With one week until the start of the regular season, things are starting to take shape for the Maple Leafs. Kadri's recent injury seems to have resolved (for now, at least) the Frattin v Kadri debate.
Pierre Lebrun is reporting that Brian Burke is working the phones in an attempt to address the excess of depth on the team's defense. This probably means that they've seen enough of Gardiner and like him enough to try and give the kid some quality NHL ice-time. Who's on the block and what the return might be will certainly be the topic of considerable speculation in the coming weeks.
With relatively few questions surrounding the current roster, I wanted to take this opportunity to put together some predictions for the coming season. I'll keep myself honest at the mid-way point so you all can see how smart I am... Or how badly I've failed.
Without further ado:
1) Phil Kessel will have his best goals per game ratio of his career
I wanted to say that Kessel would score 40 goals but with his minor groin injury (there's no such thing as a groin injury that isn't nagging it seems) I'm not comfortable saying he'll play 80 games.
Kessel has scored 30 and 32 goals in his two seasons with the Leafs while his shooting percentage has hovered around the 10% mark. In his last year in Boston, playing with a good centerman in Marc Savard, he scored 36 and had a shooting percentage of 15.5%. With Connolly as his center, I suspect he'll be able to roughly split that difference and with a 13% shooting percentage and similar shot numbers, he'd be on pace for almost exactly 40.
2) Gunnarsson will not finish the year as a Maple Leaf
I'm a big fan of Carl Gunnarsson and I think he has a great all around game. On a team where most of our defense can clearly be defined as either offensive defensemen or defensive defensemen, Gunnarsson defies definition.
As I said earlier, Burke is already looking to clear some space on the backend for Gardiner and my guess is that Gunnarsson will be the casualty. As much as I like Gunnarsson, he doesn't have the ceiling of Aulie or Franson (both of whom were guys that Burke actively sought out). When you have the kind of young defensive depth that we do, ceiling is everything and that likely means that Gunnarsson wont finish the year in blue and white.
3) John-Michael Liles will make the Kaberle trade look like a robbery
By making the Stanley Cup finals, the Boston Bruins surrendered their 2nd round pick to the Leafs as the final piece of the Kaberle deal. The Leafs used this second rounder to acquire J-M Liles from the Colorado Avalanche.
Liles finished last season with one point less than Kaberle and had half as many giveaways. While Boston won the Cup last year, Toronto got very good value for Kaberle and used the smallest asset they acquired in the deal to pick-up a comparable player to replace him.
4) Tyler Bozak will make you love him again
For my money, Tyler Bozak has been one of the best Leafs in the pre-season. A lot of people fell off the Bozak bandwagon last year as his offense tapered off from his first half-season in the league but he was a good player in his own zone and won 54.6% of his faceoffs.
With Connolly's injury history, Bozak can probably expect to spend some time on the top unit again this year and I think it's a spot that he can fill admirably for short periods of time. Bozak is a useful player and I think those who were hard on him last year will be supporting him by year's end.
5) More of the same from Grabovski and Kulemin
These two might be the best all around players on the team. They're a threat in the offensive zone and play a strong defensive game as well. We can easily use these two against other teams' top lines and feel confident in doing so.
I'm not comfortable saying that MacArthur is the player that we saw last season, but I love Grabbo and Kule. Expect to see both of them hover around 60 points by season's end.
6) Expect some big trades up front
The Leafs have a crowded roster for the next couple of years. Without many expiring contracts, and with a few youngsters the Leafs would like to see play prominent roles, there's going to be some roster shuffling this year.
It's hard to imagine that the Leafs wont try their hardest to bring Grabovski back next year, which means no significant departures among our forward corps. With Colborne, Frattin, D'Amigo and Kadri knocking on the door and BCP favourite Greg McKegg likely to provide a push a little over a year from now, expect Burke to use some trades to make a little room for the youngsters.
7) Our special teams will be much better
The Leafs' special teams have been absolutely disgusting over the past few seasons. The new assistant coaches, Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon, are both hailed as 'special team guys' and as Johnathan Willis pointed out, Connolly is an exceptional special teams player on both sides.
Expect the team to move from abysmal to respectable on special teams. We wont be world beaters, but we wont be nearly as bad as we've come to expect.
8) Colby Armstrong will get a big suspension
When Colby Armstrong is playing at his best, he's the type of heart-and-soul guy that Leaf fans gravitate towards. Unfortunately, he's also prone to stepping over the proverbial line.
With Shanahan handing out big suspensions for hitting from behind, I fully expect that Armstrong will miss a chunk of the season after one of his brain cramps. I hope I'm wrong (I like Armstrong and hate seeing guys get hurt) but with Armstrong playing so close to the edge, and occasionally crossing it in a big way, a big suspension seems likely.
9) James Reimer will be the first Leaf goalie in recent history to not make the fans hate him
I don't think Reimer is going to be in the top 10 goalies in the league in terms of save percentage -- I just don't think he's that talented. Having said this, he's got a good work ethic, an exceptional attitude and it seems like he's trying to soak in all of Francois Allaire's wisdom and I think that will be good enough to give the Leafs average goaltending.
If nothing else, his aw-shucks demeanor makes him one of the least hate-able players in the league. I bet even Habs fans like this guy.
10) Kessel's line will not include both Lupul and Connolly by season's end
As I said earlier, I've been really impressed by Bozak so far this pre-season. Kadri is starting to get it. Lombardi, when healthy, could easily play a top six role.
With Grabovski, Kulemin and MacArthur looking like a lock, I expect that we'll see this year's surprise breakout forward supplant one of the incumbants on the team's top unit.
That's what I'm seeing in my crystal ball. How about you? What kind of season are you expecting from the Buds?