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Saturday, September 26, 2009

OGA SPR: The Toronto Maple Leafs - by Frozen Pill

This is On Goal Analysis' 2009/10 Season Preview Report (SPR) for the Toronto Maple Leafs - the 28th installment of our daily previews leading to the start of the new season!

Fantasy Players - be sure to read the Frozen Pill's Fantasy Dose at the conclusion of the post.

The Toronto Maple Leafs as Measured against the OGA Playoff Qualifying Curve (PQC)

Last Season VS the PQC: The Toronto Maple Leafs never truly threatened to make the playoffs last season. But that doesn't mean they didn't see marked improvement in certain areas of critical performance as measured against OGA's proprietary PQC. They ended their 2008-09 season with a lowly PQC rating of 4.0.

They did, however, almost mirror their performance the previous season (07-08) which is as important for the experience and post-season preparation as it is for team chemistry and confidence for this upcoming campaign (more on this later). But it is all still short of the immediate goal in Toronto...to return to the NHL playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season.

Last season, the Leafs quickly performed above the Curve mean-line and were in positive territory at Game 10. This was the first time the Leafs were found north of the PQC mean-line since the 06-07 season, but was also, unfortunately, the last time they were in positive territory for the remainder of the 08-09 season.

When measuring their performance along the Curve, OGA was able to correctly call the Toronto Maple Leafs at 'Tee Time' (OUT of the playoffs) at Game 40 on January 6, 2009. But some healthy trending was noticed along the way last season as compared to the other three seasons since the lockout. The Leafs, folks, are on the mend.

Post-Lockout Average VS the PQC: Last season's PQC rating of 4.0 was actually their worst finish in any of the four seasons since the lockout and was below their average of 4.30. However, in this case, the numbers can be misleading when judging the team's overall performance.

In the 05-06 and 06-07 campaigns, Toronto was, to be polite, erratic as they placed performance markers all over the Curve throughout the entire two seasons. In the 05-06 season, they had a swing in the Curve of 6.5 points between games 40 and 50 where they dropped from +2 to a -4.5! Another erratic swing between games 70 and 82 had them climb from -0.5 to +3.5.

In the 06-07 season, the neurotic play continued and between games 20 and 30 they dropped from a +2.5 to a -3.5...another 6 point swing. The rest of that season, though, performance evened out and led to the repeating pattern of the 07-08 and 08-09 seasons.

In the last two campaigns, the Leafs have started out playing close to the Curve mean-line and then dip through games 20-50. But for this period, they dipped no lower than -2.0 against the PQC. And in each of the last two seasons, by game 50, the Leafs began to climb and finish out the season close to the mean-line with improved play heading towards the playoffs.

These trends bode well for the 09-10 Maple Leafs and a renewed sense of vigor and desperation has hold of the city and this team. So how has Toronto prepared for this campaign and what secret weapons may their young and prospect-grown talent bring to the battles of a new season?

  • Brian Burke. since taking over the helm, is openly building a team that will, in the end, resemble his winning team in Anaheim. Big, mean, old-school hitting and hard-checking hockey is where Toronto is headed. And it does seem more appropriate here than in Anaheim. But the obvious question is whether or not it can succeed in Toronto (i.e. are the right personnel in place now?) as well as it did for the Ducks.
  • The stated goal this season is to make the playoffs. The Leafs believe they have a good chance of doing just that. Whether or not they get there with the team currently assembled or after some mid-season moves remains to be seen. Without a doubt, though, some high-impact moves were made this summer that certainly put the opportunity of achieving their stated goal that much closer.
  • IN For the Swim: Key new arrivals include, Phil Kessel (C), Francois Beauchemin (D), Mike Komisarek (D), Colton Orr (W), Garnet Exelby, Wayne Primeau (C/LW), Jonas Gustavsson (G), and Joey MacDonald (G).
  • The additions of big and gritty players like Beauchemin, Komisarek, Orr and Exelby certainly advance the notions of bigger and meaner. Some nice names to imagine skating the ice along the blue line with Luke Schenn. Prized goalie from yon other side of the pond, Gustavsson could very well be the franchise goalie for the future. Kessel immediately becomes an impact player but will be quickly measured against high expectations. His response to the responsibilities on the score sheet may dictate team performance as the season unfolds.
  • Move Along, Nothing Left to See Here: Gone along are Pavel Kubina (D), backup Justin Pogge (G), and centers, Kris Newbury, Jeremy Williams. Wingers Tim Stapleton, Jeff Hamilton, and Brett Aubin are also elsewhere along with defensemen Jay Harrison, Erik Reitz and Jaime Sifers.
  • In essence, the Leafs lost little when compared to what was gained. It did, however, cost two first-round draft picks and a second-rounder to bring Kessel on board. But Burke is banking on players performing to their utmost this season as Toronto will have 11 unrestricted free agents and 8 restricted free agents after the 09-10 season. The time to perform is now and the Frozen Pill believes the fans wouldn't mind, if in retrospect, they could choose between playoff hockey NOW versus slightly better picks in a potentially soft draft over the next two seasons with prospects ready to help in 3-5 years.
  • In addition to adding size and the intent to be nasty to play against, the Leafs are bringing along some hot prospects who just may be ready to make the jump to the NHL and make an impact on their playoff chances this season. There's your picks, picker. See more below in the Frozen Pill's extended 'Watchful Eye'...


