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Leafs hope signings, young talent equal playoffs

by Dave Lozo
The Toronto Maple Leafs made a push for the prize of this summer's free-agent frenzy, Brad Richards, but came up short. Even with that setback, the Leafs had a very successful offseason.

They picked up a pair of skilled forwards in Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi and made a deal with the Colorado Avalanche to acquire defenseman John-Michael Liles in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft. Those additions without too many key subtractions could put the Leafs in the postseason for the first time since 2004.


Record: 37-34-11, 85 points, 10th in East

Ron Wilson (4th season)

Interesting fact: The Maple Leafs will play a season-high 23 games on Saturday (15 at home and eight on the road). Toronto does not have any Friday or Sunday home games scheduled for the upcoming season.
The Leafs are coming off a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, missing the playoffs by eight points. Strangely enough, they played some of their best hockey to close the season after General Manager Brian Burke shipped defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin and winger Kris Versteeg at the trade deadline.

After opening the season 19-25-5, the Leafs ended the season on an 18-9-6 run.

A lot of that success had to do with goaltender James Reimer, who burst onto the scene during the second half. He capitalized on injuries to goaltenders Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who left via free agency this summer, and Jonas Gustavsson to take the starting job. Reimer went 20-10-5 with a 2.60 goals-against average and an impressive .921 save percentage.

The Leafs return their top four point producers from last season -- Phil Kessel, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. There's a lot of improvement that needs to happen on the ice this season in Toronto, but on paper in the middle of August, things are looking very promising for the Leafs.


1. Can the Leafs get off to a hot start?
In 2009-10, Toronto began the season without a win in its first eight games, the worst start in franchise history. The Leafs finished last in the Eastern Conference. Last season, the Maple Leafs began the season 4-0, and ended the year with a much better shot at the playoffs. If Toronto is going to break its postseason drought, it has to begin the season strong.

2. Will James Reimer suffer through a sophomore slump?
The Leafs locked up Reimer with a three-year extension after his stellar rookie campaign. Now, the stakes are raised, and if Toronto is going to contend in the Eastern Conference, they'll need a repeat performance from the young goalie. It will be interesting to see if Reimer is up for the challenge.

3. What happens if Tim Connolly can't stay healthy?
The Leafs will certainly benefit from the services of a veteran playmaker like Connolly. There's only one problem: Since the lockout, Connolly has played in more than 70 games just once due to various injuries. If he can't stay healthy this season, Toronto has some options. The team has good depth at center, and players like Nazem Kadri and Joe Colborne could step up in Connolly's absence.

-- Emily Kaplan

Burke did most of his retooling at the trade deadline, but he parted ways with several role players and a goaltender during the summer.

The 34-year-old Giguere battled injuries and inconsistency last season, going 11-11-4 with a 2.87 GAA and .900 save percentage. He signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanche, leaving the Leafs with a young goaltending duo of Reimer and Gustavsson.

Center Tim Brent had 8 goals and 12 assists in 79 games last season, his first full season in the NHL. He signed a two-year contract with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brett Lebda, whose minus-14 rating was the worst among Leafs defensemen, was traded to the Nashville Predators in early July.

Forward Christian Hanson, who played 42 games with the Leafs over parts of three seasons, left for the Washington Capitals. Defenseman Danny Richmond also signed with the Capitals.

Winger Fredrik Sjostrom was allowed to leave as an unrestricted free agent.

With Connolly and Lombardi, the Leafs picked up two extremely gifted offensive players. But they also picked up a pair of forwards with a history of injury woes.

The 30-year-old Connolly went through a three-year stretch with the Buffalo Sabres from 2006-09 where he played just 98 regular-season games due to a concussion that cost him 80 games in 2006-07 and hip, groin and back and injuries from 2007-09.

But Connolly was pretty durable the past two seasons. He had 65 points in 73 games in 2009-10 and 42 points in 68 games last season, when he missed 10 games due to a foot injury he sustained while blocking a shot.

The 29-year-old Lombardi has dealt with much of the same problems during his career. He missed all but two games last season due to a concussion and has battled through various upper- and lower-body injuries in the past.


Keith Aulie, D -- The 22-year-old played major minutes down the stretch last season after Tomas Kaberle was shipped away. Aulie's physical style and size are tailor-made for what Brian Burke wants out of the Maple Leafs. Aulie's plus-4 rating after he was called up for good in February is a solid indicator the 22-year-old could have a bright future as a defensive defenseman in Toronto.

Tyler Bozak, C -- Much was expected of the 25-year-old last season after he recorded 8 goals and 18 assists over the Leafs' final 36 games in 2009-10. But in 82 games last season, Bozak had just 15 goals and 17 assists and was a staggeringly bad minus-29, ranking him fourth from last in that category. The University of Denver product will look to bounce back in his second full season.

Jonas Gustavsson, G -- James Reimer will enter the year as the starter, and rightfully so. But he will undoubtedly need support in what will be his first full NHL season, and that will have to come from Gustavsson, who hasn't lived up to expectations since signing with the Leafs out of Sweden two years ago. If Reimer has a hiccup, it will be up to Gustavsson to right the ship
When healthy, he can be productive. In his last full season in 2009-10, he had 19 goals and 34 assists with the Phoenix Coyotes. He could repeat those numbers with the Leafs if he avoids another major injury.

Liles is one of the better offensive defensemen in the League, and he'll fill the role left open by the departure of Kaberle. Liles was more of a goal-scorer during his first three seasons, scoring 38 goals in that time. His goal-scoring production has waned, but he should be good for 40-45 points while manning the point on the Leafs' power play.

Center Phillipe Dupuis was signed to bring depth and to possibly fill the role left open by Brent's departure.

The Leafs finished in the bottom third of the League in goals scored and goals allowed last season. They appeared to make the necessary improvements to boost the offense by picking up Connolly, Lombardi and Liles. The big question will be how they go about shoring things up in their own zone.

Leafs goaltenders were hung out to dry on numerous occasions last season, making it tough for any of them to find consistency. As terrific as Reimer was last season, his 2.60 GAA won't show up on the first page of leaders in that category. The Leafs will need to allow less than the 31 shots per game they surrendered last season to lessen the youngster's burden.

If Reimer proves to be the real deal and Burke's free-agent signings don't disappoint, there could be playoff hockey in Toronto for the first time in a long time.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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