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2011 Maple Leafs Team Preview: Can Toronto Get Back to the Playoffs?

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson

Janet Eagleson is a four-time winner of the Hockey Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

OUTLOOK

The Leafs are the most polarizing team in the NHL -- you either LOVE them or you HATE them (and I just yelled there on purpose). And that means they’re either wildly overvalued or grossly underrated on draft day.

Both situations are GREAT for your fantasy squad.

Let me explain. Leafs fans are just about everywhere and they tend to think their boys are gold (or platinum) when they’re really just brass. Or even tin. They draft their boys way too early and then get burned. Then again, there are Leaf haters in every draft, too. They’re the ones who steadfastly refuse to pick a Bud even if their next best option lives under a toadstool.

Let me share a couple real-life examples.

I once drafted beside a guy who just had to have Mats Sundin at the start of the second round. It was 2007. I drafted right behind him and guess who I got -- Evgeni Malkin! Sundin ended up with 74 points. Malkin? 106. My buddy ended up with a team that was almost 50 percent blue and white. Me? I earned enough that year to buy my vintage Bobby Orr jersey.

And coming out of the lockout, another guy -- this one a Habs’ lover -- flat-out refused to draft Bryan McCabe or Tomas Kaberle. He said it was on principle. Well, those “principles” netted him Sheldon Souray, 39 points and a minus-11 rating. My “principles” got me both Leafs defenders, 135 points and just a minus-2 rating combined.

You get the point. And I won’t tell you what I bought that year.

There aren’t really any superstars in blue and white but there’s real fantasy value in Hogtown … if you snag them in the “right” round. Don’t draft with emotion and you’ll come out a winner … even if the Leafs don’t make the playoffs (again).

THE BIG GUNS

Phil Kessel (RW): General manager Brian Burke struck out on the Brad Richards sweepstakes (like he had a chance) and he settled on the second-best option -- Tim Connolly -- as the new top center to feed Phil the Thrill the puck. So does that mean this explosive sniper finally hits 40 goals? There are no guarantees in life but I like the odds if both he and Connolly can stay healthy. Kessel grew up a little last season, showing a maturity in his game that meant fewer scoring droughts as the season progressed. He even amped things up in the last third of the season, potting 28 points in his last 26 games. Connolly will help Kessel improve his power-play production significantly and he could easily be one of the top three goal scorers at his position.

Nikolai Kulemin (LW): Kulemin is a first-line beast -- there's no other way to describe him. He protects the puck well, has a nose for the net (to go with an eye for his own zone), and rips a wrister that may someday tear the leather off an opposing goalie's paw. Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur formed one of the league’s most exciting lines last season -- their chemistry was palpable -- and they’re back for more this year. And to top it off, he's in a contract year and is looking at a much bigger payoff than he signed last time out. All in all, I really like his situation. He’s never going to be a point-per-game guy but he will be a low-to-mid 60s guy. And that firmly entrenches him as a top-10 left winger.

Dion Phaneuf (D): Phaneuf came within a fraction of an inch of a season-ending injury last November courtesy of a nasty skate cut in an otherwise innocent collision with Peter Regin of the Sens. Surgery ensued and he missed a month; he should have missed more. His conditioning and timing was off when he returned and it took him until the Kaberle trade for Phaneuf to truly return to game speed. And what a return it was. He was offensively dominant in the final third of the season, potting a forward-like 17 points in his final 26 games. That's clearly not a sustainable pace … or is it? His more mature approach, coupled with a more creative Leafs power play this season, could get him back to 45-50 points. And 100 PIMs. That would be his best output since his glory years in Calgary. Remember, there were only nine defenders who cracked the 50-point plateau last year and only two -- Kris Letang and Dustin Byfuglien -- hit or came close to a century of PIMs, too. He’s back.

ON THE RISE

Tim Connolly (C): Fans and critics alike have been quick to point out that Connolly has never really lived up to his lofty draft status as a fifth overall pick (1999). And he hasn’t played a full season since the lockout, missing a whopping 190 games in the six years since. But his talent is undeniable -- his vision and playmaking really are top-10 when he’s healthy -- and he can orchestrate a power play with creativity and flair. He has a chance for a fresh start and I think he’ll thrive between Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Still, it may be too much to ask for him to play a full season. But low-60s production in 70 games or so is just fine.

Cody Franson (D): Franson is either a future star on the blue line or the next Andy Delmore. As much as I love his smooth passing and nasty slapper, Franson often gets himself out-smarted and out-positioned in the defensive zone by speedy, skilled forwards. Hence the Delmore chirp. There has to be a reason the blue line factory called the Predators bailed on him. Still, there’s a whole lot of stud in this guy if the Leafs can pair him with a responsible veteran who can teach him how to make up for a few of those own-zone shortcomings. And help him hit the 35 points this year and the 50-point plateau in the next three years.

