TORONTO - They may not know the intricacies of the penalty kill or defensive-zone coverage, but when it comes to predictions, oddsmakers are paid to be right.
So let’s start with them as an entry point into the Maple Leafs season, which gets under way Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre against their historic rival Montreal Canadiens.
The over-under number on points the Leafs will amass in the 2010-11 season has been set at 84.5 at various wagering houses, a big jump from the 74 points they bottomed out with last season, yet still a far cry from what it is likely to take to qualify for the playoffs.
This is a new-look Leafs team, however: With general manager Brian Burke’s extreme makeover well in progress, only six Leafs from opening night a year ago will face the Habs on 2010 opening night.
They bring the enthusiasm of youth and what Burke hopes is a fresh attitude pointed toward snapping the embarrassing franchise record of five consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.
“I strongly believe we are a playoff team,” second-year Leafs defenceman Mike Komisarek said on Wednesday after the Leafs concluded their final pre-season practice. “Now it’s up to us to go out and prove it.”
So can they?
It took 88 points to qualify in the Eastern Conference last year, but Leafs coach Ron Wilson’s best guess on Wednesday that it will take 92 or 93 this season. That’s 18 points that have to come from the combination of some new additions, the belief that the team has been shored up defensively and in net and that they won’t sleepwalk through a comatose October.
“We need to get off to a good start,” Wilson said, hoping no doubt that it’s the last time he’ll have to recall last season’s 0-7-1 start. “It helps when you are not chasing your tail.
“Block out the first 10 games last year and we were a .500 team from that point and might have made the playoffs. We believe we are better than a .500 team coming off what we were doing at the end.
“And we’re confident we are a better team in terms of talent.”
Any gains won’t come easily in an Eastern Conference that figures to be a dogfight for the bottom two or three playoff spots. Other than forward Phil Kessel, who could be sitting on a career season and new captain Dion Phaneuf, who is aiming to regain the form of his early days in Calgary, the star quotient on the team is slim.
It is a leap of faith that any combination of newcomers Kris Versteeg or Clarke MacArthur or incumbents Nikolai Kulemin or Mikhail Grabovski will jump up and score 20 goals or more. But if any combination of those four or others do, the Leafs shouldn’t have any trouble moving up several spots from their 29th-place finish overall last season.
“The main thing is to get this city back on its feet and get them excited every night about coming to the rink,” said Versteeg, certainly the most dynamic of the acquisitions in a busy off-season for Burke. “It’s to us to go out there and compete every night and give these fans something to cheer about.”
Versteeg just might be the guy to do it, however. Somewhat hidden on the third line in Chicago, he opens up on the top Toronto trio alongside Kessel and Tyler Bozak, a first-line centre who a year ago opened the season with the Marlies.
In that role, along with an anticipated regular spot on both the power play and penalty kill, you can expect Versteeg’s ice time to leap significantly from the 15 minutes and 43 seconds of ice time he averaged with the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks last season.
“If he’s not going to play 20 minutes, I should be shot,” Wilson said.
Already, Versteeg has shown more offensive flair than he was called upon in Chicago and seems to be creating more opportunities for Kessel.
“They want me to produce here and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Versteeg said.
“Like everyone in here, I’m excited to get the new season going.”
Stylistically, these Leafs aren’t going to be a thing of beauty every night and that, too, is by design. Brawn and nastiness are the calling cards of a Burke team and the general manager and he has generous quantities of both.
“We have to be a group that’s hard to play against,” said Phaneuf, who will be the first Leaf to wear the “C” since Mats Sundin last played here in 2007-08.
“Every chance you get, you finish your check. Every time you are out there, you try to outwork the guy you are up against. You want (the opponent) to know it’s going to be a long night.”