The Sure Thing: Phil Kessel (C). Kessel is not prized for his two-way play ('backcheck? me?') but is envied around the league for his quick release on the shot. And for fantasy purposes, you don't need a Selke winner here...you need that wrist shot. Toronto was able to acquire one of the last remaining free agents of note but is far from solving the scoring riddles in LeafLand. But Phil should help...especially if other GMs in your pool are ignoring the Leafs altogether this season. Big mistake.

TrustyRusty: Jason Blake (LW). Folks question certain aspects about Blake's game (i.e. love him/hate him), but without the extra fluff, here's what you need to know. Blake's lowest point-total since the 2002-2003 season was 47 (22/25) in 03-04 with the Islanders. Last season, he scored 63 points (25/38) in 78 games and put a whopping 302 shots ON NET! He's not going to be at the top of your draft pecking-order, but he cannot be overlooked for his consistency in point accumulation and regular play. He has only missed 18 regular season games since that 02-03 season so he's trusted to be in action most nights..and shooting the puck.

Up and Coming: Niklas Hagman (LW). Fans in Toronto were worried when the Leafs signed Hagman, a free agent of Dallas coming off of a career *contract* year, wondering if he was going to put up some real points while playing at the ACC. Well, he didn't disappoint. In 65 games last season, he was good for 42 points (22/20), with a 13.1% shooting percentage and has looked good so far this pre-season, as well with 2 goals and 2 assists at posting time.

Up and Coming Honorable Mention: Francois Beauchemin (D). Though not part of the youth movement in Toronto (he's 29 and an NHL starter since 05-06), he is new to this team and has a knack for some offense from the blue line. If you need a d-man for your team to pick up some assists, look here before defaulting to the normal Kaberle Road. Beauchemin is healthy and poised to have a big year in Toronto...and don't forget those handsome PIMs he just may snag fer ya, too.

Under the Radar: Mikhail Grabovski (C). He's feisty, underrated, pesky and accurate. Last season, he scored 48 points (20/28) and racked up 92 PIMs. He shot the puck on net 120 times and scored 16.7% of the time. He's only 5'11" but plays much bigger and is poised to become the number one center in Toronto this season. If you need some emergency PIMs, definitely have him your lineup any time he plays against former team, Montreal. He's a playmaker and his nickname should be Dangle. Grab you some Grabovski first if you grab anyone from Toronto.

The Watchful Eye: Nazem Kadri (C). He's only 18 and was just drafted this summer (1st round, 7th overall in the NHL entry draft) but is already turning heads in pre-season and creating highlight-reel action. He may just make the team out of camp, but if not, could be a useful call-up during the course of the season. While still young, he has been holding his own during the pre-season. Last season, with the London Knights of the OHL, he scored 78 points in 56 games. Then, in the playoffs, was good for 21 points (9/12) in 14 games. Whether his inexperience at the pro game lends to some intimidation remains to be seen and if he does make the lineup opening night, it will be key to see how the bigger team protects him and how the youngster responds to the physicality that is NHL hockey. Then there's this:

Expanded Fantasy Sleepers

Because Toronto is building from within, there are several young, good players who may crack the lineup this season. They may be mysteries to your competitors but you must train your eye on these hopefuls and get a jump on your competition in the free agent market...especially, say around mid-season when the injuries to your starters just seem to keep piling up...

