What Lies Ahead For Carlyle & The Leafs

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.

The NHL lockout is over.

Now comes the hard part.

The clock has been restarted with a new CBA and the Leafs, with familiar question marks in goal and in the middle of the number one line have been handed another start.

So what are their chances?

Absolutely no idea.

Anyone who says they know is lying. The new landscape ushered in with a fresh CBA has yet to be surveyed, let alone understood.  The roster could be reshaped overnight.

So let’s go over the first 10 things we know and the first 10 things we don’t.

What we know.

1. Phil Kessel is coming off a 37-goal season and Leafs coach Randy Carlyle believes there is much more there to be extracted from the 25-year-old winger.  Carlyle insists more time on special teams and an increased commitment to going to the net will push Kessel’s goal totals.Last year, four players, James Neal, (40), Marian Gaborik (41), Evgeni Malkin (50) and Steve Stamkos (60) scored 40 or more goals. While the search continues for a comparable centre Kessel benefited from a breakthrough performance from …

2. Joffrey Lupul. Finally healthy after a back injury and potentially lethal infection, Lupul scored 25 goals and pocketed 67 points in 66 games. He is 29 years old and entering his contract year. Lupul was the second-best good news story of the Leafs’ 2011-2012 season. The first would be…

3. Jake Gardiner. Gardiner, just 22, led all rookie defencemen in points and has all but owned the AHL this season. Gardiner’s uncanny ability to protect the puck and put opposing puckhandlers in bad position means he should be ready for 22-minute a night status. The Leafs also have a player who looks a lot like Gardiner in…

4. Morgan Rielly. The Moose Jaw defenceman is one of two junior players eligible to be leapfrogged on to the NHL roster (the other, David Broll will spend his winter in the OHL). Leaf brass has long held they would have chosen Rielly first overall and only a knee injury bumped him down to number five.  That’s fine but what will make for fascinating viewing is…

5. Whether the Leafs can find value in Matthew Lombardi. Lombardi’s spotty play gets a pass because of his lengthy rehab from a concussion but a speedy veteran should be a useful weapon at least on the penalty kill. If the 30-year-old Lombardi follows Lupul’s timeline – he was a good to very good NHLer before his injury – the Leafs have a veteran asset with some value. The problem is Lombardi isn’t tough enough to be a fourth liner and not enough of a natural scorer to be put on the top unit. The second line is set and Carlyle prefers a checking line for his third trio. What’s interesting is that…

6. Carlyle and GM Brian Burke are on the same page about defensive importance. In the three years the trio worked together in Anaheim, the Ducks finished eighth best in goals against, seventh and second. Central in improving the goals against total is…

7. Continued solid play from defenceman Carl Gunnarsson.  Gunnarsson finished minus-9 last season and for a player who constantly faces the opposition’s best player and who fronted often shaky goaltending, Gunnarsson is the Leafs most dependable rearguard.  Speaking of dependable isn’t it time to acknowledge…

8. Cliff Fletcher’s deal to acquire Mikhail Grabovski from Montreal for a second-rounder in 2008. Grabovski is one of the Leafs’ hardest working and most passionate players. The Leafs gambled by giving the 28-year-old five more seasons at $5.5 million but finding a second-line centre who can deliver 25-30 goals and 50-60 points was going to be expensive. While the Leafs have a need in the middle of the first line Carlyle’s gut tells him Grabovski’s game is better suited to the second line.The Leafs have a promising scorer to drop onto Grabovski’s line in…

9. Matt Frattin. What makes Frattin’s game intriguing is that besides excellent skating and shooting skills, Frattin is a hard-hitter who can be effective all over the ice. Frattin scored nine goals with 16 points in 20 games this season. Which brings us back to one inescapable conclusion …

10. It won’t be easy. The Rangers propped up their offence with the acquisition of Rick Nash. The Devils were a surprising Stanley Cup finalist and the Bruins manhandled the Leafs last season.  The Sabres will be harder to play with Steve Ott. Jordan Stall makes Carolina better.  Here’s one prediction I will make: not many pundits will pick the Leafs to make the playoffs in light of the upgrades in the Eastern Conference.

