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2012 Maple Leafs Preview: Not Much Optimism in Toronto

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.

I'll get this over quick -- the Leafs will be the first team to not make the postseason through two lockouts.

Ouch. The truth hurts.

Don't get me wrong -- there's still fantasy value in the Big Smoke. But this team is stuck in puberty when just about every other Eastern team grew up over the offseason.

The team did not address its two biggest needs -- a goaltending upgrade and a big-bodied center -- through trade or free agency. Instead, general manager Brian Burke says he's comfortable with the tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens between the pipes. And he and coach Randy Carlyle think newly arrived winger James van Riemsdyk can transition back to pivot, a spot he last played in college.

Fat chance. On either count.

Coach Carlyle is well known for his defensive approach and his previous "challenges" with Joffrey Lupul. But the team isn't currently built for a defensive approach and I'll withhold judgment on the Carlyle-Lupul, kiss-and-get-on-with-things... for now.

The Reimer-Scrivens duo will be decent, but unspectacular. The defense will need to seriously batten down the hatches now that Luke Schenn is gone (really, can Mike Komisarek's bad wheels and worse decisions do them any good?). Phil Kessel is arguably one of, if not the best right winger in hockey right now and he's shown he can actually play all by himself.

He'll have to.

Loops will be in for a decline under Carlyle; Mikhail Grabovski might step things up. But pigs will fly before many other players, other than a few blueliners, will be fantasy contributors.

Slip a bag over your head, Leafs fans. Hey -- maybe they'll get Nathan McKinnon or Seth Jones next draft. Either would be a great complement to Morgan Reilly. Now that kid has a great future.


THE BIG GUNS


Mikhail Grabovski (C): Phil Kessel may be the team's hottest scorer, but Grabo is arguably the team's most valuable. His game has matured and he has started to even out his hots and colds ... streaks, that is. He's the perfect second-line center and has great chemistry with regular linemates Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur. Expect a strong 55-60 point season along with his trademark "edge," but don't expect him to ascend to the top line. He needs the puck; so does Phil Kessel. And that will keep the two of them apart.

Phil Kessel (RW): Another season, another center -- that's the life and times of Phil Kessel. But, honestly -- will that matter? Kessel finished sixth in NHL scoring last season with 82 points and his 37 goals tied for sixth while Tyler Bozak, a guy who's better suited to the third line, was dishing him the puck. Kessel demonstrated tremendous growth in his game last year -- he showed up on the backcheck (go figure) and shed the inconsistent label, as his longest point drought was a whopping three games. He's arguably the NHL's best right winger and that's without a top pivot. So who knows what might be possible with big (and talented) James van Riemsdyk setting him up. He'll be a top-five scorer regardless. Snap him up early.

Dion Phaneuf (D): Yes, he's overrated. And no, he's not nearly as tough as he seemed at the beginning of his career, but Dion is still Dion. He has that big-time shot and he should be solid for a season just like his last -- 40-plus points, including lots on the man advantage with close to 100 PIMs. That's a combo that isn't as common as you might think -- just three defenders (Phaneuf, Kevin Bieksa and Zdeno Chara) topped 40 points and 85 PIMs last season. Toss in 200-plus hits and 100-plus blocked shots, and suddenly he's not so overrated in specialty leagues.


ON THE RISE


Jake Gardiner (D): Ooooo baby, this guy was hot last season. He eliminated all thought that his hockey sense was subpar and he went on to be the Leafs' best defender in just his first season. He's poised and patient, with elite vision and wheels. That combo is going to catapult him into the fantasy elite in a couple years. I don't expect that proverbial sophomore slump to hit -- he was way more productive under Randy Carlyle (11 points in 18 games) than Ron Wilson (19 in 57) last year. Forty points and top power-play time beckon this season. Then it's up, up ... UP.

James van Riemsdyk (LW): Is this JVR's big year? Brian Burke and the rest of the Leafs sure hope so after trading away Luke Schenn. Big boys always seem to take longer to mature and van Riemsdyk has been no different. Trouble is, he's coming off an injury-plagued season and is being asked to switch to pivot, a position he hasn't played since college. Expect the Middletown, New Jersey native to get a long look with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and, if sparks fly, a 65-point season is within reach. That doesn't seem like much, but that's a 62 per cent increase in production for JVR. If the experiment at center fails, he'll still be a worthy fantasy left winger beside Mikhail Grabovski on the second line.


