As Rant Sports’ 30 in 30 series continues, today we take a look at the Toronto Maple Leafs and preview their 2012-2013 season.
The 2011-2012 Toronto Maple Leafs were a team that seemed to be clicking on all cylinders.
Over halfway into the NHL‘s regular season, the Leafs found themselves occupying one of the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff positions.
Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel were having career years and had found an incredible chemistry.
Young defenseman Jake Gardiner emerged as Toronto’s top prospect and was taking the league by storm.
The end to their post-lockout drought (2004-2005 lockout, that is) was in sight.
That’s where it all went wrong.
From losing Joffrey Lupul, to watching their goalies’ play disintegrate over the final 30 or so games of the season, nothing went right for the perennially-struggling Toronto Maple Leafs.
By the end of the season, Toronto found themselves holding a lottery pick in the draft instead of a ticket to the 2012 NHL postseason.
With such a miserable conclusion to the 2011-2012 regular season, both fans and experts expected Leafs’ GM Brian Burke to go out and make a few notable moves to improve his club.
The phrases “true number one center” and “better starting goaltender” are two that most Maple Leafs fans probably wish they’ll never have to hear again.
Instead, Burke decided to stand pat and continue to build through the draft and rely on his young players to continue to develop and eventually fill the voids on the roster.
Other than penalty kill specialist Jay McClement, Burke was virtually silent when it came to signing free agents.
On the trade front, Burke brought in James van Riemsdyk from the Philadelphia Flyers to add a power forward to the second line.
Whether or not that move works out remains to be seen, however, as van Riemsdyk has been a chronic underachiever, never really living up to the hype of being a second overall pick.
Toronto’s other key additions of the offseason were defensemen Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn, whom they drafted fifth and 35th overall respectively.
While Rielly was a shocking pick to some, considering Toronto’s abundance of young defensemen, he was the best available player when Toronto took to the podium.
As for Finn, he seemed to be a lock to go in the first round in June’s draft, but somehow fell to the 35th pick, where Burke was all too pleased to scoop him up.
When it comes to departing players, the Leafs didn’t send too many people packing, keeping their roster pretty much intact.
Other than Luke Schenn, who was the piece Toronto sent back to the Flyers for van Riemsdyk, the most notable departure of the offseason came yesterday, when the Leafs goalie coach, Francois Allaire made it clear that he would not be returning this season.
As of now, it appears as though Burke is confident that this Leafs squad can return to their early 2011-2012 form.
If there is a key to Toronto turning things around this season, it is undoubtedly netminder James Reimer.
After all, Burke’s own philosophy is to build a successful team from the back end out.
If Reimer can re-discover his pre-concussion game, there is a very good chance that the Maple Leafs will be playoff contenders after the end of the 2012-2013 season.
While finding a top-line center will require some work and most likely a trade of some sort from the front office, there is already a solution to the goaltending situation in Toronto.
It’s just a matter of Reimer fully recovering from his concussion and becoming a more aggressive goalie in his crease again.
Make no mistake, though, if Reimer cannot recover and Ben Scrivens still isn’t ready to assume full-time duties in the blue paint, the Leafs and their fans may be in for yet another long season.
About to Breakout
With so many young, up-and-coming players on their NHL and AHL rosters, Toronto is bound to have one prospect emerge as the next Jake Gardiner, if you will.
This season, watch for youngster Nazem Kadri.
While he has been somewhat of a disappointment in Toronto to date, Kadri still has some of the smoothest hands in the organization and just spent the entire summer with fitness guru (and former Toronto Maple Leaf) Gary Roberts.
Leafs fans shouldn’t be surprised if Kadri finally snags a roster spot and has a solid season with improved defensive play.
As it stands, this Maple Leafs team is the exact same as the one that finished the season in the cellar of the Eastern Conference.
While last year’s success may lead some fans to believe that Toronto can leap back into the postseason if a few players can stay healthy and return to form, I wouldn’t be so sure.
Look for Toronto to finish battling for a playoff spot, but come up short, finishing about 10th in the conference and getting the seventh or eighth pick in 2013′s entry draft.