 What we don’t know.

1. Who will play goal?  Maybe you’ve heard, the Leafs are looking to upgrade and while James Reimer’s head and neck injury is ample explanation for his shaky season, Reimer’s body of work – he has played only 71 NHL games – isn’t sufficient to define his ability. Carlyle isn’t terribly subtle when he refers to the impact of former goalie consultant Francois Allaire.Compounding the scenario is …

2. How the Leafs will deal with their overabundance on defence. Korbinian Holzer should slide into the opening vacated by the trade of Luke Schenn. The Leafs have Holzer, Gardiner, captain Dion Phaneuf, Gunnarsson, Mike Komisarek and John-Michael Liles. There is a slight chance they will have to make room for Rielly and minor leaguer Mike Kostka could get a look as well. Restricted free agent Cody Franson is still in play. At least there are lots of candidates. Consider the picture…

3. At centre. Who will be in the middle of the number one line?  I’ll bite. Who? The team needs a big centre with touch and enough jam to do the spadework for Lupul and Kessel.  Carlyle insists he would be comfortable with Bozak in the middle.While Nazem Kadri continues to develop with the Marlies it’s hard to imagine him jumping from the Marlies to the Leafs’ first line. Which brings us to…

4. What in God’s name happened to Nikolai Kulemin? While his longtime linemates Mikhail Grabovski (23 goals) and Clarke MacArthur (20 more) enjoyed good seasons, Kulemin’s game fell through the floor.  His inability to find the net (only seven goals) was somewhat mitigated by his good defensive play but overall he was pretty awful.Kulemin is still the Leafs best defensive forward and with James van Riemsdyk added to the top six forwards, the way may be clear for Kulemin to focus his formidable defensive abilities on a checking unit with free agent centreman Jay McClement and Leo Komarov. Which reminds me…

5. Just where will Carlyle play van Riemsdyk?  The Leafs coach was surprised to find his off-hand remark that he might try van Riemsdyk in the middle became big news. JVR played centre in college at the University of New Hampshire and will get a look in the middle should the Leafs
strike out in trading for a pivot

 

Carlyle, of course, has more to consider including…

6. How to improve the Leafs terrible penalty-kill. The Leafs finished 28th in penalty killing efficiency last year. The fundamental pillar of a better penalty kill is goaltending but a newfound commitment to playing a man short is essential for the team to return to the playoffs.  So too is…

7. Whether Ben Scrivens is the efficient puck stopper who posted the best goaltending numbers in the AHL or the goalie struggling right now.  With Jonas Gustavsson in Detroit, Scrivens has an outside chance of mounting a challenge for the number one job. That of course will be decided by another X factor…

8. The Carlyle effect. In an effort to reinvigorate the vibe around the team, Carlyle gave the Leafs dressing room a facelift but the roster he inherited last season seems destined to be achingly similar to the one that couldn’t’ compete in the middle months of last season.  If Burke and Carlyle are to recreate the bruising team they forged in Anaheim they will need much more size up front but the team’s best candidate Tyler Biggs is still at least year away. They will also need….

9. One of the NHL’s best defencemen in the first two months of last year: Dion Phaneuf to return to his early season form. While Phaneuf’s offensive numbers (12 goals, 44 points) are more than palatable, his play fell off as the season wore on.  Critics questioned Phaneuf’s leadership as the team skidded through January and February.With Gardiner set to assume more minutes and another defensively-oriented rearguard aboard in Holzer, exactly where Phaneuf fits should make for interesting viewing. But perhaps the most important factor will be…

10. How the Leafs will approach the CBA in terms of free agency and buyouts remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

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About Mike Ulmer

Mike Ulmer has written 207 post in this blog.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. All opinions expressed by Mike Ulmer are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Toronto Maple Leafs or its Hockey Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Maple Leafs and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NHL accredited member of the media.



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