As the old saying goes, you have to learn how to walk before you can run. For a Leafs team that finished 25th out of 30 teams last year and has made few changes so far this summer, the Maple Leafs are still very much in that walking process.
The big changes Leafs fans hoped for haven’t quite come to fruition as of right now. The Leafs were one of the youngest teams in the NHL last year, crumbled down the stretch, and have to this point only made three noteworthy roster changes this summer by bringing in James van Riemsdyk, Jay McClement and freeing a roster spot up for Korbinian Holzer. Thus, if the Leafs do improve next season, it will mainly be due to internal growth and development from the same group that totaled 80 points last year.
When fans and pundits evaluate teams from year-to-year the most obvious thing to do is to look at who has been subtracted and added to the line-up. Because Burke and co. have made such minimal changes, we are forced to look passed that. Instead, let’s take a look at the roster that’s returning and some of the areas where internal improvement is possible, hopefully leading to some more wins.
The first area the Leafs are looking for an improvement from is the least experienced position on the roster: goaltending. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have combined for 83 games of NHL action in their careers and right now they are set to basically double that by this time next year provided thereâ€™s a full season. Reimer is the one guy in particular that the organization has committed money and term to, and they have also vocally backed him as a long-term number one goalie.
The simple thing to say is that things canâ€™t possibly get worse than they were last year when Reimer got hurt, Gustavsson was hot-and-cold, and the team even had to turn to Jussi Rynnas for a bit. However, that seems to be more optimism than anything else. Since beginning his junior career â€˜Optimus Reimâ€™ has only twice played more than 50 games in a season. One of those times was two years ago when he played 52 combined games between the Leafs and Marlies, the other was his second year of junior hockey when he played 60 games. Thatâ€™s seven seasons worth of hockey and only two, somewhat full workloads. Before any questions are asked about whether he can give the Leafs the level of goaltending necessary for them to succeed, we have to simply ask whether or not he can stay healthy first.
On the positive side Reimer has played well at all levels of hockey and has shown he can carry an NHL team for a good chunk of the season. The hope is that he learns from his tough year, comes back a little more focused, resilient, and prepared for what it takes to be a Leafs net-minder and improves. Some like Reimer, some don’t, but heâ€™s a good goalie. He’s certainly not a goalie who gives up over three goals per game like he did last year. The .900sv% he posted was also the lowest of his career at any level where he’s played over a prolonged period of time. It’s doubtful he repeats that. Plus, it’s unlikely that a guy with Reimer’s character returns and has a second consecutive bad year.
Backing him up is Ben Scrivens. Is he an upgrade over Jonas Gustavsson for next season only? That’s tough to say. Is he a better fit with Leafs goalie coach Francois Allaire though? Yes. That’s relevant because goalies need consistency at all times and they can’t be second guessing things constantly if they are going to succeed. Scrivens has obviously played very well at the AHL level and proved he could handle a starter’s workload in that league. If Reimer rebounds as hoped he won’t be asked to be a saviour in net this year. He’ll simply be asked to give the Leafs a good 20-30 games and that is something he’s ready to do. Scrivens has gotten his feet wet in the NHL already, and is not only physically ready, but mentally ready as well. Both goalies are also going to mesh much better with Randy Carlyle’s system of hockey as opposed to Ron Wilson’s.
That brings us to the defense.
For the first time since the Leafs had the Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle duo, Toronto is set to return a solid top pairing. The tandem of Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson isn’t flashy but they showed last year that they could play reasonably well together against the oppositions best players. The 2011-12 season represents Gunnarsson’s first year against top players, and only Phaneuf’s second full year against top players’ worth noting Phaneuf looked much better this year in that role compared to his first try. With the hope of improved goaltending and the expected shutdown line to be formed under Carlyle – along with the fact that Phaneuf and Gunnarsson will have a year’s experience of playing together to build off of – the Leafs now have some sort of steady foundation on the backend to look forward to.
