Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take!
The pattern is getting a bit tiresome for Leaf fans.
High hopes before the season starts, followed by a disappointing fall, followed by a roster shake-up, followed by a strong finish despite the playoffs being out of reach.
Brian Burke is obviously not happy about the team's lack of success and Leaf Nation isn't too thrilled about it, either.
But if the team can pick up where they left off in April, get strong goaltending from James Reimer and a re-emergence of the old Dion Phaneuf, this year could be the one that bucks the trend in Leafland.
Here's what's in store for the Leafs in 2011-12.
Prospect Report: Jake Gardiner has shot up to the top of the Leafs prospect list with a strong September. Despite an already-crowded Leafs blue line, Gardiner has entered the discussion to break camp with the team based on his play throughout rookie camp and the preseason.
The Leafs also have a wealth of developing players in the AHL including Joe Colborne, Jussi Rynnas and Jesse Blacker. The Leafs also did well to pick twice in the first round for the first time since 1993, taking power forward Tyler Biggs and talented puck-mover Stuart Percy.
Breakout Player to Watch: Most teams believe that shutting down the Leafs begins with shutting down Phil Kessel. Last year, however, a different story emerged when the 'second line' of Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin clicked and started giving defenders fits.
Of those three, the most dangerous on both ends of the ice is Kulemin, who saw his points total jump by 21 and his goals total almost double with 31. Entering another contract year, Kulemin could become the type of two-way force the Leafs desperately need and could surpass Kessel as the team's most dangerous scorer.
Marquee Match-Up: Answering the Call - Nov. 12 vs. Ottawa. While the post-lockout years have not been kind to the Leafs, fans will have a reason to celebrate before the annual Hall of Fame game. Former captain Doug Gilmour - along with Leafs alumni Ed Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk - got the call this June and will come home to a heroes' welcome on induction weekend.
Other Dates to Watch: Oct. 20 at Boston - Bruins fans will undoubtedly let Kessel know who won the Cup - and maybe even the trade. Nov. 17 at Nashville - Franson and Lombardi may both take to the ice after the Predators dealt them this past summer. Dec. 16 at Buffalo - Connolly returns to the friendly confines of HSBC Arena to face Sabres fans for the first time in a Leafs uniform.
Reason to Get Excited: The talent is there for the Leafs to return to the playoffs, the only question is whether they can get their act together soon enough and stay healthy. The Leafs have suffered eight-game losing streaks early on in the past two seasons, so a solid start is key.
Connolly could prove to be a shrewd Plan B in light of the team's failure to land Brad Richards, but in order to help the team he'll have to manage better than last year's 68-game effort. If the team can get a healthy and productive season out of Connolly - along with Phaneuf, Lombardi, Joffrey Lupul and Colby Armstrong - they have the character and balance to keep up in the Eastern playoff hunt.
Home Hardware: Is 'the old Dion Phaneuf' back? After a tentative start and a lengthy injury layoff, Phaneuf racked up seven goals and 19 points from February onward last season. Entering his second year wearing the 'C', the Leafs need him to return to the form he showed as a Calder candidate and later as a Norris nominee for the current group to mount any kind of a charge.
Playing beside Aulie has given Phaneuf a steady partner to allow him to take the necessary risks to be an impact player on the ice. If he can put together an entire season playing at the same level with which he closed out the 2010-11 season, a return to the Norris discussion could well be in the cards for the Leafs captain.
On The Hot Seat: Leafs fans would love for Ron Wilson to be the man under the most pressure, but the harsh reality is that this season will live and die with James Reimer. ‘Optimus Reim' was a revelation down the stretch last year and played well at the Worlds. The result is that he's now the man in Toronto, for better or for worse. Burke kidded about cautioning Reimer about a Jim Carey-esque drop-off this summer, but rest assured that he wasn't laughing when he delivered the message.
With only the inconsistent and often-injured Jonas Gustavsson as the safety net, the onus is on Reimer to play at least as well as he did last March if the Leafs have any shot at the playoffs. While Wilson is under the gun, he can be replaced if the team doesn't produce. But if Reimer falters, the team will be left with a gaping hole in the crease and will very likely miss the playoffs for a seventh straight season.
It's Your! Call: Two and a half years into the Brian Burke era, are the Leafs on the winning track?
While he got a baptism by fire from fans and the media for the Kessel trade, he has made almost every trade since count, getting useful add-ons such as Aulie, Lupul and Franson.
The Leafs now have a roster full of quality NHLers and one of the league's youngest teams in addition to a pool of assets and prospects far deeper than just about any other Toronto squad in recent memory.
That said, the team is still without an elite go-to guy.
Kessel is capable of 30 goals per season. Phaneuf may one day return to form as a Norris nominee. The next wave of players - Kadri, Reimer, Colborne and so on - project to be solid NHLers, but none project to be dominant forces in the 'perennial award candidate' sense.
If this team is to succeed, it'll likely have to do so in its current incarnation.
So, has Burke done enough? If not, what cards does he possibly have left to play to make good on his promise of a brighter future for the team?