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Posted by Ryan Porth Labels: Toronto Maple Leafs
For the last handful of years, one of the laughing stocks of the NHL has been the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s been a slow rebuild process ever since Brian Burke took over as general manager. After some solid, under-the-radar off-season acquisitions, are the Leafs ready to be a playoff contender in the Eastern Conference?
In recent seasons, the Leafs have been a victim of poor first halves that bury them so deep in the standings that a nice second half spurt isn’t enough. Last season, it almost was enough. They went 18-9-6 after the All-Star break and threatened to sneak in, but couldn’t. Now they hope to carry over that success.
Burke has done an admirable job this summer adding pieces without shelling out a lot of dough or making long-term commitments. Tim Connolly and John-Michael Liles are short-term solutions and make the Leafs a better team than when they finished the 2010-11 campaign.
Connolly was signed to a two-year, $9.5 million deal after the Leafs swung and missed on Brad Richards. When healthy, Connolly produces. Staying in the lineup has been a challenge, as he’s missed 190 games since the lockout. In those six seasons, though, Connolly has tallied 250 points in 302 games (not bad). The playmaking pivot should be a good complement to Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the top line.
On defense, Liles was the biggest acquisition by Burke. The former Avalanche defenseman is a solid puck-mover and is expected to replace Tomas Kaberle, who was dealt in February. Liles had 46 points in 76 games and will help the power play.
Someone else that will help the man advantage is Cody Franson, who was obtained from Nashville last weekend. Though his ceiling isn’t much higher than his current performance level, the 23-year-old is a nice addition on the Leafs’ back end (and cheaper than Brett Lebda).
One big bugaboo for the Leafs since the lockout has been trying to find consistent goaltending. Vesa Toskala, J.S. Giguere, Andrew Raycroft and Ed Belfour weren’t the answer. What about James Reimer? In his first NHL season, Reimer raised some eyebrows by recording a 2.60 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. He came up huge in key games down the stretch and will start the 2011-12 as the starter. If the Leafs wish to contend for a playoff spot, Reimer must be consistent.
There are still some holes to be filled by Burke, either before October or in-season; I’m sure he’d like to pick up another top-six forward to solidify the offense. But the defense is deep and the goaltending has the potential to be pretty good. Does this make the Leafs a contender for their first playoff berth since 2004? I’d say yes.
Head coach Ron Wilson has received a lot of criticism, but he’s a veteran coach with many playoff appearances on his resume. The played well for him in the latter stages of the 2010-11 season and showed a lot of promise for the upcoming year. Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are capable of big things, and now they have good supporting pieces.
After starting last season 4-0, the parade routes were being drawn up. The team couldn’t sustain that success due to its youth and lack of depth. If they get off to a hot start this time around (which is almost necessary), I don’t think you’ll see the Leafs fade into the mist.
In a conference where it’s anyone’s guess which clubs make the playoffs after the top six teams, Toronto has a prime opportunity to snap what would be an eight-year playoff drought.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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