Last Year: Maple Leafs’ fans rode the false hopes of a team ending their seven year playoff drought, through the first two-thirds of the season no less. Following that, the wheels fell off and the Leafs’ lost 22 of their final 29 games, winding up with a lottery pick instead of a playoff spot. The promising future of James Reimer was called into question during the sophomore’s injury beset campaign. Suspect goaltending and shaky defense cost Toronto the game on far too many nights this past season.
Toronto’s horrific fall from grace cost offensive minded coach Ron Wilson his job, as he was replaced by ex-Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle. Carlyle struggled to get the Leafs’ to buy into his stingy, defensive style, leading to the belief many new personnel may be acquired. A point-per-game season for Phil Kessel and astonishing bounce back year from Joffrey Lupul were definite positives, but the Leafs will be hard pressed to see the same results this year if they do not bolster their offense and give their stars some help.
UFA’s: Joey Crabb (RW/LW), Jay Rosehill (LW).
RFA’s: Nikolai Kulemin (RW/LW), Matt Frattin (RW/LW), Cody Franson (D).
The Draft: The speculation surrounding Toronto at the draft was immense, as is always the case of a Brian Burke club. Rumors ran wild about the Leafs trading up, while also being heavily involved in the Roberto Luongo and Rick Nash sweepstakes. In the end however, it was a rare player for player deal that was arguably the largest move of the draft weekend. Burke shipped inconsistent defenseman Luke Schenn to join his younger brother in Philadelphia for James van Riemsdyk, the big-bodied forward he’s long coveted. Burke also said goodbye to the failed experiment that was 'The Monster', trading goalie Jonas Gustavsson to Winnipeg for a conditional 7th round pick in 2013.
With their first pick (5th overall), the Leafs selected defenseman Morgan Rielly of the Moose Jaw Warriors. After returning from ACL surgery from last year, Rielly put up 18 points in 18 games. His puck moving abilities will greatly benefit Toronto’s back end in years to come, aiding a defense corps that has problems moving out of their own end.
Summer Movement: Toronto’s newest addition, James van Riemsdyk (also known around the league as JVR), should flourish with the opportunity of a full season as a Top-6 forward. Coincidentally, Luke Schenn’s locker room leadership and personality will be missed but his game could never find consistency under the scrutiny in Toronto.
Burke and the Leafs have been tied to almost all expected major movements this off-season. Their need in net is undeniable, tying them largely to Roberto Luongo. JVR may subdue the Rick Nash rumors but the Leafs certainly could use another scoring forward. Zach Parise has had ties to club due to his Olympic relationship with Burke. Either way, Toronto could still have a very different look come next year.
Breakout Player(s) in 2012: This could very well be the season for Nazem Kadri, and some are saying it better be. Burke’s highest draft pick as GM of the Leafs has yet to find the consistency and defensive play capable of earning him a permanent spot in the NHL. A successful season in AHL coupled with a new coach in Toronto may give Kadri, what many would assume, his last opportunity in Toronto. Kadri has the high-end talent and swagger required to survive in Toronto but can he do it on a consistent basis remains to be seen. Another player to watch is Tyler Bozak, if he can build off of last season, he should be a bright spot on this year's roster.
In closing, a healthy season and peace of mind of a top roster spot could see James van Riemsdyk finally develop into the offensive talent he was originally forecast as, going second overall in 2007. 35 and 40-point seasons to begin his career were cut down to a 24-point campaign last year that saw him limited just 43 games. The 6’3”, 200 lbs winger could get some looks opposite Phil Kessel which will seriously bolster his offensive production.
Outlook: Taking a positive away from last season will be hard for most Leafs fans but one must remember that for two-thirds of the year, they were a playoff team. Toronto is a couple glaring pieces away but if Burke can wield some magic in the summer’s free agency and trade markets, this could be a playoff club come next May.
If nothing else, the blue and white faithful can look forward to seeing their team on HBO’s 24/7 and the NHL’s Winter Classic opposite Detroit.