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Cullen: Leafs have upgraded talent, will it be enough?

Scott Cullen
9/20/2011 11:56:13 AM
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The Toronto Maple Leafs haven't made the playoffs since 2003-2004, so there is an increasing sense of desperation for them to get over the hump and reach the postseason. There is enough talent on the roster for a playoff berth to be possible, yet also enough to be close yet ultimately come up short.

One of the most influential players on the roster is captain Dion Phaneuf who was horrible early in the season, but finished strong, tallying 19 points, with a plus-6 rating since the All-Star break. When he was in Calgary, Phaneuf was an elite fantasy defenceman because of his offensive contribution combined with a nasty disposition that resulted in penalty minutes. If he goes for 40 points and 100 penalty minutes, he'd rank among the most valuable defencemen.

Possibly the player most responsible for Maple Leafs optimism is goaltender James Reimer, who was stellar in 37 games as a rookie last season. If Reimer can play at a simlar level over 60-plus games this season, the Leafs will have a very good chance at the postseason. If Reimer suffers a sophomore slump, though, the Leafs could have some long nights.

Despite being one of nine players in the league to score at least 30 goals in each of the last three seasons, Phil Kessel takes a lot of criticism since the good, like last year's career-high 64 points, often gets paired with the bad, like last year's career-worst minus-20. Kessel hasn't been matched with a strong playmaking centre in Toronto, so the Leafs are obviously hoping that Tim Connolly will help Kessel reach his potential.

Newcomer John-Michael Liles should fill the void left on the Leafs' defence by the trade of Tomas Kaberle last season, but the smooth-skating Liles can be awfully streaky. He started last season with 23 points and a plus-9 rating in 23 games, then finished the season with no goals and a minus-14 rating in the last 26 games. A three-time 40-point scorer, Liles should be an integral part of the Maple Leafs offence.

Grabbed off the scrap heap when the Atlanta Thrashers didn't accept his arbitration award, Clarke MacArthur responded with a career-high 62 points. Maybe it's asking a lot to expect him to duplicate that career year, but MacArthur does have to be considered an offensive threat as long as he has chemistry with linemates Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski.

Kulemin has made steady progress through his first three NHL seasons, leading up to last year's 30 goals and 57 points. A responsible player in all three zones, he's earned his role and, like MacArthur, has to considered a quality scoring winger as long as this line is working.

Following a disappointing season in 2009-2010, Grabovski took his game to a new level last season, scoring a career-high 58 points and playing a better two-way game than he'd ever been given credit for previously. As with his linemates, this season will be interesting to see if he can duplicate, or come close to, last year's numbers.

Tim Connolly didn't exactly respond during his free agent season with 42 points and a minus-10 rating in 68 games but he was the second-best free agent centre available. His skill level and previous track record do offer hope that he can be a productive setup man, but Connolly hasn't been able to stay healthy, playing more than 70 games just once in the last six seasons.

Injuries, most notably back woes, have also plagued Joffrey Lupul, but when he's healthy, he can put the puck in the net. He's a three-time 20-goal scorer and has 24 in 77 games over the last two seasons, so he could be a valuable player, if he can somehow stay in the lineup.

Expectations may be unnecessarily high for prospect Nazem Kadri, who scored 12 points in 29 games for the Leafs last season after putting up 41 points in 44 AHL games. Kadri seems like a player that has to have a spot in the top six to maximize his potential, but may not be able to crack the top six this season. Even so, Kadri's skill may force the Leafs to keep him around.

Thought to be a salary throw-in as part of a trade with Nashville this summer, Matthew Lombardi is apparently close to returning from a concussion that he suffered in the second game of the year last season. Coming off such a long-term injury, it's difficult to have any expectations for Lombardi, but he's a good skater who has sufficient skill to play a complementary offensive role.

The other player that Toronto acquired from Nashville in that deal was defenceman Cody Franson, a skilled blueliner with size who played protected minutes for the Predators yet also contributed 29 points along with a plus-10 rating last season.

There is no denying that the Maple Leafs have been upgrading their talent, but question marks (often injury-related) hang over so many players that it's difficult to expect anything more than a team battling for one of the final playoff spots in the East.

Depth Chart - Toronto Maple Leafs

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.  For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.

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