Puck Daddy - NHL

Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...

Last Season (30-38-14, 74 points; fifth in the Northeast; 15th in the Eastern Conference)

It was two different seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2009-10: Before Dion (B.D.) and After Dion (A.D.)

By Oct. 31 B.D., the Leafs had already played themselves out of contention, having gone 1-7-4 for the opening month and giving Boston Bruins fans a reason to start planning for a vacation in Los Angeles around draft time.

But on Feb. 2 A.D., the Leafs shut out the Devils in defenseman Dion Phaneuf's(notes) debut and went 13-10-3 when he was in the lineup for the rest of the season. Brian Burke's aggressive 7-player deal with Calgary reshaped the Toronto roster and delivered the next Leafs captain. It was a game-changer.

The Phaneuf deal, and others, have given the Leafs some positive moment heading into this season, buoyed by a group of good young players ready to make an impact. Has Burke done enough? Can Ron Wilson lead this roster to the playoffs? Or are the Leafs going to simply be another tough team to play during the season but a conference also-ran in the end?

(Ed. Note: Before you ask: Yes, that is a Stanley Cup made out of meat, a.k.a. The Hamley Cup, a Puck Daddy classic from this contest. We could think of no better symbol of truculence.)

Key Subtractions

In the summer, perhaps the most significant name to move was Viktor Stalberg(notes), 24, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks with Philippe Paradis(notes) and Christopher DiDomenico for Kris Versteeg(notes).

Several Leafs were left unsigned on July 1, including Mike Van Ryn(notes) (who retired) and Garnet Exelby(notes). Wayne Primeau(notes) was brought back on a training camp tryout, but was cut.

New Additions

Versteeg was a cap casualty in Chicago that the Leafs gladly poached, as he has scored 20 or more goals in two straight seasons.

Was Colby Armstrong(notes) overpaid at 3 years and $3 million? Probably, but that's the market.

Clarke MacArthur's(notes) absurd $2.4 million arbitration award caused the Buffalo Sabres Atlanta Thrashers to walk away and the Leafs to walk up to him with a 1-year, $1.1 million contract. Brett Ledba signed a 2-year deal with the Leafs after patrolling the blue line for the Red Wings.

Mike Brown(notes) was acquired around draft time from the Anaheim Ducks for a fifth-round pick.

Wrestler That Best Personifies the Team

Tommy Dreamer. Not the most talented but better looking than most, he makes up for a lack of offensive skill by hitting you in the mouth with a barbed-wire 2-by-4.

Forwards

Strip away all the expectations from his salary and the treasure surrendered for him, and Phil Kessel(notes) had a great little season: 55 points in 70 games, playing with the likes of Alexei Ponikarovsky(notes), Matt Stajan(notes), Nikolai Kulemin(notes) and Tyler Bozak(notes).

Bozak (27 points in 37 games) and Kessel have been paired with Kris Versteeg in the exhibition season, with positive results.

Kulemin has seen time this preseason with Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski(notes), who managed to stay in the headlines this offseason. Kulemin and Grabovski finished last season with 36 and 35 points respectively. Fredrik Sjostrom(notes) came over in the Phaneuf trade and had 5 points in 19 games, but has battled a shoulder injury in camp.

Colby Armstrong is going to be a valuable addition down the lineup, good for energy shifts and occasional offense. They'll get the same from Colton Orr(notes) and Mike Brown, minus the offense. Luca Caputi(notes), still on the cut bubble, and Christian Hanson(notes) both have some offensive upside.

As of this writing, top prospect Nazim Kadri hasn't been cut. But even if he starts in the AHL, he could hop back up to the Leafs during the season. 

(Also as of this writing, the Leafs haven't made a deal for, or signed, a center. We imagine they might.)

Defense

On paper, the Leafs have one of the deepest and most impressive collection of defensemen in the NHL. Captain Phaneuf averaged 26:21 minutes per night, finishing with 10 points in 26 games with Toronto. His primary partner was Francois Beauchemin(notes), and the duo led the Leafs in shorthanded ice time.

