Was the Toronto Maple Leafs' strong finish a sign of things to come or will next season be yet another year on the outside looking in at the postseason?
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Leafs team that has some reasons for optimism, but still needs to fill some big holes if they are going to compete for a playoff spot, as they expect to, next season.
Through the end of January, the Leafs were 19-25-5 (.439 point percentage), then finished the season going 18-9-6 (.636) in the last 33 games. Last season's 85 points, while not enough to earn a playoff berth, was the highest point total for Toronto since 2006-2007.
That performance, which resulted in a surprising late push for a playoff spot, raises expectations for next season, but those heightened expectations mean that it's even more important for the Leafs to make signficant moves this summer to fill some of the most gaping holes.
The first priority should be finding a number one playmaking centre, someone that can fit alongside Phil Kessel to give the Leafs two legitimate scoring lines.
"I believe in this group," GM Brian Burke said to reporters at season's end. "I think the building blocks we put in place in terms of the defence, the way the top-six (forwards) rounded out, I do think we're close with a few additions. Whether we can get access to those players or are able to get them remains to be seen."
There are a variety of paths to travel to find a number one centre but, as Burke suggests, none of them of are easy. Signing an unrestricted free agent like Brad Richards would do the trick, but he's on the open market and, even at a hefty price tag, there will be many other teams interested.
Perhaps the trade route would be the most reasonable plan of attack. Colorado's Paul Stastny or Florida's Stephen Weiss might be reasonable targets as those teams are rebuilding, but to acquire players of that calibre, the Leafs would have to give up some quality and likely a mix of players, prospects and picks.
At least the system has improved its depth of prospects in recent years so that the Maple Leafs might be able to deal one of two if it means getting a frontline player.
Beyond that, sure, the Leafs have the financial resources and draft picks in hand to make a play for a star restricted free agent but, given Burke's track record, that would seem like a dramatic change in philosophy.
At some point, though, the Leafs simply have to come up with a solution for their number one line that is better than Tyler Bozak or Nazem Kadri, unless those players improve significantly.
Assuming that the Leafs can, somehow, find a number one centre, they still have issues to address on the blueline.
While Tomas Kaberle hasn't fared well in Boston, the Leafs could use another puck-moving defenceman now that the longtime Leaf is gone. Burke is right, the building blocks are in place, particularly if Keith Aulie and Luke Schenn continue to improve and Carl Gunnarsson continues to play a significant role, but someone to help on the power play should be a priority too.
Burke has definitely been active in his attempts to rebuild the Leafs on the fly and it appears that there is more talent on hand now than when he arrived in Toronto in 2008, but he still has a busy summer ahead if he's finally going to end the franchise's longest playoff drought, now at six years and counting.
Brian Burke/Ron Wilson
It's easy enough to focus on the things that Phil Kessel isn't -- consistent, physical, sound defensively -- but any of his shortcomings shouldn't obscure his ability to put the puck in the net. He's scored at least 30 goals in three straight seasons, a feat accomplished by eight other NHLers in that span.
Kessel does go through some dry spells as a scorer, and he doesn't finish at an exceptional rate (among 30-goal scorers last season, only Alexander Ovechkin scored on fewer than Kessel's 9.8% of his shots on goal), but he's a high-volume shooter; his 325 shots on goal ranked fourth in the league and as long as he's getting the opportunity to get the puck on net, a certain amount are destined to go in.
With a better playmaking centre, Kessel would figure to be even more dangerous. His most common linemates in five-on-five play (according to www.dobberhockey.com) were Tyler Bozak at centre and then a revolving door of wingers including Joffrey Lupul, Joey Crabb, Kris Versteeg, Nazem Kadri and Colby Armstrong.
With a bona fide setup man, Kessel might be worthy of the 40-goal expectations that have been placed on him, but in the meantime, 30-plus isn't bad.
Throughout the entire league, few players were as pleasantly surprising as Mikhail Grabovski was for the Leafs last season. Coming off an injury-plagued 2009-2010, Grabovski matured both off and on the ice, becoming a father and providing consistent production and shockingly reliable two-way play.
Grabovski is going into the final year of his contract, which puts the Leafs in a tricky spot. Is he the player they saw in 2010-2011, or will that stand out as the best year in what has already been an up-and-down career?
Goal-scoring doesn't tell the whole story of Nikolai Kulemin's game, by a long shot, but it says something when his 24 even-strength goals ties him with the likes of Patrick Marleau and Matt Duchene.
A terrific all-around winger, Kulemin plays well in all zones and the 24-year-old should be considered a building block piece for a Maple Leafs team that could use more players that provide the consistent production that Kulemin does.
