|Toronto Maple Leafs' general manager Brian Burke. (Michael Peake/QMI AGENCY)
TORONTO -- There is guarded optimism surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs heading into the 2010-11 NHL season, much of that due to the astute moves made this offseason by general manager Brian Burke.
Through trades and free agency, Burke has assembled an interesting mix of forwards that should compete at a higher level than last season, one that saw the Leafs finish 25th in goals scored per game with only 2.56.
One of the more celebrated moves was the acquisition of hard-nosed forward Kris Versteeg. The 24-year-old, who was acquired via trade from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, brings an impressive resume that includes 42 goals and 97 points spread out over the past two seasons in Chicago. He will get every opportunity to build on those solid numbers with the Leafs, as the organization has him penciled in among the top six forwards heading into training camp.
Where Versteeg will help light the lamp, fellow newcomer Colby Armstrong will be asked to bring a physical brand of hockey that has been lacking in Toronto. The gritty 27-year-old forward signed a three-year, $3 million contract with the Leafs after putting up decent numbers last year with the Atlanta Thrashers, scoring 15 goals and 29 points in 79 games.
His toughness will most likely be utilized on the third line, but through the course of a season his versatility could make him serviceable as a second line winger. Think of Armstrong as this team's version of Darcy Tucker. Burke also signed free agent forward Clarke MacArthur to a one-year, $1.1 million deal to help solidify the top two lines, a relative bargain if he can produce to the level Burke thinks he's capable of.
MacArthur had a career-high 35 points, including 16 goals, last season in splitting time between Buffalo and Atlanta, and sees himself as a premier scorer that hasn't been given the chance to succeed. On the Leafs however, he will be given every chance in the world to prove his worth. Other than these additions, the team will be similar to last year's squad, while young pivots like Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri have hopefully matured enough to assume larger roles with the club. Serious questions remain as to whether these young guns have progressed enough to center a group of solid wingers, but only time will tell.
At this point, the closest thing the Leafs have to a proven center is Mikhail Grabovski, who is coming of a disastrous 2009-10 season in which he scored only 10 goals. With a contract posing an annual cap hit of $2.9 million, "Grabo" will need to be much better. Where this Leafs team really has a chance to shine is on the defensive end.
Although the Leafs defence didn't show it last year, on paper they have one of the stronger back ends in the league. With prized acquisition Dion Phaneuf leading a group of proven defenders and Tomas Kaberle back with the club, moving the puck with ease while playing a bruising physical style will define this years' defence corps.
Mike Komisarek, who played only 34 games last year before undergoing season ending shoulder surgery, is healthy and should come closer to resembling the type of player his $4.5 million annual salary suggests.
With no sure bets on the offensive end, the defence will be leaned upon heavily to protect the goaltenders this season.
The improved tandem of J.S. Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson gives the Leafs a solid pair of netminders, something they haven't been able to claim much of the last three campaigns. Giguere, 33, joined the Leafs near the end of last season via trade from the Anaheim Ducks and the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion was stellar in his 15 starts. In those games, he posted a 2.49 goals-against average with a .916 save percentage to go along with two shutouts, reclaiming some of the form that he showed during his years with the Ducks.
The Leafs are hoping the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Giguere can find that form again, something that would only add to the confidence of this relatively young squad as the season progresses. Giguere will also be expected to mentor the franchise's potential goaltender of the future in Jonas Gustavsson. The 25- year old Swede, who rose to prominence by backstopping his former team Farjestad to a Swedish Elite League title in 2009, had an effective rookie campaign last year with the Leafs. The one they call "The Monster" showed great fortitude during his first NHL season battling a heart condition and two minor heat procedures, while still managing to start 39 games and earn 16 wins.
Gustavsson, who plays a similar style to Giguere's, should progress even further under the tutelage of his older and wiser goaltending partner and renowned goaltending coach Francois Allaire. Even with optimism abound heading into the fall, Leafs fans should still approach this season with tempered expectations.
Improving upon their 30-38-14 record is likely, while challenging for a spot in the postseason may not be. The Eastern Conference is full of offensively superior teams that will have to be leapfrogged in order to gain a chance to compete for the Cup. With that being said, if some of the youngsters up front can break out while helping the team find an offensive groove, the Leafs have the defence and goaltending to take them to the next level.