TORONTO - Matthew Lombardi is one among many Leafs who would like to forget last season.
"There's no excuse really," Lombardi said of the 2011-2012 campaign. "I just wasn't myself for a while. It is what it is. It's in the past for me. I can't change the way things went and how things happened, but I can obviously work to make things work out this year and have a positive outlook on things."
Many question marks hover around the Leafs roster as the franchise looks to erase a seven-year playoff drought. Some of those respective uncertainties will be answered in how (and if) a number of players can bounce back from substandard seasons a year ago. It's those questions and the unknowingness of their answers which make Toronto a precarious playoff contender heading into this 48-game season.
Few, if any, expected Lombardi to even play last year, let alone play on opening night as he did against Montreal. Sidelined with a concussion for 80 games a year prior, the Montreal native raced back to join the Leafs last fall - he didn't start skating until August - and was never able to catch up.
He posted a mere 18 points and minus-19 rating in 66 games - both career-lows - two years after totaling 19 goals and 53 points with the Coyotes.
With plenty of speed at his disposal and good hockey smarts, Lombardi is a solid candidate to rebound in some capacity under Randy Carlyle this season. "I definitely want to," said Lombardi of rediscovering the two-way game which made him successful in Phoenix and Calgary. "That's my goal. I'm obviously not satisfied with how things played out last year, with the way things fell with the team. I feel like I can be a better player. I'm worried about getting back to the player I was and contributing and helping this team."
Other candidates who are looking to rebound this season:
Tim Connolly: Connolly had his worst offensive showing since 2002-2003, posting only 36 points and a minus-14 rating in 70 games. While he showed some effectiveness as a checker and penalty killer under Carlyle, he did not prove at all worthy of the hefty investment (two years, $9.5 million) the Leafs made in him two summers ago. "We're looking for a rebound year from Tim Connolly," said Carlyle. "We've had conversations with him through the course of the summer and he's indicated to us that he'd like us to enlighten in a few of the areas [lacking] so we enlightened [him]. We told him what our expectations are. We told him what he can expect from us." It was only two years ago that Connolly had 65 points in a 73-game campaign for the Sabres, numbers that seem far off from the present. His offensive days could just be behind him, but he figures to get a chance under Carlyle and could prove at the very least, a solid contributor in an as yet undefined role.
James Reimer: Reimer looks different this winter and for good reason. He lost 10-15 pounds in the extended offseason - down under 210 at this point in January - and claims to feel much lighter (and vastly better) on the ice as a result. His first full season in the NHL was an all-factory nightmare with injuries and performances issues stalling an otherwise promising future. Reimer hasn't played a game since late March so rust and any lingering confidence effects from last year could prove an early obstacle. Barring a trade for Roberto Luongo, he'll compete with Ben Scrivens to prove himself a capable starter again. "If he stops the puck we'll be happy," said Carlyle.
Nikolai Kulemin: A year after he scored 30 goals, Kulemin was an offensive bust, totaling seven markers in 70 games. While he's unlikely to ever repeat the breakout campaign of 2010-2011, he should be a strong candidate to bounce back this season, a product of some bad luck last year. Kulemin shot blanks more often not in a year that ended in injury (finger), posting a feeble shooting percentage of 6.5 per cent on 107 shots. In the three seasons prior to that, the 26-year-old shot the puck at about 13 per cent, meaning he's likely due for some evening out in this season. Kulemin is a heady defensive player and will thus remain effective in any regard.
Cody Franson: His first season in Toronto was a total disappointment, both for player and organization. He played in only 57 games, posting five goals and 21 points, bouncing in and out of the lineup while rarely, if ever, finding the trust of Ron Wilson. Franson did have one promising stretch though, totaling 16 points and a plus-8 rating in the December and January months. With Nashville, the 25-year-old proved capable as a sixth defenceman, but was intent on establishing himself further with more opportunity as a Leaf. "He's a big guy who can move the puck, but he really didn't get the opportunity last year that he would have liked," said Carlyle. "[H]e's going to have to earn it. This is all about earning minutes." Inked to a one-year deal at the outset of training camp, Franson will be primed to start anew under Carlyle and should get an opportunity to do so.
Mike Komisarek: The three-year Toronto experience has been at best, forgettable for Komisarek. His career now hangs at a major fork in the road. With the looming possibility of a buyout this summer - a fact he is well aware of - Komisarek likely has one final chance to stick with the Leafs and establish his worth in the current NHL. Operating with a fresh start of sorts under Carlyle, Komisarek has trimmed down - between 10-15 pounds - in hopes of proving lighter in his movements and capabilities on the ice. The rugged game that so defined his game in Montreal has edged increasingly downward in Toronto, colluding with an obvious loss of confidence. If he can prove a stable presence defensively and inject some toughness, Komisarek might be able to reset his career.
John-Michael Liles: It was a tale of two seasons for the 32-year-old in 2011-2012. There was his sturdy performance before the injury and his disarming struggle afterward. Liles was charging toward a career year with 21 points in 34 games before going down with a concussion in late December. After a 16-game absence, he returned but something was clearly missing; he posted a miniscule six points and disastrous minus-16 rating in 32 games. The explanation was simple and increasingly common; Liles had real trouble with the post-concussion haze often hitting players when they return to the ice after a lengthy chunk of time off (save for Sidney Crosby). With a smart and steady skill-set, the Indiana native is a good candidate for rebound this season.