Here come the 2013 Leafs! Uh oh…
The words many fans have long awaited – for 113 days to be precise – have been spoken. After what seemed like an incessant period of childish blaming of the other party,
a moment of lucid clarity broke through the dark and bitter happenings of the past 4 months. Gary Bettman and Don Fehr stood side by side – perhaps for the first time ever – and announced that a framework for a proposed 10-year CBA had been agreed upon. Though much work is yet to be done, and in short order, as far as putting pen to paper and sorting out fine details, the lockout – for all intents and purposes – is over. It won’t, however, soon be forgotten, or at least it shouldn’t. From the hypocrisy of Owners crying broke mere hours after signings $100 million contracts, to the smoke-blowing lunacy of players claiming they are part of an all for one, one for all brotherhood while simultaneously buying plane tickets and jettisoning to Europe and Russia, it’s been a whirlwind – and ridiculous – 16 weeks.
Tough to say how fans will react. Will those that pledged to not partake in anything NHL related for however many games stick to their guns? Or will there be a mass “turn the other cheek” forgiving and return to the game? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle, where some fans will remain bitter while others wage a wary return to the sport. How will the league and owners react? Will some sort of amends be made? These are questions that will be answered in due time, but with a schedule that will be either 48 or 50 games, you can be certain that what we as fans are about to embark on promises to be hectic, and fun. A condensed schedule, means teams need to make quicker decisions in terms of improving themselves, making changes, calling players up, and sending players down. Similarly, a hot or cold streak could truly make or break a team’s season.
As fans, our involvement with team, analysis, armchair GM advice and the excitement of watching NHL hockey will be like kernels popping over the coming months. For the Leafs, the goal remains as it has for a near-decade: make the playoffs.
The questions remain the same as they were over the back half of last season throughout the lineup:
Will Burke make a ‘rushed’ deal, or stay put with the roster? Burke’s bravado is well documented, and so too are the needs of his hockey club. He’s talked the talk, but the Leafs continue to crawl rather than walk. No more metaphors. No more half seasons. The Leafs need goaltending help and significant improvements at centre ice. I’m not even going to entertain the notion of JvR at centre ice, because that allows for the “adjustment period” excuse. Avoiding that problem is simple: acquire a centre to play centre, not a winger. JvR could well thrive at centre, but I’m not holding my breath as his skillset lends itself to the making of a strong power-winger.
Will Randy Carlyle be able to adjust on the fly? Still without a training camp under his belt, Carlyle continues on as the teams coach while trying to get to know and understand his players in their roles. This while trying to eradicate terrible defensive habits, and preaching a gap-closing, responsible approach to the game. Who does Carlyle slot in on the first line? Sticking with the Lupul, Bozak, Kessel trio would be the easy answer, but for a coach who awards ice time based on line-matching and a willingness to buy in, you get the sense that something is going to change. Does Grabo, a hard-working responsible centre, finally get his shot with Kessel on the top line? He’s certainly paid like he should be, so why not? With no margin for error, the task is difficult for the coach to establish a cohesive unit, particularly with players who’ve remained sedentary as far as the standard for physical fitness and ‘game shape’ demanded by an NHL season.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the Leafs’ roster, is where do all the bodies fit up front? Quantity over quality is unfortunately the theme of the Leafs’ crop of forwards, but there are some attractive pieces. There are few players that have ‘locked’ spots up front, and competition will be high. I’m of the mind that if Kadri isn’t traded, and isn’t an absolute train wreck defensively, then he’s earned a look on the top line with Kessel, or on the second line as a winger in place of say, Clarke MacArthur. Naz, as we know, is an extremely skilled player that needs to play with talent, but far be it from me to tell Randy what to do. Perhaps having him centre his AHL linemate in Matt Frattin might help. The Leafs’ bottom 6 is perhaps where we should be watching to see some interesting competition.
