Now it’s time for the encore.
The Toronto Maple Leafs stunned a lot of the hockey world last season by finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference, a record built primarily on good special teams, solid goaltending, opportune scoring and some good fortune, too.
With a significant number of new additions – David Clarkson, David Bolland, Mason Raymond, Paul Ranger and Jonathan Bernier at the top of the list – the debate this year is whether or not they can repeat their success, especially in a revamped division and with expectations much higher.
With that in mind, here are a handful of bold predictions for the Leafs season, which opens in Montreal on Tuesday night:
1. Toronto will again lead the NHL in fights
Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren may have missed most of training camp with injuries, but that won’t cause any problems for coach Randy Carlyle on the toughness front.
There will still be plenty of punching in this lineup.
Orr has recovered in time for the season opener, and it’s expected Troy Bodie will be recalled from the AHL in order to fill McLaren’s spot for the two or three weeks he will be out with a broken finger.
Even in the post Brian Burke era, the Leafs have tied a lot of their identity up in their willingness to fight, and Carlyle – who won the Cup with a Ducks team that liked to drop the gloves – will definitely ensure that continues.
They ran away with the fighting majors title a year ago and added David Clarkson to the party, meaning there shouldn’t be much drop off.
Whether or not that helps them win games will, once again, be great fodder for debate.
2. The salary cap will be a season-long concern
Leafs GM Dave Nonis and capologist Claude Loiselle did some mighty deft work to get Toronto under the cap by a mere $65,833 in time for opening night, but that’s going to make for a balancing act that will last all season.
McLaren’s injury will likely result in him spending some time on long-term injured reserve, which buys the Leafs a little more room in that they can call up someone to replace his salary and temporarily exceed the cap in doing so.
Once McLaren returns, however, Toronto must get back under the $64.3-million limit and that will take some clever manoeuvring to make happen.
Making the Leafs situation considerably worse is the fact they have $5.5-million in “dead” cap space dedicated to two buyouts (Darcy Tucker and Colby Armstrong), one demotion (John-Michael Liles) and two retained salaries (Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens).
Expect Toronto to use a very small roster all season and perhaps even rely on the CBA’s new emergency exception rule a few times if they run into injury issues.
3. James Reimer will win the goaltending battle
He will have a challenge in earning starts away from Jonathan Bernier, a former first-round pick who has been pegged as a future NHL star for years and years now.
But James Reimer hardly sounds like a goalie planning to go quietly into the night.
“I was the starter here last year and I had no intention of giving that up whether they brought in Bernier or [Henrik] Lundqvist or someone who’d never played an NHL game before,” Reimer said during training camp.
For what it’s worth, Reimer won the preseason battle, as he was significantly better statistically in the four games he appeared in
(.923 save percentage) than Bernier (.891). But this will likely be a showdown that stretches through the first 30 or 40 games before a winner can begin to be crowned, especially given all of the assets (and salary) the Leafs gave up to land Bernier.
But here’s why Reimer is a better bet to win out: He has started nearly double the NHL games Bernier has (100 to 54), for a weaker team, and has better career numbers to show for it (.915 save percentage to .912).
From a small Manitoba town of less than 200 people, Reimer comes across as an “aw shucks” type, but he is also extremely competitive and has clearly come to play hard based on his work in camp and preseason.
Ever the underdog, he appears ready to surprise people yet again.
4. Goal scoring will be harder to come by
One of the pillars of Toronto’s rise a year ago was a terrific offence, as the Leafs scored more than all but five other teams (3.02 goals per game) and had by far the league’s best shooting percentage
(11 per cent at even strength).
This is a team with a lot of firepower, from Phil Kessel, to Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, but those kind of shooting numbers simply aren’t sustainable over more than the 48 game season they just had.
Expect them to fall back into the 2.80 or so goals per game range and have to rely more on their defensive play to win games. Being outshot heavily over a full season isn’t often a recipe for success, even when you can pick corners better than most teams in the league.
5. Realignment will make their road to the playoffs even tougher
The NHL took the old Northeast Division, added the Detroit Red Wings and two Florida teams, upped the travel schedule and named it after an ocean (Atlantic) a ways away from many of the teams in the group.
What it should add up to is a much more difficult road to the postseason for Toronto.
Their main competition is going to come from the Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators, four teams that the majority of pundits are rightly picking to make the playoffs this year. While the low end of the division is weak, the Leafs will have to beat out a very solid team to qualify or rely on the crossover to narrowly take the last spot from a Metropolitan Division club.
Overall, the schedule makers also didn’t do them many favours, as Toronto’s schedule is littered with odd road trips due to the new alignment and the fact it’s an Olympic year.