Wow - what a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, things looked bleak for the blue and white. But then Nazem Kadri flirted with the top-10 scorer's list, Phil Kessel looked up backchecking on Wikipedia and the team came within minutes - yes, minutes - of eliminating the Stanley Cup finalists from the playoffs.
Clearly, pigs CAN fly.
Don't get me wrong - I was born into a blue and white family. One of my first phrases was "Go Leafs." But it was hard to like the product they were putting forward last September.
Or January, for that matter.
Ten days before the season, they fired general manager Brian Burke and it looked like Groundhog Day all over again. But the team bought into coach Randy Carlyle's system and new general manager Dave Nonis' calm. And they ended up fifth in the Eastern Conference and ninth overall in the NHL.
Without upgrading a thing...other than GM.
This summer was different. They addressed their goaltending issues and created a controversy at the same time. But who cares? The Jonathan Bernier - James Reimer tandem is clearly better than Reimer and Ben Scrivens could have ever been. They picked up Dave Bolland from the Hawks and landed the so-called catch of free agency (David Clarkson). And they bought out Mikhail Grabovski, who just couldn't buy Randy Carlyle's favor.
They still don't have that big-bodied, No. 1 center (sorry, Tyler Bozak), but their lineup is very stable. And that means it's a whole lot easier to rely on them for fantasy production.
Hey - they might actually have six forwards who crack the 50-point plateau this season. Three of their defenders will flirt with 40 or more points. And both of their goalies will register a save percentage of at least .920.
The future is getting so bright, I'm going to have to wear shades. The Cup ain't coming to Toronto this season. But it will soon. And I'll be there. Like a moth to a light bulb.
The Big Guns
Phil Kessel (RW): Tyler Seguin who? Phil the Thrill exorcised all of the quote-unquote trade demons last season. Not only did he lead the Buds in every scoring category, but Kessel also finished seventh in NHL scoring with 52 points. And he delivered five points, including four goals, in seven first-round games against his arch-nemesis, Zdeno Chara, and the Bruins. Cripes, he even improved his plus-minus rating and showed up on the back check. Go figure. Kessel is the Leafs' most potent scorer and is money in the bank for a 40-goal, 85-point season in 2013-14. But caveat emptor does apply here, if only because of his contract status. He's made it clear he won't negotiate an extension during the season, so in Toronto, that means he'll face a dozen or more questions every day about re-signing come June. And that might just weigh on a guy whose shy quotient is off the charts. Draft him, but don't walk away from a trade at the deadline if i) the Leafs are scuffling and ii) he's headed toward free agency.
Joffrey Lupul (LW): Loops could be the poster boy for "stud winger" in the NHL if he wasn't so damn injury prone. He's supremely talented and charismatic, with tremendous leadership skills. But he simply cannot stay healthy … at least not for the last four seasons. He has been outstanding since joining the Leafs - try a point-per-game pace and clutch play. Now that's tasty. He'll continue to be that player as long as he's on the ice, but he's all but guaranteed to miss 15-20 games. So once again, it's caveat emptor time. Know what you're buying and plan accordingly.
Dion Phaneuf (D): Surprised? You shouldn't be. Sure, Cody Franson was the Leafs' best offensive defender in a lockout-shortened season, but Phaneuf munches big minutes and owns a rocket of a shot that sometimes even hits the net. Sure, he bears the brunt of criticism with the Toronto media, but that doesn't matter in fantasy hockey. He will continue to prove his fantasy worth to the tune of 40-45 points, including plenty on the power play, 100 PIMs, 200+ hits and 125 blocked shots. That's a combination that's hard to beat when it comes to multi-category leagues.
On The Rise
Jake Gardiner (D): Gardiner is a thoroughbred with a bright fantasy future. And pretty much everyone thought he'd take a leap toward stardom last season. Not so fast. He struggled with concussion symptoms, was sent back to the AHL to regain his legs (and his game) and then regularly found himself a scratch once he did return to the NHL. It almost seemed like coach Randy Carlyle wasn't fond of the kid. But Gardiner persevered, figured out what his coach wanted in the defensive zone and ended up as the Leafs' best blueliner by the end of the playoffs. No, I'm not kidding. That step toward stardom will happen this year and he might just net himself 35-40 points. It's only up from here.
James van Riemsdyk (LW): van Riemsdyk took some big steps forward last season and finally started to show why he was the number two overall pick in 2007. He seems to have found a home on the Leafs' top line and there, he finally started to use that big body to much greater potential. Sure, there were still moments when he completely disappeared, but those were fewer, shorter and much further between than ever before. And those 18 goals in 48 games were just three shy of matching his career high (set in 75 games). Watch for him to continue to drink the Randy Carlyle Kool-Aid and start parking his carcass on the edge of the blue paint. And that will bring a 30-goal, 55-point season.
