Can The Leafs Make The Playoffs?

It is no secret that the Toronto Maple Leafs have not made the playoffs since the lockout.

In 2004, the last time they made the playoffs, the Leafs beat out the Ottawa Senators in seven games before being eliminated in the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers in six games. It has been five long on-ice seasons since we have experienced one of those seasons with legitimate hope.

Although it’s highly unlikely the Leafs will win the Stanley Cup this season, they may be one step closer to breaking the 40-year slump.

Phil Kessel and Kris Versteeg will be the likely leaders of the Maple Leafs offense, and possibly the most loved by fans.

Kessel managed to score 30 goals in 70 games last season with the Leafs which is six less than what he scored in the same amount of games with the Bruins in 2008-09. Kessel seemed to be the leader of the Leafs’ offence last season, scoring more than once in a game on six different occasions. Kessel also knows how to persevere. After a bout with testicular cancer in 2006, Kessel has been cancer free for the past few years. He won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his perseverance during the 2006-07 season.

Versteeg, who is fresh off a Stanley Cup victory with Chicago, scored 20 goals and 44 points last season after netting 22 goals and 53 points in his rookie season.

These two young veterans will be a large part to any success that Maple Leafs have during the coming season. In fact, Versteeg and Kessel will likely be the biggest providers of the Maple Leafs offense aside from Tyler Bozak, who has the potential to put up 50 points this season.

Lets not forget about Nazem Kadri though.

Kadri, the seventh overall pick by the Leafs in the 2009 Draft, scored 92 goals and has helped out on another 166 (258 points) in 242-career regular season games in the Ontario Hockey League. The 19-year-old also has one NHL game under his belt after an emergency call-up last season. He went pointless in that game while going -1. Although he may not start there, Kadri will likely end up as the Maple Leafs’ second line centre.

When put together, the four of them could be a large part of the Maple Leafs’ top-six forward group, with two other spots remaining. Those other two spots will be made up of Nikolai Kulemin and any forward that Brian Burke might get back in return for Tomas Kaberle. Kulemin will be entering his sophomore season after an impressive rookie season. Playing on the Maple Leafs’ second line with Versteeg, Kulemin could score 20 goals and put up 45 points, which is four more goals and nine more points than his production in 2009-10.

With a group of top-six forwards that will be entering the campaign with more experience and very good potential, the Leafs’ offence will be much more dangerous than last season.

While the top two lines will be putting the puck in the net, the third and fourth lines will be nothing short of intimidating. Boasting the likes of Colton Orr, Mike Brown and possibly Colby Armstrong.

Orr and Brown will be used on the fourth line to punish opposing physically, while Fredrick Sjostrom will skate along with them on most nights. Armstrong could find himself skating with Luca Caputi and John Mitchell to try to shut down the top line of the opposing teams while scoring goals when needed.

As you look into the Leafs’ defense, you will notice that Francois Beauchemin had a slightly below average season in 2009-10, scoring just five goals while adding  21 assists and posting a +/- rating of -13. If Beauchemin can have a better season in 2010-11, then he may find himself being leaned on by Ron Wilson in big moments. Beauchemin has the potential to reach 10 goals and 40 points. If he can, then the Maple Leafs power play will improve dramatically.

Of course Beauchemin will not be the only defenseman the Maple Leafs need help from if they want to improve their power play. Dion Phaneuf struggled last season before being acquired from the Calgary Flames in late January. The 25-year-old scored two goals in 26 games with the Buds last season, but don’t let the statistics fool you.

Phaneuf was leaned on very often by the Maple Leafs as the guy who could give the team a massive spark. The former 20-goal-scorer was named the team captain this off-season after being recognized for his great work ethic and ability to lead a team both on the ice and in the dressing room. Assuming that Phaneuf can balance the duties of captaining the Leafs and being a top defenseman, the entire blue-line will be strong for the latter half of the season.

With that being said, don’t be disappointed that Burke did not complete a trade involving Kaberle before the defenseman’s trade window expired. Kaberle, an 11-year veteran of the league, is one of the best defenceman in the National Hockey League. As long as Kaberle is playing for the Maple Leafs, the young players, especially the young defensemen, will follow him.

Since Kaberle and Phaneuf are both playing the for Leafs, the young defense corps will learn a lot. While the Leafs’ young blue-liners might make a few mistakes during the first couple weeks of the season, the potential to rebound from a disastrous 2009-10 season is certainly there.

However, just because things are looking good so far doesn’t mean that the Leafs will make the playoffs for sure.

For years, the Northeast Division was known as one of the toughest in hockey. Now that the Atlantic Division has taken shape and the Pacific Division is well on its way, the Northeast is not quite as comparable as it used to be. Nevertheless, the Leafs are still going to have to deal with teams that are tough to play against. Buffalo, Boston, Montreal and maybe even the Senators all have the potential for big seasons in 2010-11.

After loosing Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Raffi Torres in the off-season, Buffalo rebounded fairly well with the signings of Jordan Leopold, Rob Niedermayer and Shaone Morrisonn. The Sabres are less likely to have a similar season as they did in 2009-10 (45-27-10, 100 points, first in Northeast) since they didn’t really improve their team.

The Senators lost two very solid defencemen in the off-season in Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton, while also watching Matt Cullen leave the Nation’s capital. They did, however, manage to lure Sergei Gonchar away from Pittsburgh and into the red, black and gold. Gonchar, who scored 11 goals last season, is the puck moving defenseman the Senators were looking for.

Even though they lost Dennis Wideman, the Boston Bruins still managed to improve their offence by acquiring Nathan Horton. Horton, who has played his entire six-year career with the Florida Panthers, put up 57 points in just 65 games last season. There is no doubt that the Bruins improved their offensive attack after finishing dead last in the league in goals scored per game and total goals scored last season.

Last but possibly not least, the Montreal Canadiens didn’t exactly improve their team during the off-season. After losing the likes of Jaroslav Halak, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Glen Metropolit and Sergei Kostitsyn, General Manager Pierre Gauthier only managed to sign Alex Auld and Dustin Boyd. The Canadiens are taking a massive risk with Carey Price as he has not proven that he can come through when the crowd turns on him while Halak, who was traded to St. Louis, carried the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final.

The Maple Leafs, who went 5-2 last season against Ottawa, will need to start the season series against the Senators the way they finished it in 2009-10 if they want to prove that they can win in their own division. But of course, they will need to be able to beat the best in the division, and the league, to prove that they are a brand new team.

So, can the Maple Leafs make the playoffs? Yes. Will it be easy? No.

As a young team, the Leafs will make a lot of mistakes, especially early in the season. But just like last season, the Leafs have the ability to string some wins together. It won’t take long before the Leafs can start to string multiple wins together with the potential the offense actually has.

There will be a lot of ups and downs during the 2010-11 season, but in the end the Maple Leafs will make the Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference.

You can contact Lukas by e-mail at lhardonk@insidehockey.com and follow him on Twitter @lukas_nhl.

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