Maple Leafs still a big question mark

Newly donned Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf will be looked on to finally lead the team out of...

Newly donned Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf will be looked on to finally lead the team out of oblivion. (JEFFREY KOWALSKY/Reuters)

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:06 PM ET

To be booed in your first pre-season game is embarrassing.

Then again, so is missing the playoffs a team-record five consecutive times.

Or not winning a Stanley Cup in 43 years.

As a result, it is understandable the Toronto Maple Leafs were jeered during a 5-0 loss in their exhibition opener against the rival Ottawa Senators.

The Leafs' loyal fan base is sick and tired of losing, no matter how much - or, in this case, how little - is on the line.

In-your-face general manager Brian Burke understands that. By bringing in talent such as Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, J-S Giguere and Kris Versteeg during the past 12 months, he has conducted a thorough makeover of the Leafs roster he inherited from Cliff Fletcher almost two years ago.

Will it be enough? In an informal survey of NHL scouts conducted by the QMI Agency, concerns remain about whether this team can score enough to reach the playoffs.

With the Chicago Blackhawks having hoisted the Stanley Cup in the spring, the Leafs have now gone the longest without winning the title, a drought stretching back to 1967. If that's not something to boo about, what is?

Forwards

To find the obvious Achilles heel of this team, just look up the middle. The Leafs start the season with a No. 1 centre, Tyler Bozak, who has just 37 NHL games under his belt, and a No. 2 man, Mikhail Grabovski, who is frustratingly inconsistent both on and off the ice.

Bozak, Phil Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and impressive newcomer Kris Versteeg will be counted on to carry the offensive load, but where will the goals come after that? That's the biggest concern. Can Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur supply secondary scoring? The jury is out on highly touted rookie Nazem Kadri, who was a disappointment in camp.

Defence

The strong point of this team, at least on paper, is the blue line. Of course, as former Leafs coach Pat Quinn once said: "You know what you use paper for - you wipe things with it, you wrap things in it ..." Quinn's point: Names on a roster sheet don't matter; production on the ice does.

As such, we wonder: Will the rocky relationship between Tomas Kaberle and coach Ron Wilson improve? Can Dion Phaneuf return to his all-star form of yesteryear? Can Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin be more effective now that they are no longer asked to be the top two defencemen on the roster? Is a bulked up Luke Schenn ready to break out in Year 3? And can pleasant 2009-10 surprise Carl Gunnarsson keep improving?

Goal

Between Jonas Gustavsson's health problems and Vesa Toskala's puck-stopping problems, it is easy to see how the Leafs got off to that awful start last season, winning just one of their first 13 games.

Enter J-S Giguere, a veteran many thought might be washed up in Anaheim. By posting shutouts in each of his first two games as a Leaf after coming over from the Ducks in a trade deadline deal, Giguere showed there was still something left in his tank.

Giguere's influence on young Gustavsson was immediate. Working together at practice, The Monster played his best hockey of the season after Giguere arrived.

They might not be the best tandem in the NHL but are a vast improvement from a year ago.

Coaching, management

Ron Wilson can be abrasive to the media and players alike (just ask Kaberle). At the same time the guy can coach, coming one shot away from leading the U.S. to a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics.

But can he coach this team? Especially in the hockey fishbowl that is Toronto? Yes, he and Burke are long-time friends. But if the Leafs don't reach the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season, don't be surprised if the umbilical cord is sliced.

Burke has surrounded himself with quality hockey people in David Nonis, Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle. Whether their wisdom translates into wins remains to be seen.

Intangibles

In Toronto, the glaring spotlight tends to blow things out of proportion.

How you deal with it determines success. Count on fans and media monitoring the progress of Boston's Tyler Seguin, the kid the Bruins selected with the No. 2 overall pick they received from the Leafs in the Kessel deal. This year the Bruins once again hold the Leafs No. 1 pick, so you can bet there will be angst among those in Leafs Nation about whom the Leafs again "could have had." If Toronto players allow distractions like this to get to them, it could be another long year.

Fantasy pool hero

Phil Kessel

Unsung hero

Tyler Bozak

Tough guy

Colton Orr

Sleeper

Nikolai Kulemin

Rookie to watch

Nazem Kadri (will start season in AHL)

On the decline

Jeff Finger

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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