The Leafs’ rebuild is starting to take shape. The roster is riddled with new faces, but it’s really a dog’s breakfast of mid-grade players – general manager Brian Burke still hasn’t landed his big fish up front.
Does slow and steady really win the race?
Burke has chosen to build from the back out, so the team looks pretty solid between the pipes and could arguably have the best group of defenders in the entire league. But solid doesn’t spell fantasy success.
Just ask Nashville.
Fantasy owners know all about the roto wasteland in Tennessee, but are all-too-often blinded by blue and white to notice the similarities with their beloved Leafs. Believe it or not, the Preds actually scored 11 more goals than the lowly Buds last year and both will likely sit in the league’s bottom five in goals this season.
Baby steps; that is, if the team has even learned to crawl.
So just like last season, your fantasy time is probably better spent elsewhere. The Leafs are making progress but the timetable is tortoise-like just like in Aesop’s classic… despite Brian Burke’s hare-brained claims that his team will be competitive now.
Let’s take a look.
THE BIG GUNS
Tomas Kaberle (D) – I debated Kabby’s category – big gun or overrated – for days, before finally slotting him as one of the Leafs’ best. There are a lot of red flags here: his apparent tiff with coach Ron Wilson, apparent incompatibility with Dion Phaneuf, a pattern of declining production and being the specter of a looming trade. But Kaberle was a top-10 offensive defender last year and shouldn’t fall too far from that tree this year (top-20 at worst and that’s only if he stays in Toronto). Remember, he has great offensive tools and is a guy who is infinitely better in the fantasy arena than on the ice.
Phil Kessel (RW) – “Phil the Thrill” has 50-goal potential. But like Mats Sundin before him, Kessel has virtually no supporting cast. He snipes in bunches and then goes quiet, so he’s a high-risk pick for head-to-head leagues. But his growing chemistry with Tyler Bozak at even strength and Dion Phaneuf on the power play, will result in a 35-goal, 65-70 point season. Streaky or not, he’s still a fit in every format. Just don’t overvalue him – he’s not the kind of guy who’ll ever carry his on-ice or fantasy team.
Dion Phaneuf (D) – Neon Dion’s arrival in Hogtown may be the steal of the century... or, at least, the first decade of this millennium. He brought a fierce work ethic and intense competitiveness to a needy Toronto squad and the Buds responded with some of their best hockey. There’s a catch, though. The team got a boost but Dion’s production didn’t – he continued to score like he had (or hadn’t, depending on your perspective) in Calgary. I’m going to write off 2009-10 as just an “off year” and prepare for a 15-goal, 50-point and 100-PIM season. He’s back.
ON THE RISE
Tyler Bozak (C) – Bozak started slowly last season in the AHL but really impressed me after his call-up – he’s just one of those guys whose game really is more suited for the NHL than the AHL. He’s uber competitive and has a well-rounded two-way game. But he’s ill-suited to be a top center (he may be 6-foot but his 165 pounds won’t scare anyone). Right now, he’s Phil Kessel’s center unless Brian Burke pans some gold before training camp. So 55 points is a real possibility; then again, so is a sophomore skid. Keep a careful eye on him.
Carl Gunnarsson (D) – Gunnar has the most to gain from a Tomas Kaberle trade. This smart, smooth-skating blueliner ended last season as one of coach Ron Wilson’s go-to guys. He can lug the puck better than the rest of the defensive suspects, so he’ll likely get power-play time on the second unit, even with Tomas still in the fold. He’s quiet and effective, and could easily top 30 points this year.
Jonas Gustavsson (G) – It was mulligan time for the Monster last year. He lost his mother to lung disease just before signing with the Leafs last July, leaving him an orphan at age 24. He moved to Toronto and then had not one but two heart surgeries – talk about stress. But he rebounded after J.S. Giguere arrived in town and then put in what many observers believed to be the best goaltending performance at the World Championships in May. He's big with a strong butterfly technique, and has quieted his game under the tutelage of twine-tending guru Francois Allaire. Fifty starts are possible; so are 30 wins. But watch for fragility -- J.S. Giguere will also benefit from the presence of Allaire and will not go quietly into the night.
