April 15, 2011
Progress the name of the game for Leafs
By GEORGE POPALIS, Sports Network
TORONTO -- A sixth consecutive season out of the playoffs is a tough pill to swallow, but this season revealed a surprisingly tough and talented Toronto Maple Leafs team; one that came together and found an identity as the year wore on.
Let's break down some of storylines that arose and how they could evolve as this organization moves forward.
The biggest surprise of the 2010-11 season had to be the emergence of three talented goal scorers not named Phil Kessel. Kessel by the way, for all the criticism he takes, notched his third consecutive 30-goal season and finished with a career-high 64 points.
In addition to Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin asserted themselves as real scoring threats. Who would have believed that Kulemin would have hit the 30-goal mark, MacArthur would have broken the 60- point barrier and Grabovski would have lit the lamp 29 times?
The wildcard in all this might be three-time 20-goal-scorer Joffrey Lupul. After suffering from debilitating injuries and health issues for parts of the last two seasons, he started to show some promise putting up 18 points in 28 games. But numbers aside, his big shot, his size, and presence along the boards, opened up a lot of room for his linemates.It will be interesting to see how he fits in with this squad for an entire season.
The addition of a first-line center to this group would solidify what is already there and even help the guys mentioned above take their games to new heights.
They already have a full complement of tough two-way players like Colby Armstrong and Darryl Boyce in the mix, meaning a few key pieces could make this offense a really impressive one.
With the departure of Thomas Kaberle came the rebirth of captain Dion Phaneuf, who picked up the pace with 15 points in 24 games after Kaberle was traded to the Bruins. Contrast that with the 15 points in 42 games while Kaberle was in Toronto and one could infer that Phaneuf jumped into the leadership void created by Kaberle's absence.
Like it or not, this is Phaneuf's team and if he can continue to put up the points next year, there will be more forgiveness for the defensive zone lapses that still trouble the 26-year-old. He also seemed to find his shot, scoring six of his eight goals in the last two months of the season.
Concentrating on the offensive side of the game will be easier for Phaneuf with the strides made by Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie on the back end. Schenn led all NHL defensemen with 251 hits this season and became the Leafs' most reliable defender in the process. At the rate he is progressing, the 21-year- old could be on the verge of becoming the Leafs true shut-down defenseman.
In the trade that brought Phaneuf to Toronto from the Calgary Flames a season ago, Aulie was a veritable throw-in.
This season, that "throw-in" became a beast on the blueline after he was called up from the Marlies. At 6'5, 217 with a huge wingspan, Aulie was a consistent physical presence, but also impressed with his solid decision-making and poise. With Phaneuf, Aulie and Schenn holding down the back end there is an impressive defense core forming, one that could use the addition of a skilled veteran.
James Reimer was nothing short of spectacular in his rookie season with the Maple Leafs and for an organization that doesn't have many impressive draft picks to hang their hat on, it should be proud of drafting the Winnipeg, Manitoba native 99th overall in the 2006 draft.
Reimer may have to work on his sometimes questionable glove hand, but he demonstrated the ability to come up with big saves and close out games, while sound technique allowed him to recover from small slumps; qualities not seen in Toronto since the Ed Belfour days.
Instead of worrying about whether Reimer can repeat his tremendous rookie campaign, the Leafs should go into the offseason with the idea that he is the unquestioned number one. Looking for another starter and spending big money doing so would be a mistake. Reimer needs all the starts he can handle next year without another goaltender breathing down his neck waiting for him to falter. He's earned that. There are more important areas on this team that need to be addressed.
When healthy, Jonas Gustavsson is a capable backup. But with his heart issues a concern, it might be wise to seek the services of a veteran backup to solidify the second-string position.
Through the Leafs many struggles and successes this year, general manager Brian Burke maintained that Ron Wilson's job was never in doubt. If anything, Wilson's job security is stronger now after his team rocketed up the standings in the second half of the season. With only one year left on his contract the smart money would be on Wilson completing his tenure with the Leafs, unless a disastrous start to the 2011-12 season were to unfold.
That being said, Wilson may not be the bench boss of the future. Drawing criticism for his negativity and treatment of the players in the media, a younger "player's type" coach might be a welcomed change in Toronto.
Toronto Marlies Head coach Dallas Eakins is receiving praise for his work with the farm team and it would be smart to look within the organization should a coaching vacancy arise at some point. His guidance with the franchise's youngsters produced many players that stepped into their roles in the NHL with ease when promoted to the big club. He's also a talented orator and motivator, demonstrated by his postseason speech that had some of his players teary-eyed and awe struck.
Still, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Wilson sign an extension either, so those in favor of a change may have to wait a little longer.