Leafs camp breakdown

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:54 PM ET

Maple Leaf teams the past five years have had one thing in common, aside from missing the playoffs.

The finished product looked very different from the one envisioned in September. Three general managers have trotted out some fancy looking equipment each autumn, but by spring, it’s become another episode of Canada’s Worst Handyman.

This year could be different, at least at the foundation with goaltending and defence. Scoring will be in short supply again, but if the Leafs can plug the leaks in their own end, there might be enough puck luck to reverse some of those one-goal losses (an average of 20 the past three years).

Playoffs are still a long shot, but with training camp underway Friday, at least some of these faces will be around whenever the team does qualify again:

Goalies

Given the disaster of last October (three-plus goals against in 11 of the first 12 games, all losses) you can’t put much stock in coach Ron Wilson’s pre-camp forecast of Jean-Sebastien Giguere (left) as No. 1.

If the veteran earns it in exhibition games, fine, but no handing it to him on a platter because he has got tenure and won a Cup. The Leafs simply can’t afford to let Giguere or Jonas Gustavsson use October to get a comfort zone. A clear No. 1 needs to be identified, or failing that a functioning rotation with egos put aside. Anyone to hold the Leafs in games when their limited offence fails and they’re on their heels killing penalties, both major sore spots last year.

Three men had a shot at the top job last autumn if you count Joey MacDonald, but there’s a much better chance of finding the right stuff this time. Giguere is not the aloof Vesa Toskala, who rejected the bible according to Francois Allaire and marched to his own drummer right out of town. Gustavsson was twice sidelined early by a heart condition last year and was unready to live up to his “Monster” billing, but slowly grasped the nuances of the NHL, learning from Allaire and Giguere such tips as not over-playing the puck.

The two off-season signings, 6-foot-5 Jussi Rynnas and NCAA star Ben Scrivens of Cornell, will get some early games and though Leafs camp has a recent history of third goalies making a push, it will be down to the two G’s by October. James Reimer and Andrew Engelage finished as last year’s farm team goalies, but begin this term far back in line.

Defence

If you believe in strength in numbers, the Leafs have a much better chance of cleaning up their own end with this crew than the dysfunctional group that took four months to sort itself out in ’09-10.

They start with nine men who saw NHL action here and elsewhere last year, including a healthy Mike Komisarek (left) and a better-adjusted Francois Beauchemin, two developments that on their own will go a long way to creating stability.

New captain Dion Phaneuf has embraced his general’s epaulets, but must get back in touch with his offensive side, particularly on the power play. No matter what Wilson or fans think of Tomas Kaberle’s shortcomimgs in his own end, he makes a great first pass and no other defenceman here is likely to hit 40 to 50 points.

Everyone wonders if the confident 2008 Luke Schenn will show up or the regressed ’09 model, if surprise Swede Carl Gunnarsson can be as effective in Year 2 and if Brett Lebda’s experience with the Red Wings machine is used in a wider role or limited to a 5-6 pairing that’s low on ice time, but high on effectiveness.

Keith Aulie was a near forgotten element to the Phaneuf trade when his shoulder was wrecked shortly after joining the Marlies, but Brian Burke wouldn’t have made that deal without this 6-foot-6 thumper’s inclusion. While unlikely to qualify for the top six right away, he shouldn’t be far off.

Two locals are knocking at the door, Simon Gysbers from Richmond Hill and Riverdale’s Jesse Blacker. The 6-foot-4 Gysbers showed remarkable poise at the rookie camp and the Leafs love Blacker’s mean streak with a year of junior eligibility left. The dark horse is Matt Lashoff, who had 24 points and 105 penalty minutes for Norfolk in the AHL and five games in Tampa Bay to make it 63 NHL starts in the course of four seasons.

Jeff Finger and his cumbersome $3.5-million salary will start with the Leafs, with an option to demote.

Forwards

Of all that Burke has brought to the Leafs, an expanded, big-name hockey department, clout at league level, multi-player trades and aggressive pursuit of free agents, he has yet to fill the vital role of first-line centre.

Phil Kessel (right) seems to want buddy Tyler Bozak there, Nazem Kadri might be too green and Mikhail Grabovski can’t seem to get his head on straight, but all three are too small for Burke and Wilson’s truculent tastes.

The Leafs will hold yet another set of camp auditions for the middle, but if Bozak and Kadri do open the schedule in some kind of 1-2 tandem, it will be strength coach Anthony Belza, who deserves credit for putting them on a rigid conditioning program.

A beefed-up Bozak could win outright as Burke appears to be backing off his summer statements that Kadri would get an extended look through October. Kadri wasn’t a force at rookie camp as hoped, but a strong exhibition run could change that. As always, the debate is whether keeping the first-rounder in the NHL in a third or fourth-line role would be harmful to his progression.

An injured Kessel didn’t play until November of last year, so how good would it be if he roars out of this camp on one of his goal streaks? Wingers Kris Versteeg and Clarke MacArthur should play somewhere on the first two lines, a challenge to Nikolai Kulemin to emerge further from his shell by improving his two-way game. Another pugnacious newcomer, right winger Colby Armstrong, will likely anchor the third line.

The farm team challenges should come from winger Jerry D’Amigo, who has rocketed through the depth chart since the world junior tournament and big winger Brayden Irwin, with his size and great shot. Brad Ross and Greg McKegg, the top 2010 picks, would need a major wow factor to avoid going back to junior.

If Versteeg, MacArthur and Armstrong play to projections and at least one young gun stays, it could affect the status of John Mitchell and Luca Caputi, already pressured from behind by fourth liners Christian Hanson, Colton Orr, Mike Brown and Fredrik Sjostrom.


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