Author: B Leaf
Last season, the Leafs were 10th in scoring (244) and 9th in shots on goal (2,603). There is no major reason why that number should drop other than the loss of Antropov. There are other players who should have better years and help fill his ice time with similar results. On the powerplay, the Leafs were middle of the road at 16th. The Leafs were a respectable 17th in shots allowed (2481), but were a league worst in goals against (286). The PK% was also a league worst. Not all the blame can be placed on the goaltending, but a lot of it can. The collective save percentage for the team was an abysmal .885%.
To illustrate how bad that save percentage was, consider the following. If Leaf goaltenders had of been able to post a meagerly improved saving rate of .900% their goals against would drop from 286 to 248. Furthermore if they could have posted a slightly above average .915% they would have allowed only 211 goals. So without a doubt the key to more wins falls on the goaltending tandem of a healthy Vesa Toskala and first year man Jonas â€œthe Monsterâ€ Gustavsson.
Toskala played with three significant injuries last season- all have been surgically repaired. The guy is a trooper for playing through that pain without making excuses. Is it out of the question that Leaf goaltenders could post a .915 save percentage this year? Not at all, when Toskala has been healthy he has been in that range throughout his career. Gustavsson put up better numbers than that last year in the SEL. When his numbers are pro-rated to the NHL he should be around a .914 %. Obviously after last year anything close to those numbers would make us happy. With the best goaltending coach in the world on side, that should also help.
Is it possible the Leafs could prevent more shots, block more shots, and make incoming shots less effective? Francois Beauchemin will make a significant difference and to a lesser degree Mike Komisarek. Ian White has improved every year that he has been in the league and it doesnâ€™t look like he is done yet at just 25. Luke Schenn is also improving at a rapid pace, and rarely do defensive players suffer from slumps like forwards do. The Leafs defense is clearly more skilled, deep, and physical so in theory the shots that get through are made under duress, or they get blocked, or the rebounds get cleared by a bigger, tougher rear guard.
The other part of the equation has to do with better PK. I think we have made some improvements. What impact will Primeau and Wallin have? Not sure, but the improved defense will help.
Besides letting in goals one of the ways the Leafs lost last year was they got pushed around. That should not happen. Furthermore, for those worried about penalties, I would say donâ€™t worry too much. Wilson is perhaps the best coach in the league for preventing his teams from taking stick penalties. Look at the difference he made on Antropov last year. The Leafs will be more physical but penalties will often be coincidental.
The key players for the Leafs this season are first of all Vesa Toskala and to a lesser extent Jonas Gustavson. Francois Beauchemin will be key in anchoring the defence, but he is not alone, expect big years from Ian White and Luke Schenn. Up front Mikhail Grabovski is the key guy. His leadership in the bravery and effort department has the ability to be contagious in the same way Doug Gilmour inspired his mates.
The most important theme for this season should be player development. How will Jiri Tlusty, Rickard Wallin, and Nikolai Kulemin develop and in what roles? On the Marlies which players will make their mark? Tyler Bozak, Mikhail Stephanovich and Chris Didomenico will try and establish that they are legit top six forwards. Dale Mitchell, Victor Stalberg, Rob Slaney and Chris Hanson will need to demonstrate bottom six attributes with top six potential. Phil Oreskevic has to be considered a good bottom pair prospect based on his showing last year, can he show more on the farm? Can Nazem Kadri go back to junior and have a big year like Cody Hodgson did last year? Something tells me this could be a milestone year for the Leafs in their development. I cannot recall a time when there was so much anticipation for prospects in the organization. Hopefully Burke can continue to add more prospects and picks to the stable. It certainly should be interesting to see what these guys bring to the table.
There is not really any pressure or bar set for this team other than team and player development. It is true the playoffs are potentially there for the taking but if the team fails then we can look at the benefits of higher draft picks and trade deadline returns. If we make the playoffs, then that experience will help the young guys to grow.