TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS 2013/14 SEASON PREVIEW

Image courtesy of cp24.com.

The Stanley Cup has been awarded, the draft has taken place and everyone’s had a good laugh over Toronto’s bat shit insanity on Free Agent Day.

So what’s left to do except fawn over what the 2013/14 NHL season might bring?!

Next up, we’ll take a look at a team who just made their first playoff appearance since 2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

What happened in 2013?

5th in the Eastern Conference, 3rd in the Northeast Division, knocked out of Eastern Conference Quarterfinals by Boston Bruins.

Image courtesy of thestar.com.

As always, expectations were high in The Center of the Hockey Universe coming out of the lockout.  Despite not making the playoffs since 2004, optimism was high thanks to the blossoming of star players Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel up front, a variety of talent on the blueline, and that rarest of things in Toronto – a pretty decent starting goalie.  The fanbase, rabid as ever, expected big things.  And for once, the Leafs delivered.

The team started out in a middling manner, scraping a 4-3-0 record through January despite being handed two heavy losses by both New York teams.  Things didn’t begin well in February either, with back-to-back losses to Boston and Carolina, but they went on an encouraging 4 game winning streak, going 9-4-0 the rest of the month, putting them in a strong position entering the second half of the season.

March saw the team continuing a decent run of results, earning points in 11 of 14 games by going 7-3-4, including ending on a 3 game win streak, bolstered by dominant performances at home in the ACC.  In the final month of the season, things were looking good for the Leafs in terms of a playoff appearance, and by April 15th were 4-1-1 in April.  Unfortunately, things went a little sour from there on out, as they only managed to win 2 of their remaining 6 contests, but their earlier success held them up in the standings as they finished 5th in the Conference to make the playoffs for the first time in forever.

Image courtesy of thestar.com.

Playoff success wasn’t guaranteed however, as they found themselves up against the Cup-contending Boston Bruins.  I’m not sure anyone outside Toronto gave the team much of a chance.  Four games into the series, the Bruins had a commanding 3-1 lead, but were not necessarily as dominant as you might expect.  The Leafs were battling hard and summoned all their skill and character to fight back with a road win in Boston in Game 5, followed by a win at the ACC in Game 6 to take the series to what was sure to be a dramatic and hard-fought concluding game.

The Leafs leaped out to a commanding 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 thanks to Cody Franson’s brace of goals, but with around 10 minutes remaining the Bruins – led by Milan Lucic – roared into life when Nathan Horton scored with 9:18 to go.  The Bruins then pulled Rask with around 2 minutes remaining in the game, with the aforementioned Lucic pumping home the 4-3 goal with 1:22 to go.  Patrice Bergeron took only another 31 seconds to tie the game up, with 51 seconds remaining, and you could almost hear the hearts of a million Leafs fans breaking.  The game headed to overtime, and Bergeron once again came through for his team by putting home the series-winner at the 6:05 mark, leaving Leafs Nation in a stunned silence, so achingly close to playoff success.

Top 5 Scorers

  1. Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

    PHIL KESSEL (48 GP, 20 G 32 A 52 P)

  2. NAZEM KADRI (48 GP, 18 G 26 A 44 P)
  3. JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK (48 GP, 18 G 14 A 32 P)
  4. CODY FRANSON (45 GP, 4 G 25 A 29 P)
  5. DION PHANEUF (48 GP, 9 G 19 A 28 P)

Trades in 2012/13

  • Jonas Gustavsson to Winnipeg for Conditional 7th Round Pick (2013)
  • Luke Schenn to Philadelphia for James Van Riemsdyk
  • Matthew Lombardi to Phoenix for Conditional 4th Round Pick (2014)
  • Mike Brown to Edmonton for Conditional 4th Round Pick (2014)
  • Nicolas Deschamps to Washington for Kevin Marshall
  • David Steckel to Anaheim for Ryan Lasch and 7th Round Pick (2014)
  • 4th Round Pick (2014) to Colorado for Ryan O’Byrne
  • Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and 2nd Round Pick (2014 or 2015) to LA for Jonathan Bernier

Signings for 2012/13 Season

  • Jay McClement (2 years)
  • Mike Kostka (1 year)
  • Keith Aucoin (1 year)
  • Simon Gysbers (1 year)
  • Mike Mottau (1 year)
  • Drew MacIntyre (1 year)

2013 Off-season Activity

The Draft

  • Image courtesy of rotorob.com.