James Reimer (G): Optimus Reim enters the season entrenched as the Leafs' top dog … on all of 37 games of action. His ascent to that spot has been nothing short of miraculous -- he’s the ultimate underdog. He didn’t play organized hockey until he was 12. He never boasted a .920 save percentage in his three years in junior and then spent almost all of the 2008-09 season in the East Coast league. He was so far down the depth chart last year that few pundits even profiled the kid. And now, he’s the starter. Wow. He's big (6-2, 210) and fast, and he demonstrates an unflappable, easy-going demeanor that allows him to shake off bad goals and bad games with ease. Best of all, his teammates seem to draw confidence and energy from every save he makes. They play better hockey in front of him than they have with any other goalie since perhaps Eddie “The Eagle” Belfour. Last season's 20 wins should grow to the low 30s as long as there's no sophomore slump. I don't foresee one, but he is only 23 and stranger things have happened to far more touted twinetenders.

TWO TO WATCH

Matthew Lombardi (C): If he’s healthy – and that’s a real “if” at this point -- Lombardi could become the poster boy for supreme fantasy sleeper. You know his history -- concussed in Game 2 last year and M.I.A. the rest of the season. But he’s a superb skater -- fast, effortless and agile. And he has nifty hands and a playmaker’s vision. He delivered career numbers in the desert skating beside sniper Shane Doan, so look out if he ever gets a shot with Kessel, who saw his best performances beside another slippery, left-shooting playmaker by the name of Marc Savard. Put him on that little list of sleeper/waiver grabs you keep on the side of your draft list -- he’s way more than a third-line center.

Joffrey Lupul (LW): Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve -- Lupul should have been a sniping star. But injuries during his prime development years pretty much flat-lined his growth and he’s been an underachiever ever since. He didn’t exactly blow the doors off the Air Canada Centre after his arrival in Toronto last year, but there were signs that he was starting to develop some chemistry with Kessel. This year, he and Kessel will get a true playmaking center and that will benefit both men. A 30-60 season is absolutely possible if he’s finally healthy. That’d be a steal on draft day.

DON’T OVERRATE

Clarke MacArthur (LW): What a season this guy had last year. He was one-third of perhaps the most exciting line in hockey and his 62 points came within two of the team lead. He led the Leafs in helpers with 41, almost all of which came from setting up snipers Grabovski and Kulemin. But can he do it again? I’d love to say yes but I think we've already seen his ceiling. He’s not a one-hit wonder -- I think he’ll likely get 50 points this season -- but he’s definitely a complementary player who elevates his game while playing with better players. And his role – and opportunity – will decline as the Leafs continue to add more (and better) pieces.

Jonas Gustavsson (G): I’ve already heard lots of preseason pundits saying the Monster will seriously push Reimer in camp. I don’t buy it. It’s not because he doesn’t have talent. He does. And lots of it. My bigger concerns are his seeming lack of compatibility with Leafs goalie guru Francois Allaire and the expressive ways he shows his frustrations. I heard whispers that Gustavsson spent the summer working with his own goalie coach, not Allaire. And you and I have both seen how his teammates skate away when he starts his little tantrums. He needs to revive his career and he has this season to do it. I think the only pushing he’ll do will be his wheeled hockey bag on his way to the airport and his new team. It may be his only chance to shine.

HOT (OR NOT?) PROSPECTS

Joe Colborne (C/LW): Little Joe is a big man blessed with extraordinary hands, deceptive speed and high hockey IQ. Trouble is, he's also been lumped into that 'unengaged' big man category -- why is it that people think big guys are dogging it when they're not? He's working on his two-way skills and he's growing into a top-6 future. He should start the season in the AHL but the Buds could keep him up. He won't contribute much in single-year leagues but his keeper value is strong. He's not only huge but he can play both wing and center, and could end up on the top line in a few years. Not a bad keeper at all.

Nazem Kadri (C/LW): I’m going to take some heat for this but I’m still not drinking the Kool-Aid. There’s no question Kadri has skill -- he has brilliant hands and speed to burn. But he still needs serious work on his effort and consistency. A move off center sure helps; so will another stint with the Marlies for 2011-12. He has zero opportunity to crack the top-6 in Toronto without someone else getting injured, so a trip down Lakeshore Drive would be the best thing for his career. I hope the Leafs will be smart and give him that chance to completely dominate the AHL. Leafs fans will flip; so will Canada’s Don Cherry. But I think that kid gloves may be the only way to help grow this enigmatic talent into an abrasive, Corey Perry-lite. Otherwise, he could just be another Darcy Tucker. And that would be a waste given Kadri’s talents.

Greg McKegg (C): McKegg has gone from being a third-round pick to one of the best players in the OHL in just two short years. And his invite to the Team Canada Junior Evaluation Camp this past summer sets him among the elite in his age group. He plays well in all three zones, can clearly snipe (49 goals last season) and his skating is no longer an issue. And he's finally starting to fulfill the potential that saw him picked ahead of guys like Jeff Skinner, Eric Gudbranson and even Tyler Seguin in the 2008 OHL Priority Draft. Keeper leaguers with long horizons should take a long, hard look at this guy -- he may end up as the steal of the 2010 draft and a point-per-game player in his best year. Just don't expect him in a Leafs uniform for three or more seasons.