With the month of August now nearing the halfway point, hockey fans all across North America are anxiously awaiting the return of the National Hockey League (assuming that there will be a 2012-2013 season at all).
No fans are more eager to put last year behind them, however, than those who support the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After (once again) seeing their team race out to a dominant start to last year’s campaign, hearts throughout Leafs Nation were broken yet again as the Toronto Maple Leafs put forward one of the worst displays to wrap up a season in franchise history.
Now fans seem to be getting a bit more optimistic as the start of the 2012-2013 season approaches.
And why shouldn’t they?
This team has shown it has the ability to compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (they were in the hunt for well over half of last season), and their starting netminder will now have had a full offseason to recover from a head injury that seemed to nag at him for just about every game he played last season.
At first glance, it appears as though the Toronto Maple Leafs should be ready to storm back this season and claim one of the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff positions.
Unfortunately, such an outcome will be a tough one to attain for this Maple Leafs squad.
Consider the fact that the front office team did virtually nothing to improve the roster this offseason (I’m looking at you Brian Burke), while other teams (who were already ahead of the Leafs in the standings) addressed a good portion of their needs.
Tampa Bay, for instance, solidified their backend by dealing for up-and-coming goaltender Anders Lindback and signing veteran defensemen Matt Carle and Sami Salo.
Carolina dealt for Jordan Staal and signed the high-risk-high-reward winger Alex Semin. They were also able to lockup their top youngster in Jeff Skinner for the forseeable future.
Passing those two teams will be a tough enough task for Toronto, let alone finding a way to leapfrog an additional three teams.
This will become especially hard to do now that just about every team in the NHL knows Toronto’s two glaring holes; a first line center and consistent starting goalie.
One of those problems could be solved fairly easily if James Reimer can show he has fully recovered from his concussion and post-concussion symptoms.
The other, however, must be fixed through a trade sometime during the season, or teams will have a much easier time shutting down guys like Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul.
In fact, Lupul is another question mark himself.
Will he finally be able to stay healthy for a full season and maintain the pace he put up last year?
Or will he once again prove to be a fragile winger who is easily sidelined?
If the latter is the case, the Leafs could be looking at a situation where they once again rely heavily on Phil Kessel to provide the bulk of the offense for long stretches of time.
While there are many positive things happening in Toronto right now, the competition in the East continues to get better, while the Leafs seem to be stuck in neutral.
That, combined with all the questions still surrounding this team make it more likely than not that the Leafs will miss out on the playoffs yet again, making for another long offseason in 2013.