TWO TO WATCH


Tyler Bozak (C): The much-maligned Bozak is starting to become the Rodney Dangerfield of centers -- he just doesn't get the respect he's due. Sure, he has been miscast as a first-line center, but he has uncanny chemistry with Phil Kessel. The Leafs will experiment with James van Riemsdyk as Kessel's pivot and, if that's successful, Bozak will slip down to the third line. Sit on him at the draft until you know where he slots in -- it'll be the difference between maybe getting 40 points or almost definitely getting 60.

Matt Frattin (RW): Frattin's star is rising. The undersized power winger should start the season on the Buds' third line and his ability to create havoc, protect the puck and fire rockets gives him second-line upside. I like him ... a lot. And so do a lot of teams -- he's often asked for in trade talks. This year might not bring more than 30-35 points, but if Nikolai Kulemin continues to falter, Frattin could steal his job in the next couple years.


DON'T OVERRATE


Nazem Kadri (LW): Welcome to the NHL, Mr. Kadri -- now let's see if you can play. I've been critical of him and his skill set since draft day and unfortunately, I've been right. His offensive skills are elite and his game is growing, but his decision-making is still questionable and his impact will be limited -- he'll be a third liner this season, at best, but he "might" see occasional power play time. I once thought he could be another Darcy Tucker, but I'm not convinced of that anymore, either. Avoid the hype -- leave this 30-point winger to the Leafs' fan in your league, at least for this season.

Joffrey Lupul (LW): Loops and Phil Kessel displayed all 29 dimensions of compatibility last season -- they had the sizzle and they had the steak. And, until he went down with a separated shoulder, Lupul was among the league's best offensive players. In fact, he and the Thrill rivaled the Sedin twins in on-ice chemistry and output. Will he repeat his point-per-game pace of last year? I doubt it -- compatibility will only get you so far. Don't get me wrong -- he'll do well enough. But'll likely miss a dozen games and bring home 60-odd points. He'll be an early overdraft this year -- don't take the bait. I want to see a full season of good health before I anoint him one of the game's best wingers.

James Reimer (G): Is Optimus Reims healthy? The Leafs sure hope so. Last season looked promising until that fateful hit to the head from wee Brian Gionta. Apparently, the injury wasn't really a concussion, but a neck injury. However, it clouded his whole season, literally and figuratively. The haze has apparently cleared this offseason and he's champing at the bit to prove he's worthy of the top job in the Big Smoke. Hmmmmm ... General Manager Brian Burke has said he's okay with a Reimer-Ben Scrivens pairing, but he'd previously said his top priority was a starting goalie. Use caution on draft day ... and every day after that. Roberto Luongo rumors just won't go away and the last thing you need is a back-up goalie as top stud in your stable.


PROSPECTS (TWO HOT, ONE ...)


Joe Colborne (C): Colborne's immediate future -- at least with the Buds -- lies on the wing. He's a natural center, but that spot is crowded in Toronto. So he'll battle in camp with Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin for a job on the third line. His theoretical upside remains high -- there aren't many 6-5 centers with hands like his. But he still has some growing to do as a player. He remains a keeper option, but he won't bring value in single-year formats. Expect him to start the season with the Marlies.

Stuart Percy (D): Percy missed half of last season with the Mississauga St. Mike's Majors due to a concussion and a knee injury, but was promoted to the AHL Toronto Marlies at season's end any way. It seems peculiar, but the kid excelled in the A. He has another year of junior eligibility, so that's where he'll be this year. However, there are lots of things to like about Percy, particularly his speed, calm and skill. Could he be another Jake Gardiner? Maybe. Keeper leaguers need to take note -- it's not hard to imagine a Percy-Gardiner pairing in several years patrolling the Air Canada Centre.

Morgan Rielly (D): Rielly might have been the 2012 draft's top offensive defender had it not been for a blown ACL that limited him to just 18 games this past season. But, those 18 games showcased his elite skating, vision and skill -- he scored at a point-per-game pace. Rielly has some serious work to do in his own zone, but that can be forgiven in a future fantasy superstar. Yep, you read that right. Pick him if you're in a keeper league and need a future Duncan Keith-Brian Leetch type. Hey, there's even a chance Rielly might crack the Buds' lineup right out of camp. However, he'll be far better served by heading back to junior and dominating in the WHL and at the World Junior tourney.

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