Nikolai Kulemin (LW) – Kulemin is the epitome of a sleeper. His overall numbers from last season (36 points in 78 games) are absolutely underwhelming. But when you look closer, you’ll see that two-thirds of those points came in the second half. And he had 15 points in a 14-game stretch in March. He’ll never be a true top liner but he may become the classic complementary winger beside a sniper like Phil Kessel. Expect a jump to 50 points this year.
Kris Versteeg (LW) – Versteeg barely had time to sip from Lord Stanley before someone hit the eject button and sent him flying across the border. The Hawks will come to regret that move as this skilled and talented bundle of energy is about to take a leap up the offensive charts. He managed 20 goals and 44 points on the third line last season, and that was good enough for sixth on the Hawks’ scoring list. He’s now a top-six forward and should add five more goals, 10 more helpers and set a new career high for points.
THREE TO AVOID
Colby Armstrong (RW) – Take a deep breath and repeat after me – just because he’s a Leaf doesn’t mean he’s worth a pick. Go ahead, repeat it. He has a reputation as a cowardly headhunter who likes to dish but won’t defend his actions. I don’t know if that rep is right or wrong but his production sure tells a story. He has never topped 40 points or 75 PIMs. And he rarely delivers power-play help. He’s a classic agitator with a sandpaper tongue and his ceiling this year is 35 points and 75 PIMs. Remember that on draft day and not the logo on his chest.
Francois Beauchemin (D) – The garbage man will be counted on to keep things clean and clear around the blue ice. But that will keep him focused in his own zone and not in the opposition’s. He will get some time on the team’s second power-play unit because of his cannon-like slapper. But don’t mistake him for a quality fantasy player. He’ll be lucky to get 20 points and 40 PIMs.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere (G) – Giguere has something to prove but unfortunately, it'll be hard for him to do that as the backup in Toronto. The presence of his mentor and coach Francois Allaire will help, as will another inevitable injury to Jonas Gustavsson. But barring a complete meltdown from the Monster, Giggy will start fewer than 35 games. He's best drafted as a handcuff for Gustavsson or as a spot starter in daily leagues. Just don't overrate him. He's a Leaf, after all.
Jerry D’Amigo (RW) – This former sixth-round draft pick used to project as a checker and a penalty-killing specialist. That is, until his prospect status took a rocket ride at the 2010 World Junior tourney, where he led his gold-medal winning Team USA squad with six goals. He has genius-level hockey smarts, great speed and a sniper’s hands. And this summer, he’s added 15 pounds of pure muscle to an already strong hockey body. The Leafs love him so much they’ll give him a chance to win a job on one of their bottom two lines this September. General manager Brian Burke told reporters this summer that D’Amigo had come further in the previous 12 months than most other guys move in 36. If he keeps this up, I’ll be tempted to move him head of Nazem Kadri as the Buds’ top prospect. Yes, I like him that much.
Nazem Kadri (C) – Kadri is widely considered a top-10 prospect in the league. He’s an exciting player with speed and skill, and he’s not afraid to agitate, too. He needs to gain both weight and consistency, and he also needs to prove that he has grown up after his pouty start to last year’s junior season. He has the potential to be a point-a-game player some day. Then again, he might also be the next Darcy Tucker. Think 30-35 points and a lot of bumps and bruises if he makes this year’s squad.
Brad Ross (LW) – The Leafs moved up on draft day to grab this Tasmanian Devil on skates, and it may only take him a couple of years to become a fan fave in Toronto. He’s not unlike Esa Tikkanen of the late 80s Oilers (although he will likely never score 70-plus points like the abrasive one). But Ross could be the next Steve Downie and there’s plenty of fantasy value in them boots.