    21st Overall – Frederik Gauthier

  • 82nd Overall – Carter Verhaeghe
  • 142nd Overall – Fabrice Herzog
  • 172nd Overall – Antoine Bibeau
  • 202nd Overall – Andreas Johnson

Free Agency / Player Signings

  • David Clarkson (7 years)
  • Trevor Smith (1 year)
  • TJ Brennan (1 year)
  • Troy Bodie (1 year)
  • Paul Ranger (1 year)
  • Spencer Abbott (1 year)
  • Tyler Bozak (5 years)
  • Joe Colborne (1 year)
  • Carl Gunnarsson (3 years)
  • Chris Gibson (3 years)
  • Mark Fraser (1 year)

Lost to Free Agency

  •  Mike Komisarek (signed with Carolina)
  • Clarke MacArthur (signed with Ottawa)
  • Ryan Hamilton (signed with Edmonton)
  • Mike Kostka (signed with Chicago)

Trades

  • 2nd Round Pick (2013), 4th Round Pick (2013, formerly Anaheim’s), 4th Round Pick (2014, formerly Edmonton’s) to Chicago for Dave Bolland.

Projected 2013/14 Roster

FORWARDS:

JOFFREY LUPUL – TYLER BOZAK – PHIL KESSEL

JAMES VAN RIEMSDYK – NAZEM KADRI – DAVID CLARKSON

JAY McCLEMENT – DAVE BOLLAND – NIKOLAI KULEMIN

FRAZER McLAREN – JOE COLBORNE – COLTON ORR

Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Top line wingers haven’t been a problem the last couple of seasons in Toronto.  Phil Kessel has done everything asked of him since he joined the team via trade in 2009 – he was acquired as a goal scorer, and since that time he has averaged a hair under 30 goals per season.  If you consider though that he scored 20 in 48 games this year, which translates to a 34 goal pace in 82 games, hypothetically he’s averaged a hair over 33 goals per season.  Since 2009/10, Kessel is part of a select group of just 16 players in the entire NHL that have played over 200 games in that span and average over 0.4 goals per game; he comes in at 10th in that group, averaging 0.42 goals per game, and finding himself above the likes of Thomas Vanek and James Neal, equal with Rick Nash, Daniel Sedin and Jonathan Toews, and just below Marian Gaborik and Ilya Kovalchuk.  Nice company to be in.  Kessel sees heavy use at 5v5 where he is defensively reliable – outshooting relatively tough competition to a pretty dominant degree – and of course on the powerplay.  I believe an argument can be made that Kessel is already one of the best forwards in Maple Leaf history; there are no worries here, particularly given the fact he’s only 25 years old.

Joffrey Lupul has see his career revitalised since being traded to the Leafs and playing opposite Kessel, scoring 45 goals and 103 points in 110 games, handing him a points per game average of 0.94 that is well above his career average of 0.64.  Unfortunately, as with the rest of his career, his time as a Leaf has been marred somewhat by injury, only playing in 110 of a possible 158 games.  It should also be noted that he shot at a 26.2% success rate in his 16 games in 2012/13, giving him 11 goals in 16 games.  That is not a rate that is at all reasonable to expect sustain from, given his career average is 11.5%.  Still, he has been very good for the team’s offense either way, and whilst scoring at a 56 goal clip over a full season isn’t very likely to happen, he is very important to this team.

