Having missed the playoffs for 8 consecutive seasons, you might think that a playoff berth would mean fewer offseason changes but you'd be wrong. With some key pieces shipped out of town, some big tickets handed out to other highly sought after players, this year's Leafs have the same frame with a different finish.
With all the roster changes, the development of some key prospects, and a coach with a little more familiarity with the returning players, we thought that we'd make our best guesses at what this team will look like headed into the 2013-'14 season.
Out: Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski, Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin, Mike Kostka, Mike Komisarek, Leo Komarov
At first glance, it doesn't look like the Leafs lost much in the way of production. Grabovski (16), MacArthur (20), and Frattin (13) all finished outside the top-7 in scoring on last year's team. What these numbers don't show is that all three of these players had a higher O-zone finish than O-zone start, suggesting they were all pushing play in the right direction. Of the returning Leafs, only Nazem Kadri and Jay McClement can make that claim which leads to the inevitable question, "who is going to do the heavy lifting?"
In: Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, TJ Brennan, Jonathan Bernier
The Leafs hope that the answer to that question will, in part, be Dave Bolland. Bolland's advanced stats don't suggest that he's going to be a possession monster by any stretch but the Leafs think that he's the ideal third line centre.
Clarkson is the powerforward that the Leafs haven't had since time immemorial. He shoots a ton, he fights, he scores his share, and he pushes the play to the offensive zone. What you also get, however, is a career shooting percentage under 10. What should Leafs fans expect? A physically dominating puck-hog who will score but whose linemates probably wont.
Whether Bernier is better than Reimer is something I'm highly sceptical of but he's certainly an improvement over Scrivens and at worst, he'll provide the Leafs with the injury insurance they may very well need.
Young Blood: Morgan Rielly, Stuart Percy, Jesse Blacker, Jerry D'Amigo, Carter Ashton, Petter Granberg
One of the benefits of last year's lockout is that I got to watch a lot of CHL and AHL games with my new-found spare time. Morgan Rielly was the obvious standout among Leafs prospects but the team has been overly cautious with its prospects since Luke Schenn. If you were to ice the best team possible, I truly feel that Rielly would be on the roster.
Percy, Blacker, and Granberg will all likely start the season in the AHL but don't be surprised if one of these three cracks the opening day lineup if the Leafs choose to toll Rielly's Entry Level Contract for one more year. While Blacker would seem to have the inside edge on the surface, Granberg has all the makings of being a shiny new toy; I'll give him the edge in camp.
Line 1: The more things change, the more Phil Kessel is stuck with a crummy centre. Expect Bozak, Kessel, and Lupul to stick together for another season.
Line 2: Assuming Kadri is signed, our best centre will be skating between a pair of giants in Clarkson and Van Riemsdyk. Clarkson will drive Kadri's on-ice shooting percentage way down from the heights it reached last season but this line will score its share of goals and if Van Riemsdyk is more 2012-13 than 2011-12, they'll be tenacious on the forecheck as well.
Line 3: McClement, Bolland, and Kulemin should form Randy Carlyle's ideal third line... on paper. While I love McClement's skill on the PK and think Kulemin is one of the more underappreciated players on the team, I think this line could be a real weak point at even strength if they play the kind of minutes Grabo et al played last season.
Line 4: Joe Colborne will centre Carter Ashton and a rotating cast of facepunchers. This is the year that Colborne gets his fulltime chance at an NHL roster spot and I actually think that he'll seize it. He wasn't the same player last season as he was the prior year before his wrist injury but Colborne has an intriguing skillset and his combination of size and skating should keep him in the league.
Pair 1: Dion Phaneuf will be back with a healthy Carl Gunnarsson and order will be restored to the Leafs' blueline. Look for Carlyle to scale back Phaneuf's minutes a bit from last year and expect a better product from our captain in a contract year.
Pair 2: Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson will form a defensive pair that the mainstream media will hate. When they make a mistake in coverage, people will jump all over them and cry for the coach to split them up and pair each of them with a defensive specialist. The reality is, these two will create so many more chances than they surrender that they'll be closer to a pair 1A than a pair 2.
Pair 3: Paul Ranger and Mark Fraser will be our third pairing of defense out of camp. Once Fraser's lack of defensive skill at 5-on-5 finally catches up to him, he'll be back with the Marlies but Carlyle isn't very quick to adapt and Fraser's plus/minus (or whatever the hell) from last year will keep him pencilled in to the lineup on opening day.
In The Crease: I have this sneaking suspicion that the team would rather see Bernier start opening day than Reimer and in sample sizes as small as a pre-season, I feel like it's a coinflip as to who outperforms who. With that in mind, I'm giving Bernier the nod, despite feeling that Reimer is the better puckstopper.
Morgan Rielly: As dynamic as Rielly is, he probably has to play mistake-free hockey to make this team out of camp and he isn't a mistake-free defenseman. He'll be better than half of our D who make the team but the mistakes he does make will probably cost him his spot on the team for this season.
Making Noise: Josh Leivo's work ethic and decision-making with the puck will have Leafs fans buzzing. As I mentioned earlier, I think Granberg will probably be called "the next Gunnarsson" several dozen times between now and opening day.
Those are my educated guesses -- how about yours?