In some ways, Joffrey Lupul and his hefty salary were considered throw-ins as part of the Francois Beauchemin trade, but Lupul showed that, when healthy, he can still put the puck in the net, scoring nine times in 28 games with the Maple Leafs.
If he can have a good summer of training, unlike last year when he was recovering from back surgery, Lupul should be primed for a strong season in 2011-2012 but, at the very least, he gives the Maple Leafs a legitimate 20-goal threat, having reached that milestone three times in seven seasons (and on pace for it in two other injury-marred campaigns).
Previously-durable Colby Armstrong missed 32 games with a variety of maladies, including finger and foot injuries, but generally played well when he was healthy and the Leafs were better with him in the lineup. He's expensive as third-liners go, but a valuable contributor nonetheless.
Any hopes that Nazem Kadri would immediately save the Leafs' franchise were doused in cold water when he was demoted to the American Hockey League, twice.
In the long run, that may prove beneficial, as Kadri scored 41 points in 44 games with the Marlies. While his totals in the NHL were modest (three goals, 12 points in 29 games), Kadri has the offensive creativity to help the cause offensively.
He may not be strong enough to handle the rigors of playing centre, and the defensive responsibility that comes with playing the middle, but a spot on the wing could be where he blossoms.
Mike Brown is a bruising fourth-line winger, who will hit and fight, and played a career-high 10:06 per game last season, scoring a career-best eight points. There's no mystery to what he'll provide, but he's carved out a niche on Burke's teams, going from Vancouver to Anaheim to Toronto in his four-year NHL career.
Enforcer Colton Orr missed the last 36 games of the regular season with a concussion, not exactly the kind of issue that can be ignored by someone who ostensibly makes a living punching others, and being punched, in the head.
When healthy, Orr's fulfilled the policeman's role well; he takes on heavyweights and doesn't play a lot of minutes, but marginal on-ice contributions (14 shots on goal in 46 games last season, for example) might suggest that his presence in the lineup doesn't make a great deal of difference to the team's fortunes.
After Atlanta decided to walk away from Clarke MacArthur's arbitration award last summer, the Leafs swooped in and got a bargain. MacArthur rewarded Toronto's investment by finishing with a career-high 62 points, good enough for second on the team.
MacArthur was a perfect fit with linemates Grabovski and Kulemin, so there figures to be every effort to get him re-signed, but the deal will likely involve some give-and-take. After getting burned last summer, MacArthur would figure (deservedly) to want to capitalize on his breakthrough season.
After scoring 27 points in 37 games as a rookie in 2009-2010, Tyler Bozak was installed as the Leafs' number one centre to start last season and he simply wasn't ready for that role.
Bozak's a good skater who possesses some offensive skill, but might be better suited to a third-line role, where offence isn't going to be his primary responsibility and he might see more favourable matchups.
A number of forwards that are headed for unrestricted free agency got a chance to show what they could do for the Leafs and while Joey Crabb, Darryl Boyce and Tim Brent played well enough, none are impact players, so they can either be re-signed or replaced if they land better offers elsewhere.
Since Toronto effectively has one real glaring need up front, and that is a number one centre, any move to acquire one will be a blockbuster. If they can't sign an unrestricted free agent like Brad Richards or Jussi Jokinen, then GM Brian Burke could try to trade for one, whether it's Paul Stastny, Stephen Weiss, Jeff Carter or any other player with the skill level to handle the role.
Failing those solutions, and an unlikely approach given Burke's stance on offer sheets, the Leafs could try to hit a home run by targeting a restricted free agent like Steven Stamkos, Zach Parise or Brandon Dubinsky. Parise isn't a centre and Dubinsky has played more on the wing in recent seasons, but any of the three would be an impressive addition to the Leafs' top six forwards.
There are several names listed here and it's entirely possible that the Leafs won't end up with any of them, but they have the financial flexibility (ie. cap room) and wherewhithal to acquire a first-line centre.
Depth forwards, like Tim Brent and Darryl Boyce, could remain with the club in fourth-line roles, but the Leafs might also want to seek out a free agent checker like Vernon Fiddler, Sean Bergenheim or Ryan Jones for the third line.
Midway through the 2010-2011 season, it was starting to look like the Maple Leafs had acquired little more than a salary albatross as Dion Phaneuf wasn't producing offensively (11 points in his first 33 games) and was a liability defensively (minus-7), but then the tide turned and Phaneuf started playing like the Phaneuf that the Leafs thought they were getting when they made the trade with Calgary.