The oft-debated Tyler Bozak finds himself once again as the team’s de facto 1st line center.  Look, Bozak is a decent NHLer, playing big minutes in all situations whilst taking on reasonably tough minutes and coming out just ahead in shot differential.  The last two seasons he’s been a roughly 40-50 point player whilst playing between two of the league’s hottest scorers.  And therein lies the problem – he probably has benefited from playing with those two, but even so his scoring numbers are nothing to shout home about.  At $4.2m per season, he’s also more than a little overpaid.  For the time being he’s OK, but if the Leafs expect to contend for the Cup anytime soon, they will need a massive upgrade at this position, and Nazem Kadri is nipping at his heels.

Image courtesy of canoe.ca.

The team’s second line of James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and David Clarkson will be very interesting to watch.  Van Riemsdyk had a decent first season as a Leaf after seemingly hitting a plateau in Philadelphia.  32 points in 48 games is pretty decent for a secondary scoring punch, and couple that with his decent physical play, reliable 5v5 play and ability to play in all situations and you have a pretty nice player.

Nazem Kadri will be very interesting to track this year.  He enjoyed a phenomenal first full NHL season in 12/13, piling up 44 points in 48 games.  However, there is a point of contention as to whether that is the “real” Kadri.  Short seasons do funny things to players, and don’t really provide enough of a sample size to determine what is true performance or not.  There is no doubt he is highly skilled, and could become the team’s 1st line center sooner rather than later, but there is a fair amount of statistical evidence to suggest he was – along with much of the team – getting a lot of lucky bounces.  Regular readers will know that Sam and I disagree somewhat on this player, but it’s not that I don’t think he’s talented, it is simply that I need to see more from him before I can reasonably assume he truly is an offensive difference maker.

David Clarkson – this is the “bat shit crazy” I refer to in the Season Preview introductions – enters his career as a Maple Leaf with equal parts anticipation and pressure.  The guy with no more than 30 goals (once) or 46 points (once) in any single season of his career, and who at age 29 plays the type of physical game that sees players wear down by the age of 30, signed with Toronto to a massive 7 year, $5.25m per year deal.  The guy has desirable traits, such as his physical play and grit and yes he does have a half-decent scoring touch.  But a five million dollar player?  No freakin’ way.  He won’t necessarily be bad for the Leafs, but in two or three years I’d be willing to bet they wish they could take back the contract.

Image courtesy of mapleleafs.nhl.com.

Jay McClement’s first season in Toronto saw him being used in extreme defensive situations, taking on tough competition with sub-30% offensive zonestarts.  No wonder then that his shot differentials don’t look great, but it’s at least justifiable.  The guy can also score some and is probably the team’s top PK option up front; a good third liner.  Dave Bolland was the team’s other big acquisition this summer, as they acquired him from Chicago fresh off his second Stanley Cup win.  A couple of years ago, Bolland was highly regarded as a very good two-way center, taking on defensive responsibility and still chipping in decent offense.  However, he has suffered with injuries over the last several years, and isn’t looking currently like the strong defensive option he once was.  Still decent, but the jury is out on just how decent.  Nikolai Kulemin is one of the longer serving Leafs, and probably one of the most under-appreciated ones.  He is not the 30 goal scorer he was a couple of seasons ago – that was achieved thanks to a bloated 17.3% shooting percentage, but that has since nosedived the other way to an equally unsustainable sub-10% rate.  He is a very good two-way option, who takes on amongst the toughest competition on the team whilst also playing heavy PK minutes.  A very valuable player.

