Shorter season, taller order?


In 2012, the Toronto Maple Leafs earned the unfortunate distinction of being the only non-playoff team in the post-lockout NHL. The eight-season Leafs playoff drought is especially embarrassing considering that over half the NHL teams  make the playoffs each year.

In spite of these failures, all is not bleak in Leafsland. Wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are fresh from a campaign in which they combined for 149 points in 148 games—the third-highest output by any duo in 2012, topped only by Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. The Leafs duo forms two thirds of a legitimate top line, and represents the club’s most potent one-two punch since Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny in 2003.

On the defensive side, rookie Jake Gardiner displayed the type of two-way game the Leafs have lacked in the past decade. Gardiner’s impressive play continued during the lockout, when he produced 17 points, or nine goals, in 22 games for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. With an additional season of experience under his belt, Gardiner looks to become an important player for the Maple Leafs.

In order to take a step forward and contend for the playoffs in 2013, the Maple Leafs need to lower their goals against total from 3.16 per game. Part of the problem is the penalty kill, where the Leafs ranked third-last in the NHL with 77.3%.

The addition of Jay McClement will help in that regard.  Over the last five seasons, no forward has spent more time on the penalty kill than McClement. His role has been somewhat diminished the past two seasons on a deep Avalanche squad, but with the Blues from 2008 to 2010, McClement was on the ice against the ninth- and 14th- strongest opponents.

The other part of the problem is in goal. Last season, the Leafs’ goaltending combined for a .897 save percentage, the lowest in the NHL. Starter James Reimer will be returning between the pipes, but this season he will be backed up by Ben Scrivens, a promising rookie and AHL standout. The hope is that Reimer will produce more in the style of his rookie season of .921% than last season’s .900%. If Reimer stumbles out of the gate, the Leafs will not hesitate to throw Scrivens into the fray. The Leafs certainly have goaltending talent, but their experience in goal is questionable. Reimer and Scrivens have played together in 83 games, a little more than a season’s worth of experience.

Up at the front, the Leafs still lack a dominant top-line centre. For now, Coach Randy Carlyle will continue to use Tyler Bozak on the top line because of his chemistry with Kessel and Lupul. On the second line, the Leafs will rely on Mikhail Grabovski, alongside Clarke MacArthur and new addition James van Riemsdyk. The third and fourth lines look to be an open competition between McClement, Kadri, Frattin, Kulemin, Brown, Komarov, and Orr.

On defence, the Leafs’ blue line is largely intact from last year. The top five will be captain Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson, Jake Gardiner, John-Michael Liles, and Mike Komisarek. The competition on defence for the sixth and seventh spots is between Cody Franson, Morgan Rielly, Mike Kostka, and Mark Fraser.

Not surprisingly, fan optimism is mixed in anticipation of the season opener on January 19.

“I am excited to watch the Leafs play after a lengthy lockout, but with so little turnover from a year ago, my expectations are low as far as playoffs are concerned,” says Elton Fernandez, a first-year history student. “The key factor for this season will be the development of the Leafs’ youth; the wins will come in the future.”

Moiz Badar, a UTM alumnus, expressed a similar view. “Anything can happen in a short season, but the odds are against the Leafs,” he said. “In order for the Leafs to succeed, both short-term and long-term, it is imperative that the young core [Kadri, Gardiner, Rielly, Kessel] take a step forward and contribute.”