Originally posted on Beating The Buzzer  |  Last updated 10/3/11
So, here we are again. Another summer of remodeling is in the books, and with the turn of the calendar page, another October filled with optimism.  If this process seems eerily similar, it is.  

In the years since Jeremy Roenick went top-shelf on Ed Belfour, ending the Maple Leafs season in 2004, this has been the course of events covered from April until October. NHL Draft.  Free agency.  Informal workouts.  Training Camp.  Roster Cuts.  Losing month of October - of course even with the hot 4-0 start of last year.

Is this the year that things change?  It’s hard to tell.

The Maple Leafs made their final cuts on Monday morning, essentially setting the opening day roster as they prepare for Thursday night’s season opener against the