Frazer McLaren, acquired early in the 2012/13 season from San Jose, is the quintessential modern day Leaf – big, tough, and without much NHL ability.  He took on amongst the weakest competition with a massive zonestart push, and was still outshot significantly, whilst chipping in a tiny amount of offense and playing just over 5 minutes per game.  His only real skill is fighting, but the role of enforcer is an out-dated one.  A waste of a roster spot.  Joe Colborne hasn’t exactly blossomed into the huge scoring center the team thought they were getting.  Even at the AHL level, he has struggled to put up respectable scoring totals, and his major league career is seriously in doubt.  That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the roster this year for depth purposes and to see what he can do in an extended audition.  Colton Orr represents yet another baffling roster decision by the Leafs.  I am all for having players that are tough, but they have to be able to play.  Orr is virtually a clone of McLaren, and God help Colborne if he does actually have the misfortune to play between these two.

DEFENCE:

CARL GUNNARSSON – DION PHANEUF

MARK FRASER – CODY FRANSON

JAKE GARDINER – JOHN-MICHAEL LILES

Image courtesy of zimbio.com.

Probably the biggest bone of contention with this team is just how good is the defense?  Many don’t rate Dion Phaneuf, but the truth is he is a pretty darn good defenceman.  Whatever you make of his character and attitude, and whether he is true leadership material, what matters is how he plays on the ice.  He is a workhorse for the team, averaging over 25 minutes per game for the last 3 consecutive seasons, playing almost 19 minutes per night at 5v5, nearly 3 and a half minutes on the powerplay and over 3 minutes on the penalty kill.  That, ladies and gentleman, is the workload of a top pairing defender, love it or loathe it.  In that role, Phaneuf has put up very respectable point totals (though perhaps not to the elite level he was producing in Calgary), whilst also taking on the toughest competition on the team by far, and with around 41% offensive zonestarts.  He doesn’t look great by shot differentials, but when you’re playing in that sort of situation on a team whose coaching staff doesn’t believe in the value of shot differentials, it doesn’t look so bad.

Carl Gunnarsson has to be one of the more underrated NHL d-men, providing really good two-way play, a physical element, and strong PK abilities.  The fact that he scored all 15 of his points last year at 5v5 shows just how good he is – it is far more difficult for defenders to produce offense at 5v5 than it is on the PP.  He only averaged 45 seconds per game on the PP so perhaps more time there would give him even better point totals, but when he is playing as well as he is defensively do you really want to put more pressure on the guy?  Really good player.  Cody Franson finally showed off his value to Leafs fans with a great year offensively, tallying 29 points (and not all on the powerplay!) in 45 games, topping the 20 point plateau for the 4th consecutive season.  At even strength, Franson played below-average competition, but performed well in shot differential so he was doing his job.  He also used his huge 6’5″ frame to do some physical damage, finishing up 25th in the entire league with 124 hits, or 9th among defencemen.  For a guy who looked like he had one foot out the door last year, he seems to have settled in finally.

Image courtesy of citynews.ca.

Mark Fraser was a mini-revelation at the position, finally getting a decent look in the NHL after several years bouncing between the New Jersey Devils and the AHL.  Playing in 45 games, Fraser wasn’t offensively much of an impact, but performed well in shot differential at 5v5 against middling competition and with difficult zonestarts.  He was also a physical force out there, logging 153 hits to rank behind only former Leaf Luke Schenn among defenders.  He didn’t log big minutes out there overall, though he was relied upon pretty heavily on the PK, and looks like he could garner some more responsibility this coming season.  A nice find for the team as a top 4 / bottom pair tweener.  John-Michael Liles hasn’t had a boatload of success since joining Toronto in 2011, but he’s been OK, providing some decent offense from the back-end whilst not being a liability 5v5.  Liles has always been looked at as an offensive guy, and as he gets older (he’s 32 now) he will likely be used primarily as a powerplay quarterback, with bottom pairing minutes 5v5.

