Leafs’ Offense in Transition Period

The days of Mats Sundin, Alex Mogilny and Darryl Sittler are long gone. The days when the Toronto Maple Leafs offense wasn’t the worst in the entire league is a distant memory. And the days when fans league-wide weren’t counting out the Maple Leafs when it came to the playoffs have currently been put on hold.

Nowadays, people are expecting the Leafs to finish in the bottom 10 in the league, and the Stanley Cup seems as far away as ever.

However, that doesn’t mean that fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t have reason to cheer. That’s not to say the Maple Leafs are going to make the playoffs for the first time since the lockout, but what it does say is that with strong play from the back-end, things could get interesting.

We all know how good the Toronto Maple Leafs defense is, at least on paper, so I’m not going to sit here and talk about their defensive play. Instead, it’s time for people to start believing that this Maple Leafs team can put the puck in the back of the net, if they can put their minds to it and get creative.

With the likes of Phil Kessel, Kris Versteeg, and Tyler Bozak leading the offense and Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin right behind them, things are starting to look up for the Leafs when it comes to scoring goals.

Kessel, a two-time 30+ goal scorer, knows exactly how to find the back of the net. Still, people say that if he’s going to continue scoring 30+ goals a season, he needs a play-making centre like Marc Savard to play with—but what about Bozak? Bozak played in 37 games last season, scoring 27 points, including eight goals. If he can live up to expectations, he could become just as good as Marc Savard, leading to more production from Kessel and Versteeg as well.

After playing third-line minutes in Chicago due to the Blackhawks’ tremendous depth, Versteeg should see top-line minutes with the Maple Leafs, at least until a sixth offensive threat is added. When it comes to Versteeg’s production this season, things are looking great. With a total of 44 goals in his first two NHL seasons, Versteeg should thrive on a line with Kessel and Bozak.

The trio of Kessel, Bozak, and Versteeg won’t be relied on too heavily in the latter part of the season if Kulemin and Grabovski can prove to be the players everyone is hoping for.

Grabovski, who was acquired by the Leafs in July of 2008 from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a 2010 second round pick and the rights to Greg Pateryn, scored 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) in just 59 games last season. Although those stats seem impressive, he still has yet to prove that he can be a solid top-six centre. If he does become the top-six centre the Maple Leafs had hoped for, Grabovski should be able to put up 50-60+ points, which could mean big things for the Leafs.

Just imagine what it will be like if Kulemin can drastically improve from his 2009-10 season. Unfortunately, a drastic improvement is unlikely. After scoring 16 goals and 20 assists while posting an even plus/minus rating in 78 games during his sophomore season, Kulemin is expected to put up even better numbers this season. If the 24-year-old can score at least 40 points in 2010-11, combined with a 50 point season from Grabovski, the Maple Leafs will have a solid duo skating on the top-two lines.

Still, General Manager Brian Burke needs to find someone to round out the top-six, preferably a winger.

Little offense will come from the Maple Leafs’ bottom-two lines. Made up of regulars Colton Orr, Mike Brown, John Mitchell, Tim Brent, Fredrik Sjostrom, Colby Armstrong and Clarke MacArthur, as well as extras Mike Zigomanis and Jay Rosehill, not much more than 130 points should be expected from the bottom-six.

The Maple Leafs combined to score a total of 576 total points last season. Let’s not forget, though, that not all offense comes from the forwards.

Dion Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, and Tomas Kaberle are all expected to be highly involved offensively, at least as far as defensemen go.

Phaneuf, the team’s new captain and a and two-time 20 goal scorer isn’t expected to contribute the same amount of offense as he did to Calgary in his first two seasons, but he should be somewhere around the 40 point mark after all 82 games.

Beauchemin, who has never scored more than 34 points or eight goals in a season, has a cannon for a shot. He will be a large part of any success the Maple Leafs have on the power play. His setup man, Kaberle, was left out of all captaincy. The former captain will once again use his passing expertise on the power play and five-on-five.

Carl Gunnarsson, Luke Schenn, and Mike Komisarek will all be minor contributors to the offensive side of things, but will, just like any other player, be expected to score a decent amount of points.

The Maple Leafs forward group is one of the youngest and most inexperienced in the league. With that in mind, be patient. There will be growing pains, and there will be dry spells.

If this group of young NHLers can gel, produce and remain fairly consistent, Bozak, Grabovski, Kulemin, and Versteeg will all be top NHL players and point producers one day, while Kessel should reach the 40 goal mark. Let’s just hope it all happens while they’re still playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Follow Lukas on Twitter @lukas_nhl for breaking hockey news and rumors, as well as Toronto Maple Leafs game updates. You can contact him at lhardonk@insidehockey.com.

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