By: David Alter
The Toronto Maple Leafs open the 2011-2012 regular season tonight at home against the Montreal Canadiens. Here’s a look at the 20 players who will take the ice tonight.
G James Reimer
The darling of last season. Reimer was thrust into the starting position last season (almost accidentally) where he flourished. In 37 games last season, Reimer went 20-10-5 with an impressive .921 save percentage and goals against average of 2.60 GAA. You can argue that he is more important to the Leafs success than any other goalie will be to their respective team. Reimer dropped 20 pounds going into his camp and has taken the extra pressure from the media in stride. He looks focused and is determined to pick up where he left off.
G Jonas Gustavsson
Entering the final year of his contract, this is a chance for ‘the Monster’ to put his past issues behind him. For the days Reimer couldn’t play, the Leafs suffered and it’ll be Gustavsson’s job to prove that he is a capable backup in this league. Gustavsson has had a decent pre-season. If he can’t get the job done, Ben Scrivens will be nipping at ‘the Monster’s' heals, while the Leafs could elect to look to pick up a veteran backup (Marty Turco is still looking for work).
D Dion Phaneuf
The captain of the Maple Leafs, the expectation will be on Phaneuf to continue to show the kind of play he did in the final couple of months of last season when he played alongside Keith Aulie (sent to the minors). Phaneuf will look to do that by being more physical to create some open ice around him, while using his booming shot to contribute on the power-play.
D Carl Gunnarsson
Played well last season to secure himself a role on the top-six in the absence of Tomas Kaberle. He continues to fight for a spot but if he could show the same kind of chemistry that Aulie did with Phaneuf, it could go a long way to keeping his ice-time.
D Luke Schenn
Signed a new five-year contract extension just as training camp opened up. Led the NHL in hits by a defenseman last year and his ability in his own zone and continued discipline will serve the Leafs well.
D John-Michael Liles
Acquired from the Avalanche in an off-season trade, Liles will be counted on to improve a Leafs power-play which has struggled mightily over the past few years. Playing alongside Schenn, Liles will fill the role of that puck-moving defenseman vacated by Kaberle.
D Jake Gardiner
Turned all heads with how good he was at camp. Went beyond the Leafs expectations and earn his spot. Solid in his own end and excellent in his passing, Gardiner wasn’t afraid to take educated gambles and come in from the point to look for scoring opportunities. How he does when the games matter will be a true test to see where he is at.
D Mike Komisarek
He has come in lighter for training camp and that should help his play defensively. But there are many question as to wether Komisarek can keep up with some opposing skilled players. When you put him against opposing 3rd and 4th liners, you shouldn’t have a problem with Komisarek. He fits a 5-6 role right now.
F Matt Frattin
The rookie went from being one of the best players during rookie camp, to being promoted temporarily to what is now the team’s top line alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin. Frattin’s speed made him a natural fit to fill-in for Clarke MacArthur who is suspended for the first two games. His scoring touch made him a good fit for now, but is by no means a lock to stick around once Tim Connolly, Nazem Kadri and MacArthur re-emerge.
F Mikhail Grabovski
Currently the Maple Leafs top centre, Grabovski has impressed this pre-season going to the net a lot more and earning goals. He has matured nicely from being a me-first type player to an exemplary teammate and has helped make his line the most productive on the team. Grabovski is in the final year of a 3-year deal that has a cap it of $2.9 million, so he’ll be motivated to show that he is worthy of a raise.
F Nik Kulemin
A career year last season from Kulemin has increased the expectations on the winger. He scored 30 goals last year, Head Coach Ron Wilson would like to see him do the same this year. Provided he’s got Grabovski with him all year, and both stay healthy, all signs are that it will happen again.
F Joffrey Lupul
This should be the year we really find out what the Leafs got in the oft-injured forward. He battle back to have a solid 28 games with the Leafs where he scored 18 points. He doesn’t have a regular centre to play with right now, as projected top-liner Tim Connolly has sat out with injury.
F Tyler Bozak
Originally expected to centre the team’s third line with Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong, injuries have put Bozak back on a line with Phil Kessel for the time being. Bozak played in all 82 games last season, his durability will be a huge asset. His experience with Kessel should he an adequate quick-fix for now, until Connolly or even Matthew Lombardi move into that role.
F Phil Kessel
The star of the Maple Leafs offense and coming off three straight 30+goal seasons, Ron Wilson would like to see Kessel get to 40+ this year. This is almost a necessity as the Leafs will have to try and get increase goal scoring from somewhere.
F David Steckel
Acquired just two days before puck drop, Steckel addresses a need up the middle when it comes to winning faceoffs. He’s an asset when it comes to penalty kill and he’ll likely start as a winger who takes some draws. He’s big an physical, but finding an instant chemistry having missed an entire camp could lead to early growing pains.
F Philippe Dupuis
Acquired during the off-season, Dupuis has been a great energy line player for the Maple Leafs during the pre-season that he was able to beat out Darryl Boyce for the spot. His effectiveness on the penalty kill went a long way and the Leafs brass have been very happy about his camp. Dupuis struggled when it came to winning faceoffs. Having the defending league champion in winning faceoffs like Steckel on his line should help with that.
F Colby Armstrong
Limited in his play last season due to several injuries, Armstrong has had a solid camp. More admirably, Armstrong has shown no drop-off in his play with the rotation of different linemates that have thrown at him.
F Mike Brown
Limited in his pre-season action, Brown had spent most of the off-season dealing with a nagging groin injury which appears to have finally been corrected. In his return to the ice, Brown showed no drop off in speed and physicality. He’s expected to be the same for opening night.
F Matthew Lombardi
His recovery from a season-long concussion has come at the perfect time for the Maple Leafs. Lombardi is feeling better by the day, and hehas gradually been mixed into the team’s fourth line. Once his conditioning gets back to where it was, there is no reason Lombard couldn’t ultimately be the one who sits up the middle with Kessel and Lupul.
F Jay Rosehill
After bouncing around in the minors, Rosehill secured himself as the team’s bruiser as Colton Orr sat out with a concussion. Rosehill is trying to do more than just fight, something that could make him a key asset as the game continues to evolve.
Based on injuries and performances from the teams around them, I can see the Leafs finishing as high as 6th and as low at 13th. I think the goaltending will continue to improve while teams around them will struggle with injuries and chemistry. I say they finish 7th, and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Just a gut feeling.