From February 1 through the end of the season, Phaneuf had 19 points and was plus-6 in 33 games, playing more than 26 minutes per game. If second half Phaneuf is what Toronto can look forward to in future seasons, then the price paid for Phaneuf will be money well-spent.
On the other hand, there is legitimate reason to be concerned about Mike Komisarek, who has done precious little in his first two seasons in Toronto to justify his hefty free agent contract.
While Komisarek saw regular ice time (18:01 per game) in November, after that he was pretty much a spare part, falling between 10 and 15 minutes most nights.
A fresh start somewhere else might be the best thing for Komisarek, as he attempts to recapture the shutdown form he showed in Montreal, but it could be difficult to find a taker willing to pay $13.5-million over three years for an underachieving defenceman, so maybe the Leafs can make the most out of it and get Komisarek at least into a serviceable role on the third pairing that might help his confidence build.
The Leafs hope that Keith Aulie will be able to step into a shutdown role. At 6-foot-6, Aulie certainly has the size and strength for the job and he skates very well for a big man, so the tools are there, but he also had the worst five-on-five shot differential per 60 minutes (according to www.behindthenet.ca) of any Leafs player last season, so the massive 21-year-old still may need to grow into the role.
To his credit, Aulie was better after getting recalled in February, playing more than 21 minutes a night and finishing with a plus-4 rating in his last 28 games.
Brett Lebda struggled in his first season with the Maple Leafs, finishing at minus-14 in 41 games, despite playing a meagre 13:20 per game. No longer protected by the strong supporting cast in Detroit, Lebda was exposed far too frequently and would have to be significantly better next season.
The question is, will the Leafs be motivated to give Lebda that chance, or would it be easier to bury his salary in the AHL or buy him out altogether?
A slow start to last season left Carl Gunnarsson in a relatively insignificant role for the first half of the year, but with a better opportunity in the second half, Gunnarsson finished strong, playing more than 24 minutes per game in March and April.
Though he has good size, Gunnarsson is not physical, but he can skate, handles the puck, makes good passes and will block shots, so there certainly ought to be a regular role for him on the Toronto blueline; will it be in the top four or top six?
Jeff Finger is likely good enough to have a job in the NHL, just not at a $3.5-million cap hit, so he's either a candidate for a buyout or to be left in the AHL again next season. With one year left on his deal, it's possible Finger might hold some appeal for a team trying to get up to the salary floor.
Luke Schenn took a step forward in his third NHL season, playing a career-high 22:22 per game while playing in all 82 games. Schenn's evolving into a prototypical shutdown defenceman, leading the Leafs in both hits and blocked shots, killing penalties and taking on the toughest defensive assignments.
Schenn also scored a career-high 22 points last season and that is a good indication that offence is not his strong suit and as long as expectations are focused on his defensive efforts, he could very well become the Leafs' version of Robyn Regehr, Chris Phillips or Marc Staal.
With Tomas Kaberle gone, the Maple Leafs may need to bring in a capable puck-moving defenceman. Certainly there will be high-end free agent available, but the Leafs might be able to find value in the likes of Sami Salo or Anton Babchuk if they're not prepared to pay top dollar for Joni Pitkanen, James Wisniewski or Christian Ehrhoff.
Again, the restricted free agent market could be tantalizing, with Drew Doughty, Keith Yandle and Shea Weber among the highest-profile blueliners, but as much as these players would help any team, it would require a change in tactics for the Leafs to go after restricted free agents.
Jonas Gustavsson arrived amid much fanfare in 2009-2010, but the results haven't been there and ongoing health issues have made it difficult for him to reach his potential.
As the only goaltender signed for next season, Gustavsson could have shot in the backup role, but he hasn't shown enough yet to indicate that he's a sure bet for the NHL roster.
An afterthought in the Maple Leafs' goaltending competition going into 2010-2011, James Reimer was a revelation. His numbers did slip after his exceptional start (.929 save percentage in first 18 games, .912 in next 18 games), but Reimer has a leg up on the starting job for next season.
34-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere is winding down his career, having not recorded a save percentage above .907 in any of the last three seasons. He's certainly capable of playing in a backup role, and would make sense in that role behind a young up-and-coming starter, but his days as a No. 1 are in the rearview mirror.
