TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the new hockey season with a rebuilt defence, better goaltending, impressive rookies and an aggressive attitude.
They’ll be adding an accomplished scorer in November, too, and all the changes should lift Toronto into the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Leafs missed by 13 points last spring and that shouldn’t be too much to overcome. The opener is Thursday when the Montreal Canadiens visit.
Sure, there are high hopes every autumn, but there is something radically different about the vibe from Air Canada Centre this year because, in the short time they’ve been in charge, GM Brian Burke and head coach Ron Wilson have changed everything.
The direction they needed to go was clear after last season’s roster allowed more goals than any other NHL team. The pre-Burke Leafs were soft, they had a porous back end, and they had suspect goaltending.
Signing unrestricted free agents Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin was a big blue-line boost, and adding yet more muscle in Garnet Exelby and Colton Orr ensures opponents won’t be pushing the guys in blue and white around.
Outbidding other NHL teams to land goaltender Jonas Gustavsson was a coup. Gustavsson had a .932 save percentage in the Swedish league last winter and, as his limited but sensational pre-season performances suggested, he might be good enough to take the No. 1 job away from Vesa Toskala.
Burke’s free-agent pickups from the college ranks – Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Christian Hanson – all looked during training camp as if they belonged. Stalberg, a sixth-round draft pick in 2006 who made vast strides playing at the University of Vermont, scored a team-best six goals in skating in eight of the Leafs’ nine exhibitions (6-3-0) and made the 23-man roster. Bozak and Hanson will await their shot and all three promise to be valuable assets for years to come.
Nazem Kadri, Toronto’s first-round pick in this year’s draft, looked good, too, but he was deemed to require added strength and experience so was returned to the OHL’s London Knights.
As it now appears, Wilson’s top two lines to start the season will include incumbents Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman and Jason Blake, who had a team-best 25 goals last season.
It’s unsure exactly where Stalberg will fit in.
Returnees John Mitchell and Lee Stempniak along with Richard Wallin, who was lured back to the NHL from the Swedish league, are probable third-liners, while Orr, free-agent pickup Wayne Primeau and returnee Jamal Mayers would comprise the fourth line. Jay Rosehill might be kept up from the Toronto Marlies AHL farm team if Mayers, who had his bell rung last week, isn’t ready for Thursday.
Many teams in the Eastern Conference will have superior top-six talent up front so the Leafs’ lightweight attack might be the target of early criticism directed at Wilson. Some critics will insist that room should have been made for more new faces among the top eight, and they might be proved correct. The fans sure loved what they saw of Kadri, and they wanted to see more.
By the middle of November, though, all the talk will be about Phil Kessel, the nifty winger who was a 36-goal shooter with Boston last season, who will join the attack after rehabbing from shoulder surgery. He’ll bump somebody off the first line. He cost the Leafs two first-round draft picks and Burke is throwing the dice on this one but, when one’s team hasn’t been in a playoff game in nearly six years, one dares to do these kinds of things.
Regardless of who does or does not skate on the top two lines, the offence hasn’t been the biggest problem. It couldn’t be fingered for the team’s downfall last season. Toronto was 10th among the 30 NHL teams in goals scored. That wasn’t bad. It was the back end, and the league-worst penalty killing, that most needed to be fixed, and Burke has done a good job in trying to do just that.
Stay-at-home bruiser Komisarek is paired with Tomas Kaberle, who is enthused about the prospect about having greater liberty to join the attack, and sophomore star Luke Schenn will hop over the boards with the solid Beauchemin. Exelby, Ian White, Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn provide depth, with 2007 draft pick Carl Gunnarsson another NHL-ready Swede eager to work his way into the lineup.
In the crease, besides Toskala and Gustafsson, the acquisition of Joey MacDonald, who played the majority of games for the New York Islanders last winter, gives Toronto three goaltenders fit for NHL duty. It’s precious depth. Toskala will get the start Thursday.
There is a worst-case scenario, of course: Toskala doesn’t play any better than he did last year and Gustafsson doesn’t pan out; Kessel, lacking a Marc Savard to feed him passes, struggles; Komisarek, Beauchemin and Exelby rough it up to the extent they’re often injured; and Grabovski and Kulemin prove they’re not top-six material after all.
The Leafs are in Muskoka for three days of practices and paintball and everything is rosy.
“It’s awesome,” Stempniak says of the getaway excursion. “I think it’s sort of underrated in terms of team dynamic.”
This season will be different, Toskala promises.
“Every year, we said we were excited for the season, but I feel we really mean that this year.”