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Top Shelf: Why the Maple Leafs can make the playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't have much to celebrate last season, but fans are hoping for more wins in 2010-11. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't have much to celebrate last season, but fans are hoping for more wins in 2010-11. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For those associated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the post-lockout era may better be described as the post-moderate-success era.

The Leafs made the playoffs each of the six seasons leading up the 2004-05 work stoppage, twice advancing to the NHL’s final four.

Since play resumed, the Leafs have famously fallen short of the post-season on five straight occasions, occupying the Northeast basement each of the past three years.

A good portion of THN’s staff has the Leafs pegged for another laughingstock season, a fact that became clear when we hammered out 2010-11 predictions for the purpose of publishing our annual Yearbook.

Myself, I’m not entirely convinced the blue and white should be completely written off just yet.

The first thing you’ll hear when people tear down Toronto is that the team has a serious dearth of talent up front. It’s undeniably true. Phil Kessel is an all-world talent, but beyond him, there isn’t a sure thing in the bunch.

Well, you can be sure Mikhail Grabovski will wheel around the offensive zone on the periphery before making a blind, backhand pass to no one just before he goes behind the net, but that’s another story.

Those who think Tyler Bozak can be penciled in for 60 points based on a 27-point showing in 37 games as a rookie last year need to reacquaint themselves with the volatile nature of professional athlete development. Believe me – or ask Luke Schenn – it isn’t always a straight line.

That’s not to say Bozak won’t be a productive center this year; it’s just to say there’s certainly no guarantee it will happen.

Kris Versteeg is a nice addition from the Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks and beyond scoring 20-plus goals, he’ll never take a shift off and will help a penalty kill that’s been horrendous for years.

Colby Armstrong is another good soldier up front, albeit an offensively limited one.

Realistically, neither new guy is going to move the production needle significantly. And even if eventually trading Tomas Kaberle does return a significant forward for the Leafs, this team is not going to conjure up images of the ’87 Oilers. But that doesn’t necessarily preclude them from challenging for a playoff spot.

Toronto’s 2.56 goals per game last season placed it in a 25th-place tie with the Montreal Canadiens, a team that not only made the playoffs, but advanced to the final four. Phoenix set a franchise records for wins and points by scoring a whopping 2.57 goals per game, which barely registers as an improvement on the Leafs’ totals.

What killed Toronto was its 3.21 goals allowed per contest, a putrid mark surpassed only by the inept Edmonton Oilers. Now, this is the time of year when things that seem sure have yet to reveal the fallacy of our evaluations, but it will take a miracle for the Leafs to be any looser on the back end.

Let’s face it; with Jonas Gustavsson hurting for much of the month and Vesa Toskala playing – not to mention Joey MacDonald at times when Toskala was injured, too – the Leafs barely got a save through their miserable 1-7-4 October to start last season.

That’s not going to happen again. Gustavsson is still green and Jean-Sebastien Giguere has a long way to go to get back to his Conn Smythe Trophy form, but there’s no reason to believe between the two of them they can’t provide adequate to quality goaltending.

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Details of the defense corps can certainly be debated; namely just whether 25-year-old captain Dion Phaneuf can veer more toward a Chris Pronger path after slipping a little too far down the Bryan McCabe trail two years after being runner-up for the Norris Trophy. Trading Kaberle might quickly and painfully reveal nobody on Toronto’s blueline moves the puck nearly as well as he does. And can Schenn’s step back as a sophomore be followed by two forward?

Still, even with all those questions, you contrast a top six of Phaneuf, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Schenn, Carl Gunnarsson and Brett Lebda with the defense corps of other mediocre Eastern teams scrapping for a playoff spot and they compare very, very favorably.

That team GAA is coming down; how much depends on the defensive commitment coach Ron Wilson can get from everybody in the lineup, which should be filled with lots of people trying to please since it’s such a young, unproven group.

It should also be a crew highly motivated to improve on results from the immediate past as they claw and scratch to finally fight out of the post-playoff era.

VIDEO: Jean-Sébastien Giguère and the goalie guru

When the Toronto Maple Leafs unloaded underperformers Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala at the trade deadline last season, many felt just getting those salaries off the books was a stroke of genius by Leafs GM Brian Burke.

The fact that Burke was also able to obtain a goalie with the pedigree of Jean-Sebastien Giguere was seen as icing on the cake.

Reunited with longtime mentor and goaltending coach Francois Allaire, Giguere is looking to recapture his past glory in Toronto. In 15 starts last season with the Leafs, the Montreal native, had a record of 6-7-2-2 with a save percentage of .916. While his numbers are not awe inspiring, it is expected he will compete with Jonas Gustavsson for the staring job this season.

Matt Krebs takes a closer look at Giguere and his relationship with goaltending guru Francois Allaire. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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