Last but not least, we have the perennially under-appreciated Jake Gardiner.  Despite a brilliant rookie season in 2011/12, where he looked like one of the better young defenders in the league, Gardiner was inexplicably left in the AHL when the lockout ended.  The team stated it was due to remaining concussion symptoms, but the fact is that Gardiner was playing fantastically well in the AHL and could have helped the parent club.  It is what it is though, and when he was finally given a chance towards the end of the season he performed admirably, dominating slightly below average competition at 5v5 (in an admittedly small sample size).  His offense picked up once the team entered the playoffs, picking up 1 goal (the first home playoff goal since Mats Sundin in 2004) and 5 points in 6 games.  He is a sure-fire top 4 defender, and will likely push Fraser down the lineup (no slight to Fraser, just Gardiner really is very good).

Not to be forgotten are Ryan O’Byrne and Paul Ranger.  O’Byrne was OK in a defensive and physical role for the team after being acquired from Colorado, though is likely a No.6 guy at best.  Ranger is one to watch, having made his pro hockey comeback with the Toronto Marlies last year – to great success – and now looking to make his first NHL appearance since 2009.  Still only 28, Ranger could be a huge addition to the team if given the chance, with his two-way play strengthening the depth of this squad no-end.

GOAL:

JAMES REIMER

JONATHAN BERNIER

Image courtesy of nationalpost.com.

Well now here’s an interesting scenario.  James Reimer previously looked as though he would be the unchallenged starter for the Leafs, having had some decent numbers before and after his injuries in the 2011/12 season.  Ben Scrivens was decent but not really any more than a backup.  And then the rumor mill started, thanks to the Roberto Luongo situation in Vancouver and the Leafs reportedly being close to a deal, evidence that the team was not satisfied with the goaltending situation as it was.  That’s no bad thing, a team should always be looking to get better.  That deal fell through, but that didn’t stop the team from looking elsewhere.

They recently acquired Jonathan Bernier from the LA Kings for picks and prospects, and it looks as though they’re going to duke it out for the starters role.  I would think it’s Reimer’s to lose, with him having more experience than Bernier though over a shorter span, as Bernier has never played more than 25 games in a season, though he has some nice stat lines (career .912 SV% and 2.36 GAA).  Contrast that with Reimer’s career numbers – .915 SV% and 2.71 GAA playing for a far worse team than LA – and you have pretty comparable players.

Style-wise they play fairly differently in net.  Reimer is more of a controlled, focused goalie who relies on his large frame and challenging shooters, whilst Bernier plays a hybrid style reliant on reflexes and puck-handling (info courtesy of Hockey’s Future).

An interesting situation indeed.

EXTRAS: RYAN O’BYRNE (D), PAUL RANGER (D)

Expectations for the Season

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

I just really don’t know about this Toronto team.  Unlike many I actually really like their defense, particularly if Paul Ranger can step in and play like he used to.  Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Gardiner, and Franson are all good-to-very-good NHL players, and Fraser certainly looked like he could be decent bet, while Liles still has something left in the tank.  Up front, there are some nice pieces, obviously beginning with Kessel, but Lupul has to stay healthy and Kadri – this is probably the biggest thing – has to prove that last year was not a flash in the pan.  That Clarkson contract is going to come back and bite this team, but he isn’t a bad player at all, and Van Riemsdyk looks like he might be figuring the NHL out finally.

Bolland, McClement and Kulemin make for a solid if unspectacular third line, but that 4th line is an absolute mess.  Two enforcers and a failed first round pick yet to make any kind of pro impact?  Give me a break.  You might not think 4th lines are important, but if they go into the season with that line then other teams and their coaches will exploit that weakness no end.  Also of concern is the first line center position.  Bozak is just not good enough for that role; maybe Kadri takes it over, but I’m not yet convinced he’s ready.

Advanced stats followers (of which I am kind of one) hate this team.  They rode a lot of good luck last year, high shooting percentages and on-ice save percentages that are unsustainable plus playing in a shortened season can create the illusion of a good team where there is none.  I’m not sure this is as bad of a team as the stats suggest they really are, but I don’t think they make the dance.  I’ll say they just miss the playoffs.

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