Watching another year go by without a Cup was especially difficult this year for Leafs fans. When Chicago won the Cup in June, they made the Leafs the sole owner of the longest Stanley Cup drought of any team in the National Hockey League. So, with the excitement of the hockey season starting to build, a Leafs fan inevitably asks him or herself, is this finally our year?
The answer to that question depends on your perspective. If you are asking “Are they going to win the Stanley Cup?”, the answer is pretty simple. According to sportsbook.com: the odds of that are 75/1, the same as the lowly Edmonton Oilers. So the answer to that question would be no, probably not. But, a Leafs fan should be comfortable with lowering his or her expectations, and may poise a more realistic question; “Can they at least make the playoffs?” Well, the answer to that question is much more complex and many more variables have to be considered.
The first and most obvious problem that has to be addressed is offence. Last season the Leafs were tied for 25th in goals per game. But, can that change? The additions of Colby Armstrong and Clarke Macarthur will add some depth up front, but are far from dramatic. If the Leafs are going to add more firepower, it is only going to be through strong, if not outstanding seasons from rookies Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak and major junior phenom Nazem Kadri. The success of the rookies, especially Kadri, could make or break the Leafs offence, and ultimately, their season.
Goaltending looks solid. A phenomenal season from Gustavsson could lift the Leafs up four or five places in the standings, but that may be too much to ask for. However, they’ll still be solid in the crease with JS Gigeure as a reliable backup in case Gustavasson’s health or performance declines. Defense will be better this season with the return of a healthy Mike Komisarek and the steady improvement of sophomore Carl Gunnarson. However, if the Leafs want to significantly improve from their miserable 3.21 goals against per game from the 2009-10 season; Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin and Luke Schenn must have good seasons.
Coach Ron Wilson must improve his special teams strategy. With the addition of two strong checking forwards in Armstrong and Macarthur, and a deep and talented blueline there is no reason why the Leafs should be ranked last in the penalty kill for a second consecutive year this season. The lack of powerplay success makes more sense when examining the Leafs roster, but with a good point man in Kaberle, a good blueline shot from Phaneuf, a sniper in Kessel and the addition of the feisty Kadri, the PP should and must improve this season.
The intangibles of this year’s roster must also be examined. It has been a long time since the Leafs have had a strong voice in the locker room. Phaneuf must fill that vacancy as team captain. If he is successful it could do wonders to team confidence and attitude. However, if he fails it could mean another repeat of last season’s on ice apathy and overall lack of character.
So, will they make the playoffs? Based on analysis, the answer is probably no. However, when you are a Leafs fan, you have to have an optimistic mindset rather than that of an engineer. If the Leafs rookies have good seasons, Wilson finds a way to make the special teams work and Phaneuf can be the strong captain they so desperately need, the Leafs will improve. If, on top of that, Gustavsson has an outstanding year and Beauchemin, Schenn and Phaneuf improve on last year’s mediocre season, they will make the playoffs. As Leafs fans, all we can do is pray.