For the past few seasons, fantasy leagues everywhere have largely avoided the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, some guys were certainly drafted in all but the shallowest of leagues (Kessel, Kaberle) and some were probably taken on a dice roll (Grabovski, Stajan, Ponikarovsky). Heck, some guys probably bounced between waivers and rosters throughout the year (Hagman, Gunnarsson, Gustavsson).
For the most part however the Leafs were treated as though they had pox - they were to be avoided at all costs.
The reasons for this abound; not enough talent, a coach that shuffles lines regularly and goaltending that meant +/- that could rival the temperatures of Yukon winters. Having said this, the seasons are starting to change in Leafland.
Gone are the top-line-minute-eaters like Stajan and to a lesser extent Ponikarovsky. These players have been replaced with youngblood that have the chance to put up some very respectable fantasy numbers. Let's have a look at some of the guys to watch for.
Phil Kessel: A no-brainer for all fantasy leagues, Kessel does a lot of things that leagues measure (Goals, Assists, Shots) and does them from a relatively thin position (Winger). At 22 years old he should be kept in most keeper formats as his numbers should improve as the team does and as his natural progression takes hold. Don't forget, Kessel missed some significant development time during his bout with cancer so in truth, he's a little younger in his development than even his age would imply.
Tomas Kaberle: In one year pools, Kaberle is a defenseman to be coveted. His point and powerplay point totals are consistently among the top in the NHL and in a contract year he should be drafted among the top 15 defensemen, despite his poor +/- totals. Expect even this category to improve as the Leaf goaltending wont be the albatross that it was last season.
Dion Phaneuf: Coming off a down season last year and a downward trend over the past few, Dion will look to rebound this year. Tough to say whether fantasy owners are still keeping him at this point but if they aren't, he might make them regret it. His shot totals are to be envied and his PIMs are reliably high. Look for a return to form in goals this year, particularly the longer Tomas Kaberle stays in Toronto. A bounce-back in assists may not be likely in the short-term as the Leafs' offense will look to return to form and will likely see some fits and spurts.
Kris Versteeg: Versteeg has a very real opportunity to make some noise in Toronto. Playing alongside Kessel on a top unit or acting as the go-to guy on a second unit will mean more chances than he ever saw on Chicago's third line. He'll be facing tougher checking units but he should be up to the challenge. Versteeg's real improvement may come in the powerplay point department where Kessel has struggled to find success as a Leaf. Look for Versteeg to be one of the primary options on the Leafs powerplay unit this year. Couple this with serviceable PIMs and you've got yourself a very useful winger.
Tyler Bozak: Leaf fans know that Bozak was on a 60 point pace last season. In this, his second year, Bozak could go one of two ways; he could continue to develop as a top-six NHL centre or he could fall victim to the sophomore slump and frustrate fantasy owners who took a chance. The knock on Bozak is always going to be his peripheral numbers so it really matters what your league measures. He doesn't shoot enough and takes almost no penalties but his point totals will be tough to ignore. If you're looking for a guy to fill assists from the centre slot, I'd urge you not to look past Bozak. If you have a deep keeper format that relies primarily on points-based statistics then he may not be a bad pickup here either. He's a high-risk player but the potential payoff playing alongside Phil Kessel might be worth that risk.
Jonas Gustavsson: It's tough to peg the Monster's fantasy value. In one year leagues, you're probably better off taking a pass as his time share with Giguere will prove to be frustrating at times. If you're looking longterm then the big Swede might be tough to ignore. The best goalie coach in the league and a GM that is committed to spending big dollars on his defense means that Gustavsson should find himself well-insulated once the team's defense gels and he has solidified his role as number one in Toronto.
Carl Gunnarsson: Gunnarsson is the heir-apparent once Kaberle leaves. He was among the team leaders in ice-time and his puck-moving abilities compliment Phaneuf's (over)zealous play and heavy shot. His powerplay numbers could be very impressive if he were to get top pairing duties. I'm not drafting Gunnarsson, but the second Kaberle gets hurt or traded you'd better believe I'll be flipping through the waiver wire.
Nikolai Kulemin: I'm begging you Leaf fans - do not draft Nikolai Kulemin. He's a heck of a player and does a lot of things well but from a fantasy perspective, he just isn't worth it. He's about a 0.5 point per game winger who doesn't shoot much, doesn't take many penalties and sees almost no time on the powerplay. For all the things he does in real hockey, he isn't a valuable fantasy asset.
Mikhail Grabovski: Don't lose sight of this guy in your draft. Because he's a centre and was hurt for a great deal of the year last season he might stick around to the late rounds but I'd urge you not to let him fall too far. Grabovski should put up some strong point numbers this year as his health is no longer a question and his linemates will have improved from a year ago. Add to this the potential that he sees enough time on the wing to give him Winger eligibility once Kadri starts getting second-scoring minutes and you've got a useful fantasy asset. Not to mention the fact that he's been known to fly off the handle and pick up a misconduct here or there. If Bozak falls prey to the sophomore slump, Grabbo will be next in line to pick up his slack.
Nazem Kadri: Who the hell knows? He may be a Leaf, he may be a Marlie - at this point it's too soon to tell. Even if he were to make the roster, it's difficult to say how well his skills would translate. If you're in a deep keeper format, this guy has all the skills to get the job done and his potential performance in the NHL has been likened to Simon Gagne (except he'll take penalties too). I'm not touching him in a one year pool during the draft, though I wouldn't preclude the possibility of Kadri seeing some time on my roster at times during the season. If you're in a fantasy re-build Kadri could be a guy to keep an eye on as the season wears on.
Thus concludes my look at the Leafs' fantasy potential this season. Did I miss something? Is there a guy you'd like to hear my musings on? Are there categories that your league measures that I ignored? Toss it in the comments section and I'll try to address it. If you're smarter than me and I can't, I'll give you a gold-star sticker. If you want more projections on what kind of totals you might be able to expect from the Leafs this year, check out Yakov Mironov's Leaf Player Profiles.
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