Two to Watch
Jonathan Bernier (G): Could a goalie controversy be brewing in the Big Smoke? The Leafs acquired this talented and athletic twinetender just before this year's NHL Entry Draft and promptly signed him to a two-year, $5.8 million deal … all while having a so-called starter (James Reimer) under contract. The Buds have said both men will get an equal shot at the starter's gig, but it's hard to imagine they'd pay Bernier the money they're paying him to be a back up. Still, there's a huge risk that coach Randy Carlyle will roll the hot hand and that means a weird platoon until one of the two guys starts to dominate. Reimer is going to come out of the gate smokin', so you'd better have both men, just to be safe. I fully expect Bernier to eventually gain the upper hand, but that might take until Christmas. Or later.
James Reimer (G): Reimer's world changed in the blink of an eye … or a summer trade, in this case. Enter former Kings' hotshot back-up, Jonathan Bernier, and Reimer's so-called lock on the starter's gig disappeared. Now, the Leafs' brass is saying all the right things and insisting the two men have an equal shot to be number one. But Reimer is at a distinct disadvantage in the fight. Still, he will not go down without a fight and he's going to come out of training camp on fire. And that means we'll see a platoon with the hot hand getting the starts. I think Bernier will ultimately rule the crease, but the calendar could be 2014 before that happens. Handcuff these guys together. Sorry.
David Bolland (C): Bolland is a good Toronto - sorry, Mimico - boy who set hearts aflutter in the Big Smoke when he paraded the Stanley Cup around his old neighborhood early this summer. The streets were lined with chalice-hungry fans wearing their best blue-and-white … forgetting, of course, that he won it with the Hawks. Bolland is best deployed as a true, third-line checker, but here's the rub. He's injury prone and not nearly as good as the departed Mikhail Grabovski was in the defensive zone. Bolland is being touted as a sleeper this season and the Leafs' fans in your league will be sure to bite. Go ahead and talk him up - he's more likely to deliver 30-32 points and miss 20 games than bring you any real fantasy value this season.
David Clarkson (RW): Clarkson's signing with the Leafs was like a television evangelist returning home to Texas - you would have thought God had come along, too. Oh boy. Clarkson hits and shoots, and he can score some goals, maybe even to the tune of 25-30 a season. But buyer beware - 16 of his 24 points last season came in the first 14 games. Yep - that means he only picked up eight in the last 34. Know your categories - does a streaky goal scorer with a limited upside (45-50 points) who only brings you PIMs and hits fit your needs?
Nazem Kadri (C): Nazzy, Nazzy, Nazzy - stay off Twitter, man. The guy is talented enough - he was in the league's top 10 scorers early last season. And he finally seemed to pick up Randy Carlyle's game requirements. But his healthy ego got the best of him during this summer's contract "challenges" with the Leafs and his frustrations really started to flare by early September. He's penciled in as the Leafs' second-line center, but he'll suffer immensely if he holds out come training camp. Even if he signs before then, you should be wise to remember what happened to him last season. He might have had 39 points and been plus-20 in his first 36 games, but he disappeared when the games got tough - try five points and minus-5 in his last 12 games. He's growing his game and could still be a 60-65 point guy. But center is deep in most single-year leagues and that might not cut it in standard leagues. 2014-15? Now that's a whole different hockey game.
Matt Finn (D): Finn had a tough 2012-13. First stricken with mono and then felled by a nasty knee-on-knee hit, the smooth defender just couldn't catch a break. He did play well on a thin Guelph Storm (OHL) blue line when he did dress, but he'll need another year of junior - a full year, that is - to see if he can become an offensive force. Otherwise, he's a solid, top-four defender with second power-play unit upside. But that won't come for a few years just yet. Watch and wait.
Frederick Gauthier (C): Gauthier is a big (6-5), cerebral centerman who projects as a shutdown pivot who can occasionally pitch in some offense. In fact, he's the best defensive forward from the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He'll be valuable to his on-ice team in a Martin Hanzal - Michal Handzus kind of way, but neither of those guys can be considered anything more than fantasy fringers. Leafs' general manager Dave Nonis believes Gauthier has some untapped offensive ability, but I'll wait to see if it becomes more than a promise before I draft him. Watch from a distance for now.
Stuart Percy (D): Percy acquitted himself well in the AHL at the end of 2012-13, delivering a goal and two assists in four games with the Marlies. He's a calm, collected and cerebral defender with untapped offensive upside. He'll never be an offensive stud, but instead a good all-round, top-four guy who'll see second-unit power play time. Keeper leaguers should watch and wait ... unless there's a major Leafs' fan in your league. If so, make a late-round play on Percy and then trade him for more than he's worth. Leafs' fans almost always overrate (and thus overpay) for their boys.
Morgan Reilly (D): Stud, stud, STUD. There's no other way to put it. Rielly is a superb skater and an elite offensive defender who controlled the ice and tallied nearly a point-per-game in the Western Hockey League last year. But the Leafs are caught in a quandary with him - he's too good for junior, but not old enough to continue his development in the AHL. So the Leafs will be forced to make a hard decision come training camp - keep him and risk him being overwhelmed in the hottest hockey spotlight in the NHL or return him to junior where he has nothing left to prove (or learn). He's an elite keeper who could some day net 60 points. But 19-year-old defenders rarely excel in the NHL. Single-year owners should wisely leave him undrafted and snag him off the wire if he takes off at any point. Keeper leaguers? You know what to do.