After the top two, the rest of the defense still has to come together but there are still logical areas for easy improvements. Jake Gardiner had 20 points in his last 40 games of the season last year, while John-Michael Liles was on pace for a career high 50-point season prior to being concussed. The chances that both of them keep those paces up all season, along with Phaneuf’s expected 40+ points is high unlikely (there aren’t an infinite amount of points to be distributed). But, one of them will have a very good year on the top PP unit with Phaneuf, while the other still produces modestly in a secondary scoring role. Don’t forget Cody Franson, either. He got off to a rocky start under Wilson, but did show flashes on occasion – most notably a seven point outburst in 10 November games. Carlyle didn’t appear fond of him either as he scratched Franson amid rumours of him not being happy with Franson’s practice habits, but the talent is there for him to help this team out should he play consistently, get in a groove, and see steady PP time.
That leaves Korbinian Holzer. The young German may not ever become what Luke Schenn has the potential to be over the next five years, but he is certainly capable of replacing the mediocre 16:02 per game that Schenn was giving the Leafs last year. Plus, he can kill penalties and clear the front of the net.
Up front, the Leafs are currently returning the top seven scoring forwards that contributed to the 10th highest scoring team in the league (plus, they are adding James van Riemsdyk). The leading scorer of the group was obviously Phil Kessel, who is an elite point producer and should be expected to produce similar numbers to what he did last season moving forward. Meanwhile, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak might be hard pressed to repeat the seasons that they just had; however, the Leafs have more than a few forwards coming off of down years. Nikolai Kulemin had seven goals, Clarke MaCarthur dropped 19 points (and is now in a contract year), Tim Connolly had his lowest points per game since the lockout including just five PP points, Matthew Lombardi had a career-low in points, and Matt Frattin took 18 games to get his first NHL point. That’s five players, all of whom possess varying degrees of talent, who have a lot of room to improve next season. Even Mikhail Grabovski and his 51 points last year can be bettered if his linemates begin finishing more consistently. There were a lot of nights last year when passes were bouncing off Kulemin’s stick and MacArthur was nowhere to be found; that altered Grabovski’s game.
There’s also, of course, JVR, Jay McClement and probably one wild card –Kadri, Komarov, Colborne, whoever– that are going to be added to the group giving it a little more size, skill, and versatility. Last season when the Grabovski line wasn’t producing, Ron Wilson didn’t have many good options to change things around. His options were basically a rookie Matt Frattin, Connolly on the wing, an unsure Lombardi, and Joey Crabb. This year there’s a few more possibilities to play with as the Leafs forward depth is growing. Frattin showed a steady progression throughout the year and should be much better suited to play in a scoring role moving forward. The addition of JVR will push a former top six forward down the line-up, so now that player will be waiting for his chance to get back up there, and dare we say Kadri looks ready to be a full-time NHLer?
When it comes to Carlyle as the new coach for the year, it’s probably safe to say that had he been hired over the summer his acquisition would probably be being met with much more optimism. It wasn’t “sexy” to have him coaching the Leafs when they were firmly down the gutter as the season came to a close, but it gave him a very good look at the work that’s ahead of him while also giving him a feel for the players on the team.
As far as whether he makes this team better though, I think that’s hard to say either way. There could be legitimate cases made as to why Carlyle might do a good job in Toronto, and why he might not. It was only a few years ago Ron Wilson came in as a highly regarded coach, and now he’s left with a tarnished legacy in Leaf-land. It’s best to wait and see here.
At the end of the day, when it comes to where the Leafs could internally improve from last season to the one upcoming, most of the improvements aren’t exactly earth shattering. That’s not a huge surprise considering the Leafs havenâ€™t been overly active throughout the summer. This team finished with 80 points last year. If some of their players rebound while the others continue playing well, it could mean a few more wins and 6-12 more points – which places them actually in the playoff hunt – but still more than likely on the outside looking in. Unless a player takes a big leap forward â€“Reimer/Scrivens in net? JVR working at center? Gardiner on D this is still a team on the bad side of the playoff bubble.
But things aren’t all bad. There is plenty of room for internal improvement should this group remain the same when the season starts.
They might not be running yet, but they aren’t exactly crawling either.