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Leafs looking to build on strong late-season finish

by Dave Lozo /
On the surface, 2010-11 was another season of failure for the Toronto Maple Leafs. They missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season and never really contended for a top-eight spot after a strong couple of weeks to open the season.

But over the final two-plus months, the Leafs showed there is a lot to be excited about for 2011-12.

Entering February, the Leafs were 19-25-5, 12th in the Eastern Conference. But thanks to the emergence of rookie goaltender James Reimer and improved overall play, the Leafs finished the season 18-9-6. That level of play over the course of 82 games would be good for 104 points.

That's all well and good, but if the Leafs dig themselves another early-season hole, a strong finish won't mean much.


p. kessel t. connolly j. lupul
n. kulemin m. grabovski c. macarthur
d. boyce t. BOzak c. armstrong
p. dupuis M. lombardi* m. brown
j.m. liles d. phaneuf
k. aulie l. schenn
c. gunnarsson c. franson
m. lashoff m. komisarek
j. reimer
j. gustavsson
ones to watch
f nazem kadri
d Jake gardiner
f joe colborne
g ben scrivens
* injured
"Getting off to a good start is important," Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said, "but you can't just get off to a good start and then fall off. You've got to keep it going -- you have to be consistent. You can't have these extreme highs and extreme lows -- win three and lose four. You've got to be consistent. That's what we've got to do this year to make the playoffs."

Scoring was a problem for the Leafs, who were 23rd in goals per game. They boast some top-notch talent in Phil Kessel (32 goals), Nikolai Kulemin (30 goals) and Mikhail Grabovski (29 goals). Free-agent signing Clarke MacArthur contributed as well, with 21 goals and 41 assists, but the drop-off after those four is startling.

Tyler Bozak had 15 goals and the since-traded Kris Versteeg had 14 goals. After that, the Leafs didn't have a single player reach 10 goals while in their lineup (Joffrey Lupul had 9 goals in 28 games after joining the club).

The Leafs had an elite top line, but lacked scoring depth. General Manager Brian Burke attempted to rectify that at last season's trade deadline and during this offseason.

The Leafs picked up Lupul from the Ducks in exchange for defenseman Francois Beauchemin in February. He had 14 goals total last season, and three times has scored at least 20, so he has the ability to contribute offensively.

Center Tim Connolly was signed July 1, and center Matthew Lombardi was acquired in a trade with the Predators. Both have had problems with concussions, but if healthy, they will add an element of speed and skill. Connolly's best season came in 2009-10, when he had 17 goals and 48 assists in 73 games for the Buffalo Sabres.

Lombardi missed all but two games last season, but when healthy can be a 20-goal scorer. If he and Connolly can stay in the lineup, the Leafs could have a formidable top-six set of forwards.

That added offense could be what helps the Leafs find consistency and a playoff spot.

"That's why we play the game. You don't just play the game to be done in April," Phaneuf said. "Everyone plays to win, to give yourself a chance to win, and you don't have a chance to win if you're not in the playoffs. That's where we want to get, and that's where we have to get. We were close last year; we weren't eliminated until there were two games left in the season. We had a good run. We played hard, but we couldn't make up the ground we lost at the start of the season."


IN: Tim Connolly, C (free agent, Sabres); Philippe Dupuis, C (free agent, Avalanche); Cody Franson, D (trade, Predators); Matthew Lombardi, C (trade, Predators)

OUT: Tim Brent, C (free agent, Hurricanes); Brett Lebda (trade, Predators); Jean-Sebastien Giguere, G (free agent, Avalanche); Fredrik Sjostrom, LW (free agent, Farjestad, Sweden); Robert Slaney, LW (trade, Predators)
The remaining forward positions will be filled by Bozak, Colby Armstrong (8 goals, 23 points in 50 games), Colton Orr and Mike Brown. Rookies Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Matt Frattin have been battling it out for one or two roster spots in training camp.

There seems to be little question about the seven defensemen the Leafs will start the season with -- Phaneuf, Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, Luke Schenn, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie.

Phaneuf is the leading returning scorer along the blue line with 30 points (Tomas Kaberle had 38 points for the Leafs, but was dealt to the Bruins at the trade deadline). But Phaneuf is there to provide toughness, and that he does. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound bruiser was second on the team in hits by defensemen last season with 186.

Last season was a struggle for Komisarek. His 75 games were the most he's played since 2007-08, but his 10 points were the fewest he's had in a full season since 2005-06. Only Brett Lebda (minus-14) had a worse plus/minus rating among the team's blueliners than Komisarek's minus-8.

Liles will try to fill the offensive hole left by Kaberle. The left-handed shot had 6 goals and 40 assists for the Avs last season and will be a weapon on the power play. He could be paired with the 21-year-old Schenn, who had a career-best 22 points in his third NHL season. He also led the team in hits with 251.

Franson was acquired from the Predators during the offseason along with Lombardi. The 24-year-old had 8 goals and 21 assists in 80 games for the defensive-minded Preds.

Gunnarsson (4 goals, 16 assists) and Aulie (98 hits, minus-1 in 40 games) will round out the corps.  

The Leafs were so impressed with James Reimer last season they signed him to a three-year contract extension in June. The 23-year-old went 20-10-5 in 37 games, taking over the No. 1 job from Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson. Reimer's .921 save percentage was 12th in the League.

"Like any team, when you have good goaltending, it's infectious," Phaneuf said. "Your team is that much more confident. Reims came in and he was really, really, really solid for us and played extremely well. We played very confidently when he was in the net. I'm really looking forward to him starting the year with us because the way he played last year, he was extremely, extremely good for us and we played well in front of him."

Gustavsson will be Reimer's backup, while Giguere left for Colorado. After arriving from Sweden two seasons ago, Gustavsson has underwhelmed. He had a 3.29 goals-against average and .890 save percentage last season. Perhaps the knowledge that he won't have to be relied upon as the No. 1 goaltender will allow him to relax more and rediscover his game.
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