We haven't done a lot of coverage on our opponents on this site recently, and we completely ignored the Toronto Maple Leafs in our season preview podcast. Most of the attention in the Northeast Division is on the defending Stanley Cup.... ugh, I can't say it, the fricking Bruins, as well as the suddenly wealthy Buffalo Sabres. The staff here at Eyes on the Prize thinks that the Canadiens are at least the equal of those teams, and we think last season's results coupled with offseason moves and projections confirm that. The talk of potential playoff spots for the division has to start with these three teams, but in the course of a full season, things change. And one of the Eastern Conference's darkhorse teams are the Canadiens' first opponent of the new season, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Yes, it's been a tough ride for Leafs Nation post-lockout: one of the teams that spent the most money seemed completely side-tracked by the sudden need for fiscal restraint, and relied on players well past their prime and with injury histories that rivaled Herodotus in terms of both length and years covered. Remember Jason Allison? Eric Lindros? Ed Belfour? Michael Peca? Yeah, those were the post-lockout Leafs. And once those guys were gone, things actually got worse for the team, as the brilliantly incompetent Jean Ferguson, Jr. spent the suddenly limited amount of resources the Leafs had on even worse pursuits, jettisoning good assets into terrible goaltending (Andrew Raycroft, Vesa Toskala).
We're all well aware of the Leafs' shortcomings. The media coverage of the Maple Leafs in this time frame has stayed at the constant, over-the-top level. Sometimes, it actually makes you feel for their fans, particularly the ones brave enough to blog about the team's every move. It has gotten so bad over the years that the schadenfreude has just given way to near pity, but mainly annoyance at the attention the team still gets. The obsession of the Leafs is so strong that our 'national' media, based entirely in southern Ontario, generally still sees the rest of the hockey world through the Leafs' failure. The Canadiens relative success in recent years is generally dismissed as some combination of goaltending and luck by English Canadian media (and generally berated), while media based in the United States tends to give a more positive spin on the Canadiens when they actually bother to write about them. The frustration of the Leafs fan creeps into the analysis of the Canadiens nationally.
But that's a different story. As of right now, the Maple Leafs and Canadiens are tied in the standings: 0-0-0-0 with 0 ROWs (we seriously need to simplify the standings). The 2011-12 Maple Leafs are the design of Brian Burke, AKA The Brilliant Blowhard/Magnificent Masshole, a man who has been telling us constantly how much he's needed to change about the Leafs. Here are some surprising things about this current edition after the jump:
1. The Leafs Aren't Old Anymore
A quick look at the Leafs roster shows that Brian Burke has gotten rid of the old farts who used to consistently make the Leafs the preferred pre-retirement gig of guys who last made the All-Star team five years prior. Not a single player on the current Leafs was born in the 1970s (or 1950s or 1960s for that matter). That means the oldest current player is Jean-Michael Liles, who turns 31 in November. Before the lockout, 31 was the year players finally became unrestricted free agents, which was when the Leafs would finally think a player was ready to join their team. I haven't checked it out officially with all the new rosters, but I'd wager that the Leafs are the youngest team in the NHL.
2. The Leafs Aren't Slow Anymore
While Brian Burke boasted upon his arrival of adding 'pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and beligernace,' the real life Leafs don't really resemble that at all. The team does have some tougher players that can hurt you, but the way this team will be winning games will largely be through speed, passing, and a lot of help from their goaltender. The team added Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, Jean-Michael Liles, and Cody Franson this offseason from other NHL teams. To go with these players, rookies like Jake Gardiner and Matt Frattin are more known for their speed and skill than calculated aggression. Gardiner's speed is considered Niedermeyer like (and he's 6'2", so his stride is long as well), while Lombardi has long been considered one of the fastest, if not the fastest skater in the league. This adds to other speedy players that Burke has acquired or inherited like Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. The new Leafs are going to be one of the best skating teams in the NHL, a lesson they finally have learned in the 7th year of the 'new NHL'.
3. The Leafs Don't Need to Rush Their High Picks Anymore
Nazem Kadri is a pretty skilled young player, and as one of a few skilled youngsters the Leafs have drafted high over the past few decades he's gotten a lot of attention. Today's his 21st birthday, and he's already accomplished a lot: starring in the OHL, starring for Team Canada, and putting up nearly a point per game as an AHL rookie while appearing in 30 NHL games already. And he won't be making the Leafs even when he returns from injury. While this might be disappointing for Nazem personally, it's good news for the Leafs as a whole. The team rushed Luke Schenn into the lineup for no plausible reason except that the rest of the Leafs' defence was terrible, and the team put an undrafted Tyler Bozak as Phil Kessel's centre immediately to lacklustre results. Bozak is still around, but as the team's #3 centre at best (he looks to be on the outside of the team when healthy), and guys like Kadri can learn the finer points of the professional game in the AHL. Yes, Gardiner is in the NHL, but he took a spot of Keith Aulie, a player who likely would have been rushed in as a regular if this was 2009-10.
The Leafs still have issues: they are relying on unproven goaltending, and we all know that the second year is generally a lot tougher for goaltenders than the first. Jonas Gustavsson might finally have to show some improvement as James Reimer deals with a second go around of the world's top players, coaches, and teams. The team still employs terrible players like Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr. Mike Komisarek still doesn't have Andrei Markov as his defence partner. The team still has to prove they can kill a penalty with regularity. Ron Wilson is on the hot seat and he tends to wear on his players, so any sign of trouble could be seen as an excuse to quit on him. And Tim Connolly is already hurt. There's a lot of question marks, and its why I haven't pencilled in a playoff spot for the Leafs come spring. But they can make it there, which is a lot more than can be said about any team since Burke took over.
He hasn't gone about the rebuild in a normal way (trading his first rounders), and he hasn't gone about it in the way he said he would (placing speed as his top priority over pugnacity), but three years in the Leafs are no longer a complete mess and embarassment. This team is built to last the rigors of an 82 game season, and built to improve with each passing year as the core gets more experience.
That being said, the Habs are still better. So I can eloquantly, and accurately conclude: "Leafs Suck".