A Look Ahead

A Look Ahead

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With the final bell about to ring season most fans would be happy to forget – although the impending draft all but dictates they most assuredly will not – the Maple Leafs will officially enter the offseason five campaigns removed from the playoffs at the conclusion of Saturday night’s game in Montreal.

Unlike previous years, however, this season has revealed to fans — amidst the rubble of far too many losses — a silver lining of sorts: the promise of youth.

Phil Kessel returned from injury to reach the 30-goal plateau despite missing a month of the season and the entirety of training camp. College signing Tyler Bozak proved a revelation over the second half of the campaign, as did Nikolai Kulemin. Viktor Stalberg made the most of his promotion to a scoring line after spending the majority of his NHL games honing his two-way game on the checking units. Luke Schenn shook off a first-half slump to remind fans why he was drafted 5th overall in 2008, and Carl Gunnarsson’s steady play was perhaps the season’s most pleasant surprise. Dion Phaneuf appears to be an anchor, and leader, for several years to come.  And of course there is Jonas Gustavsson who, despite battling a medical condition, acclimation to a new culture, and an oft-overlooked adjustment to the North American game, showed fans what the hype was all about on more occasions than not following the Olympic Break.

The question now is, how do GM Brian Burke and his staff build around that youth this summer?

Obviously, complementary players will need to be added to fill the many gaps that remain on the Leafs‘ roster.  The players listed above, who could be referred to as the future core of the team, are still very young in both age and their careers, and with that comes the risk of inconsistency, particularly the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’, common among second year players.  We saw it with Schenn this season, and given the lack of overall scoring output witnessed on the team this season, should a number of the young forwards hit that same speedbump, another long season could be in the making.

The good news is, the goaltending situation improved dramatically with the addition of Jean-Sebastian Giguere.  Not only has he provided steady play between the pipes, he (unlike his predecessor) has also been a willing and effective mentor to Gustavsson, and it is no coincidence that the latter’s play improved dramatically following Giguere’s arrival. With Gigeure under contract for next season, and Gustavsson (RFA) expected to re-sign on a multi-year deal, fans should expect the team’s highly-effective goaltending arrangement to remain intact heading into next season.

Similarly, the team’s defensive unit finally seemed to come together, again following the Olympics.  Part of this can be attributed to more confidence in the goaltending situation, and part of it to the addition of Dion Phaneuf, whose abilities need no great degree of explanation.  It would seem as if Phaneuf had an effect on Schenn, in particular, akin to that which Giguere has had on Gustavsson.

Schenn, Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek will all be back, but after that there are a few questions.  Will there be space for Jeff Finger’s contract, or will he be sent to the minors?  Will Tomas Kaberle remain a member of the Leafs? And can Mike Van Ryn return to fill a 6/7 role on the blueline?

Blueline depth is somewhat of a concern, as the Leafs have few NHL-ready defenders on the Marlies outside of pending-RFA Phil Oreskovic (who didn’t look out of place in a cup-of-coffee appearance a season a ago), or perhaps newly-minted Simon Gysbers. Depending on what happens with Kaberle and/or Finger, and the status of Van Ryn, a depth addition may make some sense here.

In short, from the net through the blueline, the Leafs will enter next season looking fairly respectable (on paper, at least). Should the defenders and goaltenders carry over their (mostly) steady play of late into next season, that’s two-thirds of the roster that should provide only minimal cause for concern.

The offense, however, is another story altogether.

At a glance, the scoring units are where the most attention will have to be spent this summer.  Although help is likely to arrive in the form of Nazem Kadri, the jury is out on exactly how much he can realistically be expected to contribute in his rookie campaign — assuming he makes the final roster to begin with.  With the team struggling to score goals under the current construct of the roster, it would appear imperative that offensive depth must be priority #1.

At least one sniper on the wing who can play the top six to complement the existing crop of Kessel, Kulemin (RFA) and Stalberg will be essential, if for no other reason than to draw coverage off of Kessel.  Another forward, ideally a veteran, would help to offset any sort of aforementioned slump endured by Bozak or Stalberg, as well as the hot & cold tendencies of Mikhail Grabovski. Some would suggest slotting in Kadri, and he could get a look here. However, there is something to be said for adding some veteran depth among a young top 6, for it is by no means a stretch to suggest that consistency will be their greatest challenge.

As for the checking units, Luca Caputi has brought a great deal of energy with his play, but to be fair still has a long way to go in his development before he can be reasonably and justifiably relied upon as an everyday contributor.  Christian Hanson (RFA) has yet to show signs of developing the offense projected when he signed with the club, but has begun to display the tools (most notably, using his strength to his advantage) to become an effective shutdown player with the ability to chip in offensively from time-to-time. His ability to play centre or wing adds an element of flexibility that cannot be understated.  Defensive wizard Frederik Sjostrom has been excellent within his role, as has Colton Orr, who on several occasions showed the faithful at the ACC that he is more than just an enforcer.  Utility forward John Mitchell (RFA) may be back for depth purposes, but assuming Wayne Primeau is not re-signed, a checking-unit centre will be a priority, as the general consensus would suggest it is unlikely Rickard Wallin will be retained.

So to put all that together, what have we learned about the Leafs in 09/10, in terms of the future of the team?

We’ve learned that a future core appears to be in place, but we’ve also learned — via the scoresheet — that offensive consistency must be addressed for this team to move forward.  On winning teams, consistent offensive play leads to improved defensive play and vice-versa (one unit’s success eases pressure off the other).  And, of course, goaltending is key as always — an area Leafs fans should be relatively comfortable with entering next season.

Is a major turnover required? No. Are certain key pieces required for this team to take the next step? Yes.  A scoring winger, a veteran forward who can contribute offensively, a checking-line centre and a depth defender should be the priorities — in that order — entering the off-season, in this blogger’s humble opinion.

A major turnaround requires major turnover, and in the case of the Leafs, the bulk of that work was done over the past year with the notable additions of the Frat Pack, Gustavsson, Kessel, Giguere, and Phaneuf to plant the seeds of a future core group to lead the team forward.  Now it is a matter of finding the right pieces to complement that core and provide support when those players struggle, as all young players will at various points of the season.

Bottom line, there are plenty of reasons for fans to be hopeful for next season regardless of the final standings and the situation at the draft.  In an ideal world, we’d all love to have one of those top picks. But you know what? The future looks bright for a change, regardless.  As the play of the Leafs’ youth – most of whom were not drafted by the team – has shown us over the season’s second half, the draft is but one of many ways to build a competitive franchise. Admittedly, from a youth and salary cap salary standpoint it is probably the best way — but if Brian Burke’s roster moves have proven anything, it is that the draft is far from the only way.

Score one for creativity, folks. Here’s hoping that trend continues this summer.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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