After a summer of trade rumors and trade denials and fathers speaking out of turn, Tomas Kaberle(notes) is a still a Leaf; and that means the Leafs have one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the conference, pairing with Phaneuf on the power play point. Kaberle saw plenty of time with Mike Komisarek(notes) last season, the stout defensive defenseman who was limited to 34 games in his first season with the Leafs following a huge summertime free agent contract.

Their top four is as good as any in the League. The Leafs will choose from Red Wings castoff Brett Ledba, Luke Schenn(notes), Carl Gunnarsson(notes) and (the soon-to-be demoted, we imagine) Jeff Finger(notes) for the last pairing.

Goaltending

Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) is the Leafs' starter, but like pretty much the rest of his NHL career he's going to be pushed by a backup for ice time. Jonas Gustavsson(notes), or as Pierre McGuire calls him "the large goaltender," showed flashes of brilliance during his first NHL season while battling through some uncomfortable ailments. Giggy had a 2.49 GA with a .920 save percentage. The Monster had a 2.87 GAA with a .900 save percentage. 

Match We'd Pay To Watch

Could it be anything else? Dion Phaneuf vs. Sean Avery(notes) in a suit-vs.-suit match. Victor gets the spoils; the loser gets the slopp...we'll stop.

Breakout Player

Bozak was impressive as a rookie, with 21 points in his last 26 games. What limited firepower the Leafs have will flank him on the wings with Kessel and Versteeg. There's upside here for him. 

Potential Flop

Kadri. He's earned this spot on the "flop" by failing to secure a spot in the lineup this preseason. We're not concerned he's going to flop overall; but it's clear that for this year, he might need a little more seasoning.

Finishing Move

Phil Kessel can score a goal or 30. (Not the best choice of soundtrack, but what have you.)

Special Teams

The Toronto Maple Leafs had the worst special teams in the National Hockey League last season. That is a statement of fact: Dead last on the power play at 14 percent and dead last on the kill at 74.7 percent. Colby Armstrong saw some time on the kill in Atlanta, and Versteeg played second-unit power play for Chicago.

Coach/GM

The common perception is that Ron Wilson still has his job because of his friendship with Burke, and because it was impossible for that friend to fire a coach that was going to be behind the pine for his U.S. Olympic team. Whether that's accurate or not, it's distinctly possible that another massive stumble by the Leafs in the first three months will result in Wilson being fired. Otherwise ... who knows? Maybe he's like a Supreme Court Justice.

At this point, the question is whether Wilson's style can work with this roster, and whether two years is a large enough sample to make the determination.

Burke is, for better or worse, the personification of the Leafs. The fact that they play a style of hockey he endorses and he's tried to mold a roster to that style helps. But he captures the blustery, cynical, suffer-no-fools spirit of that hockey town, which makes him endearing. 

But this isn't a popularity contest, and the fact remains that for all the impressive moves he's made (Phaneuf, Giguere) there are moves that weren't made (Kaberle) or perhaps shouldn't have been made (give up two No. 1 picks for Kessel). He's got the Leafs on the right path with some palpable excitement in the city; but does that translate to victories?

2010-11 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: C-
Defense: A-
Goaltending: B-
Special Teams: D+ (Until proven otherwise)
Coaching: C+
Management: B+

Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)

Love the grit, love the blue line, like the goaltending. But this team scored 210 goals last season while giving up 263. The Habs also scored 210, but they play Jacques Martin's system. The Bruins scored 196, but they play Claude Julien's system. So the Leafs either have to tighten the defense or increase their scoring or both. The 'D' is good enough to get the Leafs near the playoff bubble. Unless special teams offense improves, the 'O' will likely land them back in the lottery. And by "them" we of course mean "the Bruins."

Entrance Music for 2010-11 Season

What else could accompany the bombastic majesty of Leafs Nation than the theme that accompanied the Macho Man to the squared circle? Come to think of it, we'd find the Leafs a hell of a lot more appealing if they had a vintage Miss Elizabeth to bring them out on the ice. OOOOOOOH-YEAAAAAAAH.

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