Leafs: Let's try this, again

The Maple Leafs' top line of a year ago — from left, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke...

The Maple Leafs' top line of a year ago — from left, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur. (Reuters file photo)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:09 AM ET

TORONTO - Set in goal, deeper on defence and added firepower.

That was the mantra of last year’s Maple Leafs entering training camp and, for five regular-season games, it was as advertised.

But after that rocket start of 4-0-1, things went south in a hurry. The Leafs had letdowns in all three areas and, though injuries contributed to their tumble in the standings — only eight more wins up to Christmas — the supposed upgrades could not plug the holes.

Jonas Gustavsson was not only unprepared to fill Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s skates, he was having his own injury issues. And remember when people wondered where the Leafs were going to find ice time for all those defencemen? As Dion Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek and Carl Gunnarsson and others sputtered in the first half with injuries and other problems, Brett Lebda was not the answer, Korbinian Holzer was unprepared to make the jump, Matt Lashoff seemed marooned with the Marlies alongside Jeff Finger and it wasn’t until late in the year that Keith Aulie was polished enough for a full-time role.

The anticipated fireworks up front that Kris Versteeg and rookie Nazem Kadri were going to create were few and far between. A member of the Cup-champion Blackhawks a season earlier, Versteeg just never found a niche and welcomed an eventual trade to Philadelphia. Kadri was nowhere near challenging for a top-six role at centre but, like many who benefitted under Dallas Eakins with the Marlies, he looked much more well-rounded in the second half, this time as a winger.

The four additions that didn’t get much press at the time, Clarke MacArthur, Mike Brown, Tim Brent and later, Joffrey Lupul, turned out to be the most astute moves Brian Burke made up front.

The bottom six forwards took a beating with hard-luck Colby Armstrong’s frequent injury absences, Colton Orr’s season-ending concussion and some war wounds that took Brown and Darryl Boyce out of action at times.

With 70 Leafs gathering Friday morning at the MasterCard Centre for camp medicals, here’s a look at the battle for jobs in 2011-12. Once again, the Leafs are claiming to be better prepared for a six-month marathon and perhaps a playoff berth. But six years after they last made it past Game 82, people will want to see some tangible results before calling the Leafs better than other post-season wannabes.

FORWARDS

How about a little ‘Luck’ up front, with the line of Lupul, Connolly and Kessel?

Burke is betting $9.5 million US the next two years that Tim Connolly will reach full potential after a mostly unsatisfying career in Buffalo. Kessel will have to deal with losing good friend Tyler Bozak as first-line centre. But if one player can make this work and give the Leafs some semblance of a top unit, it’s Lupul, who can crash to create space from the left wing and provide some goals.

There’s no reason to think MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin won’t be effective again, unless MacArthur gets complacent on the port side after finally getting his big contract. Toronto’s most consistent line last season played that way in large part because the two Russian-speaking Leafs became such strong defensive players as the year wore on.

Third line is where it gets interesting, especially if Matthew Lombardi’s accelerated recovery continues. A swift centre with a scoring touch, Lombardi would be ahead of Bozak, but only if medical science knew the full story of post-concussion syndrome. We’ll take the team at its word, that Lombardi is almost clear except for aerobic conditioning, but he won’t be in contact drills to start.

Kadri, meanwhile, comes to his second main camp without the burdens of last year, lighter, more explosive and ready to stay on the left side if need be. He’d better be prepared, because his position is the one that Burke and coach Ron Wilson say could be available to hungry rookies such as Matt Frattin or 6-foot-5 Joe Colborne. Nor are the Leafs counting out unheralded summer pickup Phillipe Dupuis, who is primarily a checking centre.

If Bozak is bounced further down the depth chart, he could be battling Dupuis and Darryl Boyce to centre the fourth line. That group will have an amalgam of physical wingers such as Orr, Brown, Jay Rosehill and Joey Crabb. Brown and Dupuis will likely see some penalty-killing time.

DEFENCE

Once more, the paper version of this blueline looks pretty good. A new contract for Luke Schenn would seem to be the only threat to harmony.

Phaneuf and Aulie closed last season as an effective pairing. The 6-foot-5 Aulie will now have company and the Big and Tall store with ex-Predator Cody Franson. Schenn led all NHL defencemen in hits and is turning into the club’s best home-grown product in years.

Speaking of which, this will be the first time since the autumn of 1998 that Tomas Kaberle will not be in the team picture. Fans can now try yelling at veteran John-Michael Liles to shoot more. But unlike the pass-happy Kaberle, this offensive rearguard comes in with 68 goals, 20 more than Kaberle in the same time frame, more than 30 of those on the power-play.

Two kids will make a strong bid at camp. Jake Gardiner made a good impression at the rookie tournament with his ability to jump into the play and skate back to cover for any misadventures. Jesse Blacker is also in the running to be a sixth or seventh man.

Franson, however, has to show he can play big and maybe use that hard shot more often. Gunnarsson must keep improving to remain in the top six, which would likely mean no room for Komisarek and his burdensome contract, as well as threaten the ice time that Lashoff earned for himself late last season.

GOAL

It figures that the Leafs would try to restore the Cat-Cujo-Eagle salad days by spending millions on free agents or trading for big names, then have a nondescript Prairie boy, who barely made the top hundred draft picks in 2006, come to their rescue.

But James Reimer has the job and his mission is simple: Give the Leafs the first-half netminding that has eluded them in the Burke/Wilson era and cost the club playoff traction. It might also turn out that forgotten man Jonas Gustavsson is as healthy and re-adjusted as Burke claims and that there will be a battle for the No. 1 job.

The coming exhibition games will also allow farmhands Ben Scrivens, Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya to properly introduce themselves.


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