It's been a bit of a rollercoaster for Leaf fans this pre-season. If you were to take a poll of Leaf-Nation before the start of training camp asking what Leaf fans were most hoping to see in the pre-season, I think the number one response would have been some variation of 'a dominant Nazem Kadri'.
We didn't get that.
Kadri was at times awful, at times exciting but most often a non-factor during the pre-season - and that's ok. He's a kid. I'm sure when we drafted him that we didn't realistically expect him to have any more than a cup of coffee in the NHL by the end of this season and he's well above that developmental curve. He'll spend some time in the AHL, develop, and we'll see him again, more mature, by season's end.
Now that I've got my feelings on Kadri down, here are a few other things I saw during the pre-season:
You have to love Nikolai Kulemin - I don't want to talk about pre-season goal totals so, measurable production aside, you have to love the aptitude he's shown in the offensive zone. I was thrilled with the contract Burke signed him to in his RFA year and Kulemin is going to have the chance to prove he deserves a raise when that deal comes due in two years.
Mikhail Grabovski is ready - If you've watched the pre-season and were disappointed by Kadri's play, then Grabbo had to have taken some of the sting out. He has looked like every bit of the second line center we thought that he'd be when we re-signed him for nearly $3M per. He and Kulemin looked great together and between the two of them and the Versteeg - Bozak - Kessel unit our goal totals should be expected to rise this season.
Goaltending depth - Goaltending is a fickle position. No matter what you think you have, you really don't know until it has a chance to develop. We saw varying degrees of promise from Rynnas, Reimer, Scrivens and Gustavsson in the pre-season and the results may not have been what we expected based on the hype around some of these guys (most notably Rynnas). The critical thing to remember in Rynnas' case is that he has played his whole life on a larger rink with different angles and with fewer bodies in front of his net. All of these guys need time to develop before we can determine what they are so let's try not to get too high or too down on any of them.
Kessel is what we thought he was - Not much to say here really. If you're a Leaf fan you probably expected exactly what Kessel has given us this pre-season which is good to see. All he could really do was meet expectations or let us down and I'm glad it was the former rather than the latter.
Schenn's new bulk suits him - Luke has been throwing his body around in a way we haven't seen since he was a Rocket. He's played tough in the NHL but he's only occasionally been able to dominate games physically the way he did when he was a kid in the WHL. The weight he put on in the off season doesn't seem to have slowed him down any and it has certainly given him a little extra force to throw behind his physicality. We're expecting a bounce back in a big way for a bigger Schenn.
Versteeg is better than I thought he was - I don't really know what the feeling of most Leaf fans was on Versteeg coming into camp. I thought he'd be serviceable but I didn't expect him to show quite as much flash as he did in the pre-season. He was often described as the type of player that you could love and hate in the same game by Blackhawks fans and I can see how that would be the case. He carries the puck a lot and sometimes makes some pretty nasty turnovers but he is good in his own zone and can often carry the puck through the other teams' defense. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do against regular season rosters.
Jay Rosehill is an easy guy to cheer for - It's tough not to like the guy. He's done nothing but answer the bell all pre-season and has stuck up for his teammates at every turn. I don't see how we can keep him with both Orr and Brown looking like locks to be on the team but I hope Rosehill gets a shot sooner rather than later - he's earned it.
D'Amigo and Mueller - Both were ok in the pre-season after coming in with fairly high expectations. In D'Amigo's case, I think a full year of seasoning at the AHL level would do him some good as it looked like he just wasn't quite ready to play the men's game. Mueller was fairly strong but after seeing him skate with Brayden Irwin, I've come to the conclusion that Mueller will need a quicker center if he's going to be properly used. Offensively, Mueller is better at joining or following the rush than he is at leading it. He'll probably get some roster time this season when injuries hit and I expect he'll be one of the better Marlies this year.
This is the year we start to see what a Brian Burke team looks like. The dye has been cast wholly by him and the responsibility will be his to bear. Improvement from last season's team is all but a certainty but how much improvement is anyone's guess. I, for one, can't wait to get this show started.