Toronto. The City That Should Riot

Every major sport in North America has that one team that has such a loyal fan base despite an inability to win.  In the MLB it’s the Chicago Cubs.  In the NBA it’s the New York Knickerbockers.  In the NFL, up until recently, it was the New Orleans Saints.  And in the NHL there is one team whose fan base stays solid through thick and thin and continues to sell out their arena.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a team with a storied past in the NHL.  They are one of the Original Six teams and probably one of the most beloved franchises in all of sports.  The last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup was 44 seasons ago in 1967, and they haven’t been back to the finals since, currently the longest drought in the NHL after my beloved Blackhawks won it all in 2010.  There was a recent resurgence for the team dating back to the early 1990s, lead by Doug Gilmour and the late 1990s and again in the early 2000s by Mats Sundin.  No doubt two of the best players of their eras, they still could not lead the Leafs to another Stanley Cup Final, despite making the playoffs 10 out of 12 seasons from 1992-93 to 2003-04 before the lock out.

One thing I’ve found funny in the recent six seasons of playoff-less hockey for Toronto is their rabid fan base thinks every free agent wants to sign with them; they are essentially the Knicks of the NHL. Brad Richards didn’t want to sign with them, and Steven Stamkos won’t unless it’s at the end of his career just for the novelty of playing for his hometown team.  I’m sorry, at this point nobody really wants to play there to win, they play there for money.

Last season, several players gave Leaf Nation hope.  Phil Kessel was the prized acquisition a couple seasons ago, but they gave up a lot for him.  Since turning 21, he’s logged three consecutive 30-goal seasons. James Reimer gives hope in the goaltender department, a position that has been a revolving door in recent years.  Experiments with Jean-Sébastien Giguère, Jonas Gustavsson and Vesa Toskala have left that position in a sinkhole.  Many young players currently on the roster show promise, including Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul and Nikolai Kulemin.  Along with Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur had a career year last season.  I don’t see MacArthur playing as well as he did last season, but he is going to need to for the Leafs to make the playoffs.  I think there are two future stars on the blue line with Luke Schenn and Keith Aulie to go along with Phaneuf and Mike Komisarek.

Now let’s get to the acquisitions for the free agency of 2011-12 season.  Is Tim Connolly the center that Kessel has been waiting for?  Connolly can be a point per game player, but he’s had constant injury problems.  I see both guys around 80 points this year.

There were two other trades that saw defenseman Robert Lebda and prospect forward Robert Slaney shipped out for defenseman Cody Franson and winger Matthew Lombardi from the Predators.  The second trade brought in defenseman John-Michael Liles from the Avalanche for a 2012 2nd-round draft pick.  I like both trades and the signing for the Maple Leafs.  If Lombardi can recover fully from the concussion he sustained last year that made him miss almost the whole season, I see him having a good year alongside Kessel-Connolly or Grabovski.  Liles gives them the puck-moving defenseman they needed after the Tomas Kaberle trade; the only difference is Liles doesn’t pass up a shot like Kaberle does all too often. I really like Franson, as he’s a very solid defenseman.

So the question is, “Will the Leafs make the playoffs this year?”  My answer to that question is no.  They aren’t ready yet and the teams that were around them also made acquisitions that made them better.  Would I be surprised if they make it?  No, I wouldn’t be surprised, but Leafs fans, don’t hold your breath.

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