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Strong finish, promising youth have Leafs hopeful

by Dave Lozo
The Toronto Maple Leafs finished last in the Eastern Conference and 29th in the League last season with just 74 points, but they closed the season with enough positive vibes to enter this season with hope for a turnaround.

The Leafs went 10-5-2 in their last 17 games and 13-10-3 after acquiring defenseman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere in trades with the Calgary Flames and Anaheim Ducks, respectively, Jan 31. Phaneuf was named the Leafs' captain this summer and believes the team can contend for a playoff spot this season.

"I think every team in the League, their goal is to make the playoffs and we're no different," Phaneuf said. "We're a very good, young team. We've got a lot of really good, young players and it's an exciting team to be apart of because we get to grow together and get to learn together and I'm looking forward to starting that off.

"At the end of last year, we played very well. We weren't happy with where we were at, but we were happy with how we played the last 20 games of the season. We did a lot of good things. We learned a lot of things together and we have to take that and what we've learned and how we played and carry that over into this year."

GM Brian Burke overhauled the roster during the season and didn't stop during the summer. Perhaps the biggest move by Burke was one he didn't make -- defenseman Tomas Kaberle will open the season with the Leafs despite Burke being open to trade offers.

"While a number of clubs made offers to trade for Tomas, none of them reflected Tomas' value to our team," Burke told the team's website. "I understand a period like this is stressful to the player, and we are pleased that there is a resolution, and we can all continue to prepare for the coming season."

There are plenty of new faces vying to make an impact for the Leafs this season, and many of them are baby-faced. How those young players perform will go a long way toward determining whether the Leafs make the playoffs or remain a basement dweller.

At center, it's youth galore. There's Tyler Bozak, 24, entering what will be his first full NHL season; Nazem Kadri, 19, who played one NHL game on an emergency basis last season; Mikhail Grabovski, the savvy veteran of the group at 26; and Christian Hanson, 24, who could get a long look this season after appearing in 31 games last season. Michael Zigomanis, 29, is a fourth-liner who was signed during the offseason but most likely will spend the season in the AHL.

Bozak was called up late last season and showed he's ready for the NHL. He had 8 goals and 19 assists in 37 games last season and could find himself centering the top line with Phil Kessel to start the season. Kadri isn't a lock to make the team out of camp -- coach Ron Wilson has said Kadri's spot isn't guaranteed -- but a strong showing probably will do the trick.

"(Bozak) sees the ice so well and makes plays like a guy who's played a lot longer than he has," Phaneuf said. "I'm excited to see those two (Kessel and Bozak) work very well together."

Phaneuf also likes Kadri's chances to have success this season: "He’s young, but he's got an edge to him that's going to help him. He's a confident guy that's got a chance of making our team. It's going to be an exciting fall for him."

On the wing, the Leafs brought in Kris Versteeg, a key component in the Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup championship; Clarke MacArthur, who had a combined 33 goals with the Buffalo Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers the past two seasons; and Colby Armstrong, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal in the summer and could provide 15-20 goals along with some needed veteran leadership.

"We made a lot of real good moves that I'm excited about and I know that everyone on our team is excited about," Phaneuf said.

Look for 24-year-old Nikolai Kulemin (16 goals, 20 assists) to improve. Also, 21-year-old Luca Caputi (2 goals in 23 games after he was acquired from the Penguins for Alexei Ponikarovsky last season) could be an impact player if he can make the club. The Leafs have more genuine openings for roster spots than almost any other team in the League, making their training camp one to watch.

There's far less room to maneuver among the team's blueliners, but there will be fights for the final two or three spots.

Phaneuf, Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek are locked in as the team's top two pairings. Komisarek has spent the past six months recovering from shoulder surgery, but he'll be relied upon for heavy minutes if healthy.

That leaves Luke Schenn, Jeff Finger, Brett Lebda and Carl Gunnarsson vying for the final two spots.

Schenn, only 20 as he enters his third NHL season, still is developing. Finger is owed $3.5 million this season but has been a disappointment since signing with the club as a free agent two years ago. He's also dealing with an injured knee that will keep him out of the early part of camp.

Gunnarsson is just 23 but played well during his first 43 NHL games last season, totaling 3 goals, 12 assists and a plus-8 rating. Lebda, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings, signed a two-year, $1.45 million deal this summer, making it likely he breaks camp with the team.

The final roster spot could come down to Finger and Gunnarsson.

When the Leafs signed Jonas Gustavsson out of Sweden before last season, they thought they had a reliable goaltender who potentially could be a No. 1 in the NHL.

But a heart condition plagued the 25-year-old for a better part of the season, and the Leafs picked up Giguere in a trade during the season. Now Giguere, who has a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup to his credit, will enter the season as the team's No. 1 goalie, according to Wilson.

That doesn't mean Gustavsson won't see any action. Wilson also has said he will ride the hot hand at times during the season, which makes this a true goaltending competition in camp and early in the season.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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