The Toronto Maple Leafs are the most inexcusably bad team in the NHL. Perhaps in all of sports. They haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967 or even played in it, and they have only rarely been competitive since then — they have won their division just once since 1963, and haven’t made the playoffs in six years.
That’s despite playing in the biggest city in the most rabid hockey country in the world, selling out every game, and never having issues with ownership. It should be unfair how good they are — like the Yankees on ice — but they have had a pathetic stink around them forever, and they consistently find ways to underachieve.
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No team is worthy of less respect, and no team is more deserving of all the contempt they get from fans of other teams. This is a bad, bad team. They may take small steps forward this year, but it is still hard to take them seriously. Let’s just say it as it is — this team sucks. They always have, and it’s quite possible that they always will.
Toronto Maple Leafs Offseason Moves
GM Brian Burke is a solid hockey mind, and he knows that things have to change dramatically this offseason. While he was unable to hit a home run despite a few big swings, he did add some useful pieces to slowly improve this team. The team was flat offensively, so his big move was to grab two centers — Tim Connolly as a free agent, and Matthew Lombardi via trade.
Connolly is the far bigger factor, and will likely start on the first line and try to get Phil Kessel to perform up to potential. Connolly is a playmaker, but he seems more like a natural second liner than a top man, and he will really have to find some nice chemistry to justify the fact that the team seems to have overpaid slightly for him. Lombardi missed 80 games last year with a concussion, so his impact is uncertain, and he tops out as a third liner.
Last year the defense was slow and ineffective — not a single regular starter ended with a plus rating. To try to change that they added John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson. The former Colorado Avalanche player (Liles) is a strong puck mover and power play performer, and is an upgrade. Franson was part of the Lombardi trade from Nashville. He’s only 24 and entering his third year, but he took a nice step forward last year and has solid mid-rotation potential.
2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL Outlook
The goaltender position seems to be an area of concern for this team yet again. Heading into last season they thought they had it figured out — a two-headed monster featuring J.S. Giguere and touted Swedish import Jonas Gustavsson. Neither guy was strong — Gustavsson was brutal with a 6-13-2 record and a 3.29 GAA — so the door was open for someone, and rookie James Reimer stepped through it.
Reimer made his debut in December, and ended up starting 35 games. His numbers were solid — a 20-10-5 record and a nice .921 save percentage. Now Reimer has to deal with the pressure of being the clear No. 1 — not easy in an intense media market like Toronto. Gustavsson was still under contract while Giguere was a free agent, so the Swede will be the backup.
I would not trade places with Phil Kessel for anything. He had a solid season last year, leading the team in goals and points. His problem, though, is that he faces impossible expectations because Burke got fleeced so badly in the trade that brought him from Toronto.
Toronto sent two first round picks and a second to Boston. One of those picks turned into the second overall choice, which was used on Tyler Seguin. Kessel will always face the Seguin comparisons, and unless he turns into the next Wayne Gretzky — which he won’t — he will be a focus point for the discontent of Leafs’ fans.
Connolly might be an upgrade for him as a linemate, but improvements will likely be incremental at this point. Really, the Kessel situation — the bad trade, the big contract, and the impossible expectations — is a microcosm of the issues with this franchise, and the reason why they are so hard to be positive about.
Winger Nazem Kadri is a player to watch. The seventh overall pick in 2009 is the top prospect in the organization, and the focus of a lot of hopes and dreams for fans. He played 29 games last year, and was expected to play his first full year this year. An MCL injury in training camp will delay his debut at least two weeks.
The bigger concern is that he didn’t look great in camp before the injury and may not have made the team right away even if he was healthy. He has a whole pile of upside, and he will be given every chance to succeed, but this team really needs Kadri to grow and develop as quickly as possible. The pressure will only intensify on him if he doesn’t start to shine soon. He was a stretch when picked seventh, and the team left higher ranked players — like Oilers left winger Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson — on the board when they took him.
2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs Schedule
The game that probably stands out most, at least early on, is a Dec. 16 trip to Buffalo. Tim Connolly will return to the building he played in for eight years. It’s always interesting to watch how fans treat a popular player returning for the first time.
Toronto Maple Leafs NHL Futures Odds (from Bodog)
Oddsmakers have installed the Leafs at 50/1 for Stanley Cup odds. Only seven teams are deemed to be less-likely winners. They are 28/1 to win the Eastern Conference.
2011-12 Toronto Maple Leafs Predictions
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but I don’t feel good about this team this year. If everything went perfectly well I suppose they could make the playoffs. That won’t happen, though.
They have issues in net, uncertainty on defense, and concerns about offensive depth. There are at least 10 teams better than the Leafs in the East, and that’s too much to overcome. The non-playoff streak will extend to seven years.
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