With the new season quickly approaching, I thought it would be a good time to trot out some predictions for the upcoming season – more so for the purpose of stimulating discussion and for fun, than for any perceived psychic ability or magical insight on my part.
#1. Phil Kessel will score 50 goals
So far, Kessel has been remarkably consistent in his NHL career scoring 30 goals (if you prorate his lockout production) for six straight seasons. Twice he has hit 37, his career high. As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s the lack of a number one centre holding him back, but rather the Leafs lack of secondary scoring which means Kessel has to face the opposing team’s top defenders almost constantly.
This year, I believe the Leafs will have enough offense up and down the lineup to free up Kessel a little – and even if it is only a little, I think it will be enough to get him to 50 for the first time in his career.
#2. Kessel and JVR will be split up
This is rumored to be a possibility, but then again, in Toronto, what isn’t? I think “chemistry” is the most overblown hockey concept this side of “leadership” and “heart.” Kessel has chemistry with everyone, because he’s Phil Kessel. Kessel no more needs Bozak or JVR for his success than Simon needs Garfunkel or Hall needs Oates. And conversely, while Bozak demonstratively benefits from playing with elite players, I think JVR would be just fine on his own line too.
If I was the coach – and despite the Leafs new-found penchant for hiring bloggers, I am not – then I would play Kadri with Kessel and Clarkson and I would play JVR with Bozak and Lupul. Sure, role your eyes about promoting Clarkson to the top line if you want, but if you do that, you get your best value for him and he’ll pick up a lot of garbage goals and make room for the two speedsters. On top of which, you would get a second line that would be capable of exploiting weak, secondary defenders and who would hopefully score enough to occasionally draw the top pairing.
In my opinion, keeping Kessel and JVR on the same line is a mistake. One of those players – and pretty obviously it’s JVR – has to be employed with the purpose of exploiting secondary defensive pairings. My theory is that you will get more out of each them apart then together.
#3. Clarkson rebounds
I truly believe that there are people who want Clarkson to fail just so that they can point to their advanced stats and say “I told you so.” Don’t get me wrong, it would be foolish at this point to be anti-stat, but people should realize that one example one way or the other means nothing. The entire point of stats is to make an aggregate and anyone who argues, teaches or writes for a living should be able to tell you that anecdotal examples are worthless. Therefore, no one should care one way or the other about whether Clarkson succeeds or not. It was obvious the day he was signed that he was overpaid and that the term was too long. Forgotten of course, in the quest to crucify Leafs GM Dave Nonis over it, is the fact that every single player signed on July first, every single year, gets too many dollars and too much term. It’s the nature of the game, but it doesn’t mean that David Clarkson is not a useful player.
Clarkson had a rough year – 2 suspensions, 3 injuries – and he never got on a roll. He clearly has more to offer than he did last year, and he is going to come through this year. Is he going to offer up 30 goals like he did three seasons ago? Unlikely. But he will hit, defend his teammates in a fight, play his ass off, be a good tertiary threat. And let’s be honest here, the length of the deal isn’t as prohibitive as people think. Who really cares about years five through seven? Cross that bridge when you come to it is my advice. Let’s focus on right now, and right now, Clarkson is a pretty good fourth-best winger to have. When you consider the cap hits of ex-leafs Grabovski, MacArthur and Kulemin on contracts they all just recently signed, Clarkson’s deal is comparable. and I’ll take him on my team over those three any day because I feel he offers up something those guys don’t, even if the advanced stats say MacArthur is a better player than anyone who’s just watched him, including his coaches and GMs of the last ten years, ever thought.
Look, MacArthur probably is underrated, and I know a LOT of guys who would rather have him in Toronto right now than Clarkson and who think getting rid of him was one of Nonis’ worst mistakes. I don’t buy it though. A lot of what makes Clarkson – to my mind, anyways – superior is that much of what he does can’t be quantified on a score sheet. I don’t buy too much into leadership and culture and all that other stuff, but I do believe that guys in the mold of Clarkson – guys like Gary Roberts, Wendel Clark – provide something that makes a team better. Sure, Clarkson is no Roberts or Clark, but he is an animal, he will do anything to win, he cares about his teammates in a way that is rare, and he is going to score at least 20 goals this year – put it in writing, ’cause it’s a guarantee!
#4. Kadri will be an All-Star
This is the year we have all been waiting for. The year Nazem Kadri takes his unbelievable skill set and translates it to top-line success. Tyler Bozak is a favorite of mine and I will stick up for him anytime, but Kadri is going to take his job this season. The reason? He’s just way, way better. Kadri said this summer he wants to one of the best players in the NHL. Some people might have laughed at that, but not me. I fully expect Kadri to match his point-per-game total of the lockout season, but to do it with un-sheltered minutes. If they put him on a line with Kessel, as I predict they will, the sky’s the limit. Scoring title? Well, probably not, but he could put up 80-odd points playing with Kessel and I think the Leafs will have, after this season, finally have found their replacement for Mats Sundin in the #1 centre category.
#5. They will make the Playoffs
Nearly all the pre-season NHL magazines that I have seen have the Leafs missing the post-season dance next April. I think that’s a joke. This is a team that oozes potential, and I think it’s about to be realized. They have one of the best – possibly the best – goaltending tandems in the NHL. They are deep at wing. Their D is more balanced than it was and their bottom six is shaping up to give them an edge over most teams in hockey. Their two biggest weaknesses, Centre ice and defense – will be corrected internally – at least that is my prediction. Kadri will become the top line centre everyone hoped he would be, and Rielly and Gardiner will become a dominant offensive duo, freeing up Phaneuf from having to do everything and thus giving the Leafs 3 high end defenseman instead of just one. Heck, I’ll even take it a step further – the Maple Leafs will compete with Montreal, Boston, Pittsburgh and the Lightning for the Eastern Conference Title and win a round or two in the Playoffs.
Thanks for reading.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.