Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was a disaster of disastrous proportions for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011-12.
But it didn't start out that way. With another All-Star turn from Phil Kessel and a breakout performance from Joffrey Lupul, the Leafs got off to a hot start. As late as February 22, they were still in playoff contention, sitting in a three-way tie for seventh place.
Then bad things happened.
Toronto's season actually began to unravel a week earlier on February 14, when they lost their fourth straight game for the first time all season. They would win the next night, briefly assuaging fan concern, but then everything went to crap. The Leafs proceeded to rattle off six and five-game losing streaks over the next 13 games. Ron Wilson was fired at the beginning of March. The goaltending situation became untenable. Hair stylists in Ontario declared bankruptcy en masse because nearly everyone in the Greater Toronto Area tore every last follicle from their scalp.
Like I said. A disaster of disastrous proportions.
But hey. The Leafs have a new coaching staff, they made a big offseason trade, and the universe can't kick this franchise in the Charlie Browns forever, right?
Is this the year the Leafs finally end their playoff drought?
Not a whole lot has changed for the Leafs.
The biggest move Brian Burke made this offseason was sending Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for forward James van Riemsdyk. I'm vague about van Riemsdyk's position because it's still up in the air. Randy Carlyle seems set to try the 23-year-old, who has played most of his NHL career at the wing, at centre. It's a risk, but a minimal one if you consider the low bar previous Toronto first line centres have set.
In comes Jay McClement, formerly of the St. Louis Blues, to give Carlyle's new defensive system a boost, and gone are much-maligned goaltender Jonas Gustavsson, oft-injured winger Colby Armstrong, Joey Crabb, and Philippe Dupuis.
At forward … The Leafs will be led once again by the very productive duo of Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel, and if James van Riemsdyk can nestle comfortably between them, this could be one of the league's punchiest lines. Unless Randy Caryle breaks them up for their defensive shortcomings -- a distinct possibility considering van Riemsdyk's greenness up the middle and the fact that neither Kessel or Lupul are exactly Selke candidates -- they'll score in bunches like they did last season. If the Leafs contend, this group will be the reason.
But the tenuous situation up the middle means it's nigh impossible to tell just how the line combinations will shake out at all. If van Riemsdyk can't shake it as a centre, then either he or Lupul is falling down the depth chart, where they'll compete with the likes of Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak, and Tim Connolly for second and third line icetime.
On defense … Captain Dion Phaneuf-Cuthbert leads a corps that includes John-Michael Liles, sophomore Jake Gardiner, and Carl Gunnarsson. It's not exactly a formidable blueline, although Gardiner's potential is through the roof. He's still about an AHL-level defender, but he might be able to gloss over that with his incredible offensive talent.
In goal … Unless Brian Burke manages to pry Roberto Luongo out of Vancouver, James Reimer and Ben Scrivens will mind the pipes. It might not be a total disaster. First, Randy Carlyle's system is sure to complement them a little more than Ron Wilson's, and second, they haven't been instructed by the head coach to tune out new goaltending coach Rick St. Croix yet.
Reimer and Scrivens are passable goaltenders, but they're not the sort to drag the Leafs into the playoffs kicking and screaming.
Gotta give it up to 82-year-old Hugh Oliver's "When the Leafs Were Good", which recalls a time that only an 82-year-old can remember.
Randy Carlyle's first full season behind the bench is going to be incredibly interesting. His system is bound to be more defensive-minded than Ron Wilson's (since it's not possible to be less), but the Leafs' only real hope of making the playoffs -- apart from trapping to glory -- is if Kessel, Lupul, and whomever score the lights out. Will his system slow them down?
Brian Burke is still the General Manager. You've probably heard of him.
In this man's humble opinion, the key player here is Phaneuf. While Carlyle's system threatens the freewheeling ways of the likes of Kessel and Lupul, it bodes very well for Phaneuf, who is now playing for a coach that relies heavily on his top blueliners. It's been awhile since Phaneuf was considered an elite defenceman, but it's not a stretch to think a full year under Carlyle could help return him to prominence.
James van Riemsdyk will be given absolutely every opportunity to succeed in Toronto, both at centre and at the wing. If the Leafs can find a situation that works for him, a big year is in the offing.
Have you heard about Nazem Kadri's fitness issues? That's sort of a big deal in Toronto right now. Kadri is clearly beginning to try the patience of the team that drafted him 7th overall in 2009, and one wonders if this might be his last opportunity to win them over.
"ESPN says the Toronto Maple Leafs are the worst team in sports."
"But how thorough was ESPN's research, anyway? The Tulsa Jr. Oilers of the Western States Hockey League recently gave up 103 shots in one game. That sounds worse than the Leafs, don't you think?"
"And check out these kids."
"Damn, they suck. The Leafs are way better than that."
"Clearly, ESPN doesn't stand for The Highly Accurate Ranking Systems Company, which should be obvious both because their ranking system is highly inaccurate and also because the acronym doesn't fit at all."
"The Toronto Maple Leafs. Not the worst."
"Paid for by Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment."
The Leafs aren't much improved from last year. They may still make some adjustments to the roster, but as it stands, there's no reason to believe this team can do what the 2011-12 edition could not. The safe bet is another nightmarish, postseason-free year in Toronto.
That said, this team could contend. All it will take is: van Riemsdyk finding his star game and blending seamlessly with the group, Kessel and Lupul posting huge numbers again, Dion Phaneuf re-finding his elite game, Jake Gardiner learning to defend and breaking out as a breakout starter, Reimer and Scrivens stunning the pundits with steady, heady goaltending, and Randy Carlyle getting a seamless, Jack Adams-calibre buy-in from his roster.
But that's a lot to go right for a franchise that doesn't have a history of having everything fall into place. Brace yourselves, Leafs fans.