The Watchful Eye Also Gazes Upon:
  1. Christian Hanson (C). Hanson is going to be a a big power forward (6'3", 202 lbs) for years to come in the Leafs organization. He's got good hands, impeachable character (won the USHL's Curt Hammer award for best exhibiting the goals of the league and team) and is a hard skater. He looked promising in 5 games with the Leafs last season scoring a goal and an assist.
  2. Viktor Stalberg (LW). Also big and fast (6'3", 210 lbs) with a goal-scorer's touch. Stalberg is tearing up the pre-season for Toronto with 5 goals and 2 assists...so far. Will he put these kinds of numbers when the games actually count and the opposing lineups are at full force? It's tough for any rookie to breakout, but it happens each season, year after year. And the Leafs may actually have a couple of them...
  3. Tyler Bozak (C). He was much sought after as a collegiate player by NHL teams and many forecasts had him being the kid in Toronto to crack the starting lineup at the end of camp. He has played well but has not put up the kind of pre-season points seen from Stalberg and Kadri.
  4. Jiri Tlusty (LW). He was yanked back and forth a bit between the Marlies and the Big Barn in the last two seasons but appeared in 14 NHL games in 07-08 (4 assists) and tellingly managed to finish even in plus/minus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is highly skilled (1st round/13th overall in 2006) and should be considered a breakout candidate waiting to happen.
The Crease: All focus is on The Monster, Jonas Gustavsson. He's to be the goalie of Toronto's future. Whether or not the future is now, is uncertain. Jonas recently had minor heart surgery but is already back in action. Vesa Toskala is the number one netminder and the job is Toskala's to lose. But he's in the final year of his contract and he knows the 6'3" monster is chomping at his skates. What to do for your fantasy team? Look elsewhere for goaltending. It's just too unsettled in Toronto to feel comfortable in the crease. Either Vesa is going to stand on his head and perform the magic the Leafs need or Jonas will take the job away and endure his trial by fire in the NHL. Either way, you are going to be lucky if you take either goalie and one gets enough time to make it worth their spot in your locker room..at least for the start of the season. (The Frozen Pill discloses he has gambled on signing the Monster in one fantasy league and remains hopeful, albeit admittedly too 'mad scientist'...)

Mad Scientist: Alexei Ponikarovsky (LW). He had a career year last season 61 points (23/38) and played all 82 games. His previous high was 45 points in the 06-07 campaign. But now, he can actually be considered a Toronto 'veteran' and should see plenty of time on the power play. Burke believes he is ready for a breakout season and should benefit from the increased ice time in Nik Antropov's (moved last season at trade deadline) absence. In 19 games after the trade deadline last season 'Poni' was good for more than a point a game (22 - 6/16). Whether or not he can match or beat last season's point totals is a bit of a gamble, and he has been less than impressive in pre-season. But you never know...and if you take the risk and it pays off, well, that's why they call you a Mad Scientist. For the record, the Pill believes Ponikarovsky, like many other Leafs, are going to have a surprisingly good season.


Will the Toronto Maple Leafs shake the doldrums and bud again in Spring to find they have qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since the 2003-2004 season? Well, they have to start playing the games before anyone knows. But give us ten games and we might be able to tell you. OGA knows. And you can, too.

Make sure to sign up for the daily, bargain-priced analytical tool for your NHL analysis and fantasy needs by ordering the OGA Daily Tip-In Report (DTIR). For only $10.00, the season-long subscription to the DTIR is delivered to you each morning via email (minus the Olympics, of course). With OGA's Daily Tip-In, you will have insight to the teams' chances of qualifying for the playoffs - potentially well before the mathematical call is made - in addition to important team notes as their play is measured each night against the PQC. See a teaser and read about the DTIR here.

And remember, the OGA 2008/09 Report Card (how accurate are our calls?) will be posted at the conclusion of the SPRs on September 30th.

And with this, the Frozen Pill concludes his 10th team preview for the 2009-2010 NHL regular season. Tomorrow, Big Tex gets back into the action and brings you his thoughts on the Vancouver Canucks. It's almost hockey time.

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