Depending on the health of Gustavsson, the Maple Leafs may need to go looking for a veteran goaltender to support Reimer. It's possible that the Leafs could target Ilya Bryzgalov, who played for Burke in Anaheim, but that money would likely be better spent on improvements to other parts of the Maple Leafs roster.
||10-31-41,+21, 41 GP
||20-22-42,-14, 75 GP
||31-38-69,+29, 67 GP
||49-43-92,+20, 66 GP
||2.71 GAA, .911 SV%, 30 GP
||Owen Sound (OHL)
||10-44-54,+17, 62 GP
||1-4-5, even, 13 GP
||2.33 GAA, .924 SV%, 33 GP
||5-10-15,-4, 43 GP
||North Dakota (WCHA)
||36-24-60,+26, 44 GP
Picked up from Anaheim in the Francois Beauchemin trade, Jake Gardiner is a brilliant skater who surprised with his offensive development, scoring a point-per-game in his junior season at Wisconsin.
Gardiner fared well with the Marlies late in the season too, so he may not be too far from challenging for a spot, but a full year in the AHL would likely be good for the 20-year-old's development.
Brought over from Boston in exchange for Tomas Kaberle, Joe Colborne was the 16th overall pick in 2008. Last season was his first as a pro and he was much better with the Marlies (16 points, plus-2 in 20 games) than he had been with Providence (26 points- minus-16 in 55 games).
Once he fills out, 21-year-old Colborne has the size and skill to be a big playmaking centre, but probably needs another year of seasoning before he can be reasonably expected to push for a regular job in the NHL.
A second-round pick last summer, Brad Ross has been making his name in the Western Hockey League as a premier agitator, scoring 137 points and racking up 374 penalty minutes in 138 games over the last two seasons.
Ideally, Ross will be able to score in the NHL too, but if not, his abrasive style should be able to secure him a role at some point.
Drafted in the third round last summer, Greg McKegg has been an effective offensive player in the OHL the last two years, scoring 49 goals last season, so he's probably ready for a bigger challenge, but he's not even 19 yet, so the Leafs can be patient and let him work on his all-around game.
Finnish goaltender Jussi Rynnas wasn't very consistent in his first season in North America and also dealt with a broken finger that cost him some playing time. Even so, a .911 save percentage is a good enough indication that the soon-to-be 24-year-old is worth keeping in the prospect mix.
Defenceman Jesse Blacker was a second-round pick in 2009, has progressed steadily throughout his junior career and is going to his second career Memorial Cup this year with Owen Sound (he played with Windsor in 2009). A couple years of development in the AHL could have him ready for The Show.
A sports hernia sabotaged Luca Caputi's 2010-2011 season, limiting him to 20 AHL and NHL games combined. The 22-year-old has skills and, if he fills out, the size to make it work, but he's going to be in a battle for a spot with the Leafs.
After Reimer's sudden emergence last season, Ben Scrivens can hardly be overlooked in the Maple Leafs' goaltending picture just because he started in the ECHL last season.
The Cornell grad excelled even after earning his promotion to the AHL. He'll still have to battle for playing time, however, as the Leafs continue to stockpile goaltending talent, including their signing of Swedish prospect Mark Owuya.
Jerry D'Amigo was largley overmatched in the AHL as a 19-year-old, prompting the Leafs to send him back to junior late in the year and he scored 28 points and was plus-11 in 21 games with the Kitchener Rangers. He should be much better prepared for the AHL next season, so he can prove that his scoring touch translates to the pro game.
Another player who will try to take his scoring touch with him to the pros, Matt Frattin sniped 36 goals in 44 games as a senior at North Dakota, so he's intriguing, but he also scored 28 goals in 109 games through his first three years with the Fighting Sioux. It's reasonable to expect that the 23-year-old may need some time to adjust to the pro game.
The Leafs have some other prospects that will bear watching.
Last summer's seventh-round pick, Josh Nicholls had 87 points and was plus-50 in 71 games for Saskatoon and has made significant strides in each of his WHL seasons.
24-year-old defenceman Simon Gysbers had a decent first season as a pro, scoring 31 points in 60 games for the Marlies, while Tyler Brenner is a scorer that the Leafs signed out of RPI after he scored 26 goals in 37 games in his junior year.
Here is a look at a possible roster for next season, on www.capgeek.com, including a few significant additions that the Leafs can afford: http://bit.ly/kcse1j
25th - Matt Puempel, Boone Jenner, Joe Morrow
28th - Scott Mayfield, Daniel Catenacci, Rocco Grimaldi
According to www.capgeek.com, the Maple Leafs have approximately $41.7M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 15 players.
Needs: First-line centre, three checking forwards, top four defenceman.
What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: Two top six forwards, two top nine forwards.
They added: Clarke MacArthur, Kris Versteeg, Colby Armstrong, Tim Brent, Mike Brown.
TRADE MARKET Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Mike Komisarek, Brett Lebda, Jeff Finger, two first-round picks.
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 on Facebook.