One thing we know is that Carlyle loves to have a strong checking line that will face the opposition’s top line while providing snarl and grit. This mentality endears itself to Leo Komarov, who despite having bolted to the KHL shortly after playing for the Marlies – and leading them in goals – knows he has a real shot to make the team on that important third line. Paul Hendrick of LeafsTV says the Leafs need tough forwards to play against, and that Leo is just that guy: “He’s not fun to play against, and I think he’s got a spot on the third or at worst fourth line.” Another potential addition, according to Hendrick, could be that of Carter Ashton, who’s improved his play with the Marlies of late, and earned ice time under Carlyle with the Leafs last season. Jay McClement and Nikolai Kulemin could slide in alongside Komarov. This, however, leaves the likes of Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi in limbo. With so much uncertainty at centre ice, there are an infinite number of permutations as far as lineup combinations, but I’m curious to see where Clarke MacArthur lands. Should Kadri, Frattin and Komarov find a spot in the lineup, Bozak and MacArthur could be pushed to join Connolly and Lombardi on the sidelines. In any case, that’s far too much speculation for the time being.
The bottom line remains that the Leafs will no doubt feature some more grit in their bottom-6, and some more size up front with JvR. Where the chips fall will be up the players’ conditioning levels and skillsets. The following isn’t a projected lineup, but one I wouldn’t be upset with come the first game.
Lupul – Grabovski– Kessel
JvR – Kadri – Frattin
Komarov – McClement – Kulemin
Brown – Steckel – Ashton
Lombardi – Connolly – Bozak – MacArthur
The Leafs’ defense will likely undergo changes in personnel and most certainly in structure. Following a breakout performance, Carl Gunnarsson has emerged as a steady presence, and slots in alongside Phaneuf on the first pairing. Beyond that, the emergence of some Marlies and injuries to players like Jake Gardiner create some opportunity.
Hendrick chimes in again with who he believes could be a candidate for promotion: “If there’s one name that comes to mind to make this team from the Marlies, it’s Paul Ranger.” With Gardiner’s injury woes, Ranger’s chances of dressing in blue and white come pseudo-opening night are much greater. A solid, steady stay-at-home D-man is certainly what the doctor ordered, and by doctor I mean Carlyle, particularly when considering that Cody Franson, an RFA, remains without a contract and has surfaced in trade discussions.
“He’s so steady, and might be the most physical defenseman the Leafs would have, but he’s also got a great shot.” Having jumped into the rush here and there with the Marlies, Ranger has emerged as a reliable rearguard, and with NHL experience, he may well figure into Toronto’s top 4, given Carlyle’s affinity to create balance on defense pairings. Ranger could find himself patrolling the blueline with John-Michael Liles, a gifted puck-rusher. Signs point to Gardiner returning sooner than later, meaning that Ranger and Gardiner could be paired together, and Liles would slide onto the 3rd pairing with anyone of Mike Komisarek, Korbinian Holzer or Mark Fraser, all of whom play that rugged defensive game, needless to say with varying degrees of success *cough* Komisarek *cough*.
Perhaps another D-man that could earn time, though likely based on injury, is Mike Kostka. With the Marlies, Kostka has put up an impressive 6 goals and 34 points in just 33 games, and has at the very least earned a good look. Kostka has been the Marlies best defenseman and, at the very least, has played his way into training camp. It’s important to note the AHL batch of Marlie defenders have a season full of winning and conditioning under their belt, a definite advantage.
It’s all eyes on the trade market, as Leafs fans shudder at the thought of starting this lockout-truncated season with a duo of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. Heck, throw Jussi Rynnass into the mix. Can Reimer bounce back? Is Scrivens ready? We’ve heard that before, but the real question is: Burke can’t be serious, can he? He spoke of major upgrades in goal, and is now working against the clock to look for help between the pipes. The oft-rumoured Roberto Luongo would help the Leafs two-fold. First and foremost, he would provide stable goaltending, but his acquisition would mean the likely parting with one or two of the above-mentioned forwards, creating a less congesting scene up front. With 80 something games of experience between James Reimer and Ben Scrivens, coupled with the fact that the elder statesman of the duo (Reimer) hasn’t played competitive hockey in months, screams that a deal is in the works, or that Burke is certifiably insane.
Wherever the players land, whoever gets dealt and however the results go, it’s nice to have some NHL puck up and running again. Check back with me in 3 weeks when I’m cursing the day the lockout ended and the Leafs are a disaster on ice.
Go Leafs Go