5 Questions For The Leafs

 

Signs are everywhere that this could be the year. The goaltending is improved. The defence is bigger and meaner. And the offence finally has a top-end sniper to score some goals.

 
 
 
 
 

Signs are everywhere that this could be the year. The goaltending is improved. The defence is bigger and meaner. And the offence finally has a top-end sniper to score some goals.

The changes may not add up to a Stanley Cup championship just yet. But for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have missed the playoffs in each of the last four years, a berth in the post-season at least seems possible.

Especially when you consider the following: the Leafs went 6-3-0 during the pre-season.

While the exhibition schedule is mostly a meaningless evaluator of a team's success -- the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins went 1-4-1 -- the last time Toronto won that many games in the pre-season was in 1993-94. That season, the Leafs finished with 103 points, third-highest in the Eastern Conference and advanced to the conference semi-finals.

So it sounds promising. But before fans start lining up to buy first-round playoff tickets, here are five questions that could determine if the Leafs' skid will reach five years or if they will finally return to the post-season.

WILL THE MONSTER TAKE OVER THE GOALTENDING?

After missing a majority of training camp due to a heart condition, Jonas Gustavsson (pictured below) appeared in just two pre-season games. But during the combined 60 minutes that he played, the rookie goaltender stopped every shot he faced, received a standing ovation from Toronto fans and -- with Vesa Toskala sitting on the bench--provided a glimpse of the Leafs' not-so-distant future.

For the moment, though, there is no goaltending controversy.

Despite having the fourth-worst save percentage (.891) in the league last season, Toskala will begin the year as the starting goaltender. And Gustavsson, who has yet to play an entire game, is the still-apprenticing backup.

But after an inconsistent pre-season, where Toskala allowed seven goals in Toronto's final exhibition game, management said the 32-year-old would be on a short leash.

"I don't know if pushing is the right word," Toskala said. "But, for sure, he makes our team better. We need every possible point, it doesn't matter who's playing in the net."

WHO WILL PASS THE PUCK TO PHIL KESSEL?

When GM Brian Burke acquired Kessel in a September trade with the Boston Bruins, the Leafs finally picked up a sniper who is more than capable of finding the back of the net. The 21-year-old (pictured middle of bottom row) scored 36 goals last season. And, though he will likely miss the first six weeks of the season, he instantly becomes the Leafs' No. 1 offensive threat.

The problem is that Kessel's former linemates -- playmaking centre Marc Savard, who had 63 assists last season, and power forward Milan Lucic --will not be joining him in Toronto.

As such, the Leafs do not have much in the way of secondary scoring.

Jason Blake, who led the team with 25 goals and 63 points, was outside the top-50 in the league in either category. Matt Stajan, who was Toronto's top playmaker, was tied for 46th in the league with 40 assists.

"When you get a guy who scores 36 goals and who is a natural goal-scorer -- as a centreman it's someone you want to play with," Stajan said.

WILL A BIGGER BLUE LINE BE BETTER?

Despite lacking an offensive stud, Toronto's biggest problem last season was preventing goals --not scoring them.

The Leafs ranked 10th in league scoring (2.98 goals per game), but they had the worst goals-against average (3.49 goals per game) and penalty kill (74.7%). Most of the fingers pointed toward the goaltending corps, which combined for the league's worst save percentage (88.5%). But the defence -- or lack thereof--did not escape the blame.

So this summer, Burke bolstered the blue line by acquiring Mike Komisarek (pictured top right) and Francois Beauchemin.

The big-bodied defenders should add size and stability to what was a porous blue line. Komisarek, who is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound stay-at-home rearguard, will be partnered with the puck-moving Tomas Kaberle. And Beauchemin, who is the only Toronto player to have won a Stanley Cup, will be paired with 19-year-old Luke Schenn.

With four others -- Ian White, Garnet Exelby, Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn -- rotating in and out of the final unit, Toronto's defence could be amongst the league's deepest.

"I think we've improved our defence," Toskala said. "That's helped us. And overall, we have a better team too ... it's one step forward in the process. Hopefully, it will take us to the playoffs."

WHOSE HEAD WILL LAND ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK?

The Leafs officially announced their 23-man roster yesterday. But the starting lineup is not set in stone.

Toronto took six extra players to a team-building trip this week to make the message clear that others are ready and willing to steal jobs. While competition certainly exists at the goaltending and defence positions, the area that will likely see the most change is among the top nine forwards.

Head coach Ron Wilson said he would juggle his lines depending on how a player performs on a nightly basis and would not be afraid to bench underachieving players. Burke went one step further, saying that he has received the green light from ownership to dump salaries in the minors if necessary. For Lee Stempniak (pictured bottom row, right), who earned US$3.5-million and scored 11 goals last season, the pressure is on.

"They know there's competition if they don't get the job done," Wilson said. "Someone could go from the first line to the third line in a hurry, or from the third to the first. That's kind of what you need. Internal competition can only make your team better."

WILL YOUTH BE SERVED?

First-round draft pick Nazem Kadri has been sent back to the Ontario Hockey League, while Tyler Bozak (pictured bottom left) and Christian Hanson will start the season in the minors. But with Gustavsson challenging for the No. 1 spot and Viktor Stalberg (pictured top left) being named to the top line, Toronto's rookies will be well represented.

The smooth-skating Stalberg, who led the Leafs with six goals and nine points in seven games, replaces Nikolai Kulemin in the lineup. Jay Rosehill, who seemed to drop the gloves more than he touched the puck during the pre-season, bumps veteran Jamal Mayers on the fourth line. And with Bozak, Hanson and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson all knocking on the door for jobs, this could be the year of the rookie.

"[Bozak] certainly played well enough to be here, but not enough to play above a veteran," Wilson said. "If one of veteran people ahead of him on our depth chart doesn't hold up his end of the bargain, he could be here by the weekend."

It is another sign for Toronto, a sign the team finally has something that has been lacking in the past few seasons: depth.

 
 
 
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