
If the Leafs want to make the playoffs, Reimer must be the real deal.
"Some people will classify this as a gamble in net, but we don't think it is," Burke said.
7. Late-season surge carryover?
You know what they say about teams that turn it on once the pressure is off and the playoffs seem out of reach. That's why it's difficult to determine exactly what the Leafs really proved late last season. But Phaneuf disagrees with that.
"We played really well down the stretch, and I think that's going to help us," he said. "Some people say, 'Well, it's easy to play when you're out.' But we weren't out of it until the last two games. Playing in those big games last year will help us; every game was a like a playoff game."
8. The truculence factor
Brian Burke is Brian Burke. His teams will have brawn and grit no matter where he goes. The Leafs have beefed up since he arrived on the scene. Clarke MacArthur scored some big goals last season and wasn't afraid to drop the gloves. Neither was Colby Armstrong. Mike Brown is a tough customer, Phaneuf and Schenn aren't shy to drop 'em or deliver a big check, and, of course, there's tough guy Colton Orr. Toronto is not as tough as the team that won the Cup in Anaheim in '07, but it's arching that way.
"It's still not a quintessential Brian Burke group, but I sure like it better than the group we finished with last year," Burke said.
You might criticize Burke for seemingly being stuck in the dark ages when it comes to his penchant for sandpaper, but the Boston Bruins mixed skill with muscle en route to their Cup championship last season.
9. What does Lupul have in store?
Lupul was a can't-miss prospect and delivered on that potential with a breakout 28-goal season in Anaheim six years ago plus a 25-goal season in Philly in 2008-09. But he's battled injuries and inconsistency while packing his suitcase through Edmonton, Philadelphia, Anaheim (again) and finally Toronto last season. He's healthy now and motivated to prove he's an elite scorer in this league. He'll get every chance starting the season on the top line with Connolly and Kessel.
10. Burke won't rest
This roster won't look the same at the end of this season.
"They're already making calls; they're not done making moves," an NHL team executive told ESPN.com during training camp.
Once Lombardi is cleared to play, and if a youngster such as Joe Colborne makes the roster, the Leafs will have a few extra bodies. They're also deep on defense. That's likely why there's apparently some chatter already.
"We have been active," Burke confirmed to ESPN.com on Sept. 23. "But it's mainly due diligence. We try to work the phones diligently, whether we're in an active mode or not."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering 18th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Ron Wilson is in the last year of his contract, and GM Brian Burke didn't offer an extension this summer. He wants to reserve judgment until after seeing his team come out of the gates. Dead man walking?
"I've established my loyalty to Ron Wilson; I don't have to give him a contract extension to do that," Burke said. "The people here have been screaming for his head since I got here. Ron Wilson has coached 1,000 games. He's won 600 in our league. This guy is an established coach who needs no defending. But I didn't feel I was in a position to extend him at the end of last year, and it's something we can do if we have the kind of start we want to have."
Certainly it would be difficult to believe Wilson could survive missing the playoffs a fourth straight season since he took over behind the bench. We also could argue to his defense that he hasn't exactly had a lot to work with. Still, it's a bottom-line business, and if the Leafs struggle in the first half or ultimately miss the playoffs, it likely will be Wilson's last season in Toronto, fair or not. -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Phil Kessel
More than 300 shots, 32 goals and 32 assists are not too bad for a player who pretty much had to do everything by himself. But that is no longer the case, as Tim Connolly was signed as a free agent to help out. Now there is a caveat before we go projecting Kessel to score 45 goals and 82 points: Connolly is a bit frail. He has missed plenty of time in the NHL during the past several years. When healthy, Connolly is a playmaker who can compare to all but a few elite players in the NHL. But keeping Connolly healthy will go a long way toward determining Kessel's fate. -- Sean Allen
Risky pick: Tim Connolly
Connolly has the kind of playmaking skills that could boost Kessel's scoring to the level the Leafs were likely hoping for when they acquired the sniper. However, Connolly comes with a history of missing time and is coming off the first season since the lockout where he didn't flirt with a point-per-game pace. With the skills of a 20-goal, 50-assist center, Connolly has not stayed on the ice long enough to achieve those numbers despite pacing toward them on several occasions. The Leafs need the 30-year-old forward to step in, stay healthy and push Kessel's numbers up on the top line. -- S.A.
Sleeper pick: Dion Phaneuf
Phaneuf is ready to turn the page on his first full calendar year with the Leafs and re-establish himself as a dominant two-way defenseman. Always eager to shoot, skate an above-average percentage of minutes and engage in the rough stuff (resulting in valuable PIM), Phaneuf has the proven potential to be a solid fantasy force. The 26-year-old captain notched 15 points in 17 games from the end of February until the end of March last season. That's the player we expect to see more of in 2011-12. -- Victoria Matiash
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Maple Leafs:
• June 9: Re-signed G James Reimer.
• June 14: Re-signed D Carl Gunnarsson.
• June 20: Named Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin assistant coaches.
• June 24: Acquired D John-Michael Liles from Colorado for a 2012 second-round pick.
• July 2: Signed C Tim Connolly.
• July 3: Acquired D Cody Franson and C Matthew Lombardi from Nashville for D Brett Lebda and LW Robert Slaney.
• July 5: Re-signed LW Clarke MacArthur.
• July 6: Re-signed C Tyler Bozak.
• July 7: Signed C Philippe Dupuis.
• July 7: Re-signed D Matt Lashoff.
• July 12: Re-signed C Mike Zigomanis.
• July 14: Re-signed LW Darryl Boyce.
• July 19: Re-signed RW Joey Crabb.
• D Brett Lebda (traded to Nashville)
• G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (unrestricted free agent, signed by Colorado)
• C Tim Brent (unrestricted free agent, signed by Carolina)
• LW Fredrik Sjostrom (unrestricted free agent, signed by Farjestad)