Leafs look better, on paper anyway

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:19 PM ET

Ron Wilson wants the Maple Leafs to be one those “surprise teams” in the Eastern Conference, such as the Canadiens and Flyers were in shoe-horning into last year’s playoffs.

Yet this club remains a mystery to its own coach with a few days to go before the start of 2010-11 regular season. At least the lineup will be set, with a few more cuts Monday morning to get at or close to 23 men ahead of Thursday’s opener against the Montreal Canadiens.

On paper, the Leafs should be better, but that didn’t always play out in their nine exhibition games, see-sawing their way to a 5-3-1 record.

“There are a lot of teams in the same boat as us,” Wilson said Saturday after a 4-2 win over a low-grade Detroit Red Wings lineup. “In the East it will be interetsing. There are already some teams missing, some important people, for example Montreal with (Andrei) Markov out for awhile. We have to try and find a way of taking advantage of that.

“We’re coming out of camp relatively healthy (compared to last year with no Phil Kessel), with just a few minor dings. But I like the kind of mix that we have, with what you’d call a third, checking line with Timmy Brent, Colby Armstrong and Fredrik Sjostrom.”

The potential from top liners Kessel, centre Tyler Bozak and multitalented newcomer Kris Versteeg can certainly make up for deficiencies elsewhere, but they won’t always get the room they did in their six-point night against the weakened Wings.

“On the road, you can’t control the matchups as well as at home,” Wilson cautioned. “That’s where our second line, (Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin) has to chip in. Brent’s line, right now their job is to establish a kind of forecheck when we need it, after we’ve scored or been scored against.

“This is an entirely different group (from this time last year). Maybe four or five guys are still here. We’re coming out of camp a lot healthier and feeling better about ourselves.”

Here’s how the Leafs’ depth will shape up heading into Thursday, with projected cuts:

Goal

Jean-Sebastien Giguere must be that thief the Leafs have lacked post-lockout, a goalie who steals a point at least once a week, is there when Toronto can’t clear the zone or gets in penalty trouble. He’s 33 and still has a good year or two in him and works well with Jonas Gustavsson.

Once again, an injury hampered Gustavsson in camp, but it’s a minor groin issue and there’s four days to rest. Giguere will start the first couple of games and there are no back-to-backs in early October that would compel Wilson to get Gustavsson in.

Cuts to come: Jussi Rynnas will be returned to the Marlies Monday.

Defence

After much tinkering in the off-season, the Leafs return almost the same six as in 2009-10. Mike Komisarek is healthy again and can be very effective when he not going overboard to be physical. Paired with Tomas Kaberle — like him or loathe him, a 40 to 50-point threat — they should bookend the Dion Phaneuf - Francois Beauchemin shutdown duo.

Luke Schenn is looking like the blue liner who was a force in 2008-09, standing up and making the smart play out of his own zone. He and Carl Gunnarsson will start as the 5-6 pairing.

Cuts to come: This all depends on how much cap space the Leafs want to keep open. As of now, they can fit in Jeff Finger’s salary and he is also the healthiest and most experienced of spare blueliners, with Brett Lebda and Matt Lashoff out with shoulder injuries. Lebda was originally seen as a 5-6-7 man, so Lashoff will likely have to work his way back through the farm. Danny Richmond could stick as the seventh if Finger gets an early AHL ticket.

Forwards

This being Toronto, the first time Nazem Kadri has a multi-point game for the Marlies that coincides with a Leafs loss, people will be clamouring for a him to be called up.

But Kadri, still defensively suspect, didn’t earn a place among the top-six forwards, a credit to Bozak for keeping a first-line centre job and his chemistry with top gun Kessel. Grabovski kept his head and keeps clicking with Nikolai Kulemin.

While it’s wrong to call the developing 20-year-old Kadri the flop of camp, Tim Brent was certainly the feel-good story.

A Cambridge kid who says he feels the pain of Leafs Nation from watching on TV, the 26-year-old finally seems set to pass a full-time NHL audition after just missing with Anaheim and Chicago. But Brent, Sjostrom and Armstrong need to trigger the odd red light to start reversing those one-goal defeats that have dogged the team in the past few years.

Ditto for fourth liners Christian Hanson, Mike Brown and Colton Orr, when their checking and police work doesn’t take precedence.

Cuts to come: Kadri and John Mitchell were not in Saturday’s dress rehearsal and Mike Zigomanis played because Hanson had a sore shoulder. The best forward not to have an assigned role is winger Luca Caputi, though Zigomanis won all five of his faceoffs against the Wings to give Wilson pause for thought.


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