A Toronto Maple Leafs fan would have to go back two NHL lockouts before he or she can remember a time their favourite team opened a training camp with as much reason for optimism.
It is the first time the Leafs are showing signs of being a legitimate contender since the salad days of Pat Quinn and Mats Sundin in the early 2000s. General manager David Nonis built on his team’s solid showing in the playoffs last spring, by making the Leafs tougher physically and defensively with the additions of forwards David Clarkson and David Bolland, and goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Tougher, in this case, means more grit along the boards and in front of the net, as the Maple Leafs showed last season they have more than enough fighters on the roster. Clarkson and Bolland are known for winning fights for the puck, something the Leafs can use.
There is still a dark cloud in picture: the contract negotiations with restricted free-agent defenceman Cody Franson.
The other potential problem was solved on Tuesday evening when restricted free-agent centre Nazem Kadri agreed to a two-year deal with the Leafs for an average of $2.9-million a season.
The worrisome part of Nonis’s contract negotiations is Franson. He has not been yapping on Twitter (like Kadri) but the defenceman still made it clear he will not report until he has a contract.
Since the Leafs are thin on defence and Franson blossomed into their best offensive weapon on the blueline by the end of the playoffs, his absence will be significant. It could also have an impact on what is supposed to be a slow, steady apprenticeship for phenom Morgan Rielly.
The plan is to give the 19-year-old a look at the NHL in training camp, maybe throw in a few regular-season games and then send him back to major junior. But Rielly has excelled at every level on his way up the hockey ladder and if he does the same in the preseason, and Franson remains unsigned, the temptation to rush him into the NHL may be too great to resist.
However, Nonis’s most significant off-season move will probably dissipate any pressure to deviate from Rielly’s development plan. If Bernier turns out to be as good as advertised, Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle will not have to rush his teenaged prodigy into the lineup.
Your agent has yet to speak to an NHL executive or scout who does not think Bernier has the goods to become a star.
The interesting thing about the Leafs goaltending situation is the fans have not rushed to embrace Bernier with their usual early enthusiasm.
Part of this must be the wariness bred from other would-be saviours over the years, from Andrew Raycroft to Vesa Toskala. The other part is affection for the incumbent, James Reimer, who won a lot of hearts by coming out of nowhere two years ago to grab the No. 1 job and then fought his way back from a concussion to grab it again last season.
Hence all of the talk about a “goaltending controversy.” Well, this is not going to be much of a controversy because barring injury, Bernier, 25, will have the top job nailed down by the end of October.
Bernier went 9-3-1 in 14 games last season with the Los Angeles Kings, with a .922 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average. He bailed out the Kings when Jonathan Quick struggled at the start of the season and should have kept the No. 1 job.
There are those in the hockey world who say Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi might have been tempted to trade Quick, who won the Kings the 2012 Stanley Cup, instead of Bernier. But since Quick is an American it would have been a foolhardy move with Southern California hockey fans.
The betting here is come June, Nonis’s trade for Bernier will be ranked among the top one or two NHL off-season moves for 2013-14.