The Undefeated Season: The 2011-2012 Toronto Maple Leafs
Let’s be honest, it’s been a very rough ride in Leaf Land — which can be partially attributed to the mass amount of media attention garnered by the team daily. In fact, statistically there is more media coverage of the Leafs during the NHL off-season, than more than a third of NHL teams garner annually. Statistical proof metrics were unavailable at press-time.
Ultimately, the consensus is that this season will end very similar to each of the post-lockout campaigns that it follows, with the Blue Shirts trading in their Easton Synergy’s for TaylorMade R11’s come April.
The Leafs have wasted no time this season, jumping out to an early 2-0 record with wins over their two biggest rivals, the Montreal Canadiens (2-0 on opening night) and the Ottawa Senators (6-5 two nights later). The Leafs are currently enjoying what the NFL would call an early bye week, as they wait seven days between games, which they have taken to do some team-building at CFB Trenton, a few hours east of the city.
The Leafs saw a flurry of player movement in the off-season, as they welcomed many new faces to the locker room, including NHL-proven players Tim Connolly, Matthew Lombardi, John-Michael Liles and more recently David Steckel.
One of the biggest losses for the Buds is one which happened without much fanfare — the departure of Fredrik Sjostrom. He returned to his native Sweden following the completion of last season. Sjostrom, who was originally acquired in the 2009 trade that brought Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie to Toronto had been a workhorse on the third line for the Leafs and one of the finest penalty killers and face off winners to be lace them up in Toronto in several years.
The Leafs dress one of the youngest lineups in the NHL on a nightly basis, with Tim Connolly & John-Michael Liles being the elder statesmen at the tender age of 30; defensemen Luke Schenn, Jake Gardiner and forward Nazem Kadri represent the opposite end of the spectrum as the 21-year-olds on the active roster. This youthful exuberance was something that the Leafs took advantage of in the latter part of last season, as they made a last-season charge for the playoffs, which fell short in the final week of the season.
This resurgence was led by rookie goaltender James Reimer, who captivated the Leaf faithful and became the source of many different nicknames, including OptimusREIM, and the Reim-Minister of Defense for this role in the 18-9-6 finish to the season.
I’ve been down this road before, the Leafs are the easiest team to love, and also the easiest to subsequently hate.
The Leafs bandwagon could most reasonably be compared to a TTC Subway, traveling through Union Station daily. So-called fans jump on and off of the wagon following almost each of the 82 games of the season. I must credit those true fans who stick with them through thick and thin, those ‘True Blue’ are amongst the strongest kinships in professional sports.
Top 3 Reasons the Leafs could succeed this year:
1. Phil Kessel
In his Bruins days, Kessel showed promise of being a future NHL Superstar; and as we’ve read tirelessly in the media throughout his tenure in Toronto, Kessel needs a top-line center. Could the oft-injured Tim Connolly be the answer for Kessel? If he can be the play-maker that he was in his more health-filled seasons south of the border with the Sabres, then Number 81 might have finally found the set-up man he has been awaiting since his arrival in Toronto. The prospect also exists for Burke to make a move to acquire another proven first-line center, although the compensation necessary may be more than Burke is willing to sacrifice at this juncture.
As mentioned above, Reimer has this edition of the Leafs on his young shoulders. General Manager Brian Burke wasted no time in the off-season resigning Reimer and issuing the challenge to not become Jim Carrey or Steve Penney – goaltenders that were ‘flashes in the pan’ in the past before having disappointing NHL careers. Reimer showed the skill set last season to be a premier goalie in the NHL and will need to be if the Leafs are going to be playing into the elimination rounds of Spring 2012.
The arguable top-line in Leaf Land was one of the strongest possession – driving offensive units throughout the second-half of last season. Grabovski has grown into his own in Toronto, being one of the top offensive contributors the past two seasons, the chemistry that has been built amongst these three players has been cause for excitement. We have not yet had the opportunity to see this line skate together this season due to the preseason suspension and recent injury to McArthur, who signed a new deal in the off-season to keep him in Toronto for an additional two seasons.
Top 3 Reasons the Leafs won’t succeed this year:
Having had considerable success in Boston playing with a proven play-maker in Marc Savard, Kessel came to Toronto with high hopes for continued success. The problem was, there wasn’t a single-player in the Leafs lineup who had the skill set to get the best out of Kessel and as a result he has struggled over two seasons, albeit being one of the top offensive contributors in the Leafs lineup both seasons in Toronto. Unfortunately for the Leafs, when Phil Kessel is your blue-chip players – your chances of success are very slim.
It’s late in the game, the Leafs are down by a goal, Ron Wilson looks down his bench to choose the next forward line to send over the boards – then realizes that this is not going to take an intelligent coaching decision, it’s going to be one of two lines, the aforementioned trio of McArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin or the ‘top-line’ of Phil Kessel and his line-mates on that given evening.
For comparison sake, we’ll look at the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins, who I had the pleasure of seeing live this past week in Beantown, as the Cup Hangover continued to ring true at the TD Banknorth Arena. The B’s received a shot in the arm from bottom six skaters Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Rich Peverley in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals with a number of timely goals in late-game situations.
There is no question that the Leafs have similar fringe players, the likes of Colby Armstrong , David Steckel and Matthew Lombardi. The question will be: When will these players step-up and be that extra jolt in the Leafs successes?
3. Ron Wilson
There isn’t a Leafs fan in the bunch, who if asked point blank wouldn’t say they would rather another coach behind the bench for the Leafs heading into this season. Unfortunately, that is not the case, Wilson remains and has another season to prove that he is not one of the worst big game coaches in NHL (and International) hockey history, with the playoff meltdowns of the San Jose Sharks and international losses of Team USA at the forefront of his resume. Wilson has also had a number of verbal altercations with players in his locker room, leading to some of the Leafs many prospects and bright spots leaving town for greener pastures, including long-time blue-liner Tomas Kaberle last season, who went to Boston and was rewarded with a Stanley Cup ring under head coach Claude Julien.
Now that you’ve had a chance to see my two cents, the opportunity is yours to gather an opinion of your own. I’m interested to hear where you see the Leafs finishing this season. Please do not hesitate to let me know, via twitter (@MRDRDout). I look forward to the various opinions of Leafs Fans & Haters alike.
P.S. I see the Leafs finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference and being eliminated in the first-round in five games.