Remember the joy of having your favorite team in the playoffs? You do? Oh. What does it feel like?
I guess that's my way of saying it's been a while for Leaf fans. I'm on record as saying that I think the Leafs will be a team that competes for a playoff spot this year and I've been called crazy - or worse - for having said it.
Having said this, I'm not crazy. I understand that a lot of things will have to go our way for this to work out. Since we have a strong affinity for lists here at BCP, here's a list of the top 8 things that will have to happen for the Toronto Maple Leafs to finish in the top 8 in the Eastern Conference.
1) Phil Kessel will have to continue developing - Last season, despite its being shortened by injury, was a good one for Phil the Thrill. His 30 goals and 55 points both led the team and he showed that he didn't need Marc Savard to produce at a high level. For the Leafs to compete this year, Kessel will have to score 35 or more and continue to lead the team's attack.
2) Our defence will have to be better. Much better - Sloppy in-zone coverage and getting caught on the pinch were the stories of the year for last season's blueline. With more time to gel, a healthy Mike Komisarek and a non-sophomore Luke Schenn our defence should be better this year and it will have to be.
3) Goaltending - Vesa Toskala was a disaster of Raycroft-esque proportions. These two goalies had either one good season in the case of Raycroft, or played well as an NHL backup, in the case of Toskala. Neither had the credentials of a guy like Giguere. Admittedly, Giguere lost his job fair and square to Jonas Hiller last season and his contract is far higher than it ought to be, but Giggy will be a big improvement over Toskala and may even find himself among the league leaders in save percentage by season's end.
4) A decent second line - Ron Wilson struggled last year to find a unit that could gel together. He found his first line late in the year in Kessel, Kulemin and Bozak but never really established a sound second line. This year should be different as the Leafs have seen some success skating Kessel with Versteeg and Bozak while Kulemin and Grabovski have put together some solid performances. Better balance in the top six will mean less pressure on Phil Kessel and more goals against teams with strong checking lines.
5) A strong checking line - Defensively, our forwards were as much to blame as our blueline for the goals against last year. We didn't have a line that even resembled a shut down line. This year, Sjostrom and Armstrong have the potential to be the guys that hold the opposition's scoring line in check. Armstrong will drive star players nuts and Sjostrom's positioning in the defensive zone has made him a great penalty killer. This line's success, perhaps more than any other, will decide where the Leafs are come trade deadline time in March.
6) Penalty kill - Our penalty kill was historically awful last season. Ron Wilson has always had good penalty killing teams and this pre-season has seen some promising performances by that unit. In acquiring Sjostrom and Versteeg we've added the personnel to be successful on the PK so it will be up to the coach to make it work. If we can get ourselves to the middle of the pack, it will go a long way towards making up the points we'll need to finish in the conference's top half.
7) Power play - While it wasn't as disasterous as the PK, our power play was pretty abysmal last season. For all of his success at even strength, Phil Kessel had a tough time on the PP. The additions of Versteeg and Phaneuf should help in this regard and the fact that we didn't get rid of Kaberle is a plus here more than anywhere. While we wont be anywhere near as proficient as Washington, we should certainly be better than last season.
8) Development - We're one of the youngest teams in the league. What we need, maybe above all else, is for one of our prospects to really break out and give us more than what we expect from him. At the moment, Luca Caputi looks to be that guy. Don't write-off the Marcel Muellers or Jerry D'Amigos of this world either. I don't know who it will be and frankly I don't care, but someone needs to show me something. Despite his poor play in the pre-season and his pending demotion to the AHL, Nazem Kadri can still come up at the midway point and make a significant contribution to this team if he gets his head screwed on properly. The fact of the matter is that we have a lot of prospects and having one of them step up to be a worthy top-six forward is far from a stretch and it's something that would dramatically improve the team.