We are just 28 days from the Montreal Canadiens season opener, and merely 12 days from their first preseason action. We continue to countdown the final standings of the Atlantic Division, and today we take a closer look at the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will find themselves in sixth place at the end of the season.
The standings, from bottom up now look like this:
6th: Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto made the postseason in the shortened 2013 season for the first time since 2004. The Leafs had no problem scoring goals, led by sniper Phil Kessel, who finished eighth in league scoring. A solid offensive supporting cast of Nazem Kadri, James Van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul, had the Leafs score the fifth most goals in the Eastern Conference.
Toronto ultimately fell in game seven of the first round to the Boston Bruins. They blew a three goal third period lead and lost on a heartbreaking overtime winner by Patrice Bergeron.
Over the summer, the Maple Leafs allowed Clarke MacArthur and Mike Kostka to walk via free agency, bought out the contracts of Mike Komisarek and Mikhail Grabovski, and dealt Ben Scrivens and Matt Frattin to the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs also dealt a series of picks to the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks for center Dave Bolland and signed Paul Ranger and David Clarkson as free agents.
The Leafs will once again be able to score plenty of goals in the upcoming season. With Kessel, Lupul, Van Riemsdyk and Clarkson playing on the top two lines, they have an impressive group of wingers in their top six. Kadri broke out with 44 points in 48 games last season, but struggled down the stretch, and is currently without a contract with training camp just days away. The only other option to play center on the top two lines is Tyler Bozak, who has been Kessel’s center for years. Bozak is certainly being paid like a top six center, earning over 4 million dollars per year on a freshly signed 5 year contract, but his career high in points is just 47.
After the top six, the offense drops off quickly for the Leafs. The third line will be centered by Dave Bolland, who plays a defensive style, and will also feature Nikolai Kulemin, who has shown flashes of scoring in his career, but is best suited as a defensive winger. Leafs Head Coach Randy Carlyle will continue to dress bruisers Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, which leaves any fourth line scoring to Jay McClement, who had 17 points in 48 games last season.
There is no question that this group of Leafs defenders will be able to pile up points once again. Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner and John Michael Liles, are all known primarily for their offensive ability. Phaneuf and Franson were both among the top ten scoring defenders in the NHL last season.
The problem however, is this leaves most of the defensive responsibilities to Mark Fraser and Carl Gunnarson. This resulted in Toronto allowing more goals than any playoff team other aside from the New York Islanders. The Leafs allowed 133 goals last season, even though goaltender James Reimer had a very strong season, posting a save percentage of .924 in 33 games.
Speaking of goaltending, the Maple Leafs will have an impressive tandem between the pipes with Reimer and Bernier. The pair will battle each other all season for time in the crease, a scenario that will see the Leafs have strong goaltending every night. Bernier has been stuck behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, and will be motivated to play well so he can get plenty of playing time. The most games he was able to suit up for in one season with the Kings was just 25, in 2010-11.
Wrestling the keys to the crease away from Reimer may not be as difficult as battling Quick, but Reimer is not going to step aside either. Reimer led the Leafs to the postseason a year ago, and the 25 year old holds a .915 career save percentage in 104 games. Slightly better than Bernier’s .912 career split, over just 62 career games.
Realistically, we will see each of these keepers play at least 30 games, while whoever proves he can handle the heavy workload will get the majority of starts down the stretch.
After an offseason filled with change, the Leafs current depth chart is:
Lupul Bozak Kessel
Van Riemsdyk Kadri Clarkson
Kulemin Bolland Colborne
McLaren McClement Orr
The top two lines, and even the defenders, will provide plenty of scoring for this team next season. The goaltending is solid as well, though neither goaltender has played more than 37 games in one season.
The problem with this roster, is that they allowed too many goals against last season, and did nothing to fix that problem this summer. They have two lines that can score, but not enough depth to cover for inevitable injuries, and slumps. Lupul has not played a full season since 2008-09, and if (when) he goes down again, the Leafs will be scrambling to find someone to play on the second line. If Kadri can not duplicate his breakout season, or does not sign in time to begin the year, the Leafs will be forced to put Bolland on the second line, a role he failed to grasp on many occasions with the Blackhawks.
Being weak down the middle, a lack of depth, and not enough defenders that can keep the puck out of their own net will lead to the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs once again, and finishing 6th in the Atlantic Division.