FANTASY POOL HERO: Phil Kessel
UNSUNG HERO: Luke Schenn
TOUGH GUY: Colton Orr
SLEEPER: Cody Franson
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Jake Gardiner
ON THE DECLINE: Mike Komisarek
From anonymity to underwear.
Thatís the James Reimer story, a tale of a relatively unknown kid who rocketed to celebrity status in half a season.
Just six months after he beat the Ottawa Senators on New Yearís Day in his first career NHL start, the humble goaltender already had put his name to his own line of sports apparel featuring undergarment wear.
ďItís not exactly Calvin Klein suits,Ē Reimer said.
In hockey-crazed Toronto, it may as well be.
The fact the Reimer name already has the endorsement power to sell any products, even boxers and briefs, is yet another example of how those in Leafland are clamouring for an on-ice saviour. But is it too soon to put that tag on such an inexperienced commodity, even one who went 20-10-5 with a .2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage last season?
Remember ex-Hab Steve Penney? Or former Cap Jim Carey, Net Detective? Both got off to hot starts in their careers, only to fizzle out soon afterward.
Will Reimer follow suit by crashing and burning? Or is he the real deal?
If the Leafs want to end their embarrassing run of not having been to the playoffs since 2004, no one player will have more of an impact on the teamís fate than Reimer. Itís that simple.
Since Ed Belfour backstopped the Leafs to a post-season berth seven years ago, the likes of Mikael Tellqvist, Andrew Raycroft, Justin Pogge, Vesa Toskala, Jonas Gustavsson and J.S. Giguere have all tried and failed to repeat The Eagleís feat. So much time has passed since then, Belfour already has been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Of course, fairly or unfairly, if Reimer and the Leafs miss the playoffs again, they might find themselves in the Hockey Hall of Shame.
If you are looking for the Achilles heel of the 2011-12 Maple Leafs, it very well could be the talent up front. Having fallen short in efforts to woo free-agent gem Brad Richards to Toronto, the Leafs reverted to Plan B by inking former Sabre Tim Connolly to a two-year, $9.5-million US contract in July. Connolly has the skills to become the most talented centre to play with forward Phil Kessel since Marc Savard was setting up Phil the Thrill with the Bruins in 2008-09, but his penchant for physically breaking, as he often did in Buffalo, is a concern. Speedy Matt Frattin and Nazem Kadri highlight a promising cache of up-and-coming forwards, providing optimism for the future, while centre Tyler Bozak was impressive early in camp. But if Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin donít hold up their ends, the present might not be as bright as some optimists are hoping.
Give general manager Brian Burke and his experienced entourage of hockey people credit for building the blue-line unit into the strength of the team.
With a struggling Tomas Kaberle having been shipped to Boston at the trade deadline, the Leafs acquired puck-moving defenceman John-Michael Liles from the Colorado Avalanche over the summer. As one scout described him: ďHeís a younger version of Kabby.Ē Also bolstering the back end is Cody Franson, who was picked up in a deal with Nashville. According to Norris finalist Shea Weber, Fransonís former teammate with the Predators, Fransonís offensive and defensive skills will open some eyes in Toronto. Liles, Franson, captain Dion Phaneuf, young Keith Aulie and solid Luke Schenn round out the top five, while promising Carl Gunnarsson, vet Mike Komisarek and speedy prospect Jake Gardiner provide the depth. Donít be surprised if Gardiner makes an impact at the NHL level this season when all is said and done.
Reimer is out to prove he is not just another one-year wonder. The Leafs are banking on that, too. At 23, he certainly received a boost to his confidence when Team Canada GM Dave Nonis, Burkeís right-hand man with the Leafs, brought Reimer overseas to represent his country at the world hockey championship last spring. Such an experience should be beneficial to Reimerís development. If Reimer wobbles, Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens will be waiting in the wings. By opting not to re-sign brittle vet J.S.
Giguere, the Leafs opted for youth over experience in the backup role.
Gustavssonís nickname is ďThe MonsterĒ but he has hardly been one with the Leafs. He still has a penchant for overreacting to shots, often leaving himself out of position to stop rebounds.
Rumours of a possible contract extension for coach Ron Wilson back in April had members of Leafs Nation up in arms. After all, how could management possibly reward a guy whose team had never reached the playoffs during his three-year tenure in Toronto? Good point. Cooler heads eventually prevailed when the extension talk died off. Even so, Wilson finds himself in a precarious position. Leading the U.S. to a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics showed just how good a coach he can be, but a slow start with the Leafs will nevertheless put him on the hotseat. Burke has assembled an all-star management team, bringing in former Thrashers GM Rick Dudley during the off-season to join an already impressive front office that included Nonis, Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle. Whether they can pool their resources to make this team relevent again - at least in terms of wins and losses - remains to be seen.
When it comes to the Maple Leafs special teams, they have been anything but special in recent times. In 2009-10, they finished dead last in both power play and penalty killing efficiency. Last season they showed minimal improvement, ending up 22nd and 28th respectively in league rankings.
Perhaps the off-season shakeup of the coaching staff will help. Gone are assistants Tim Hunter and Keith Acton, replaced by U.S. collegiate coach Greg Cronin and former Islander bench boss Scott Gordon. Whatever the case, patience with the misfiring special teams is running thin with the Leafsí loyal, if not misguided, fan base. With two all-sports radio stations and three all-sports TV outlets based in Toronto, you can bet the natives will become restless if it appears the Leafs might miss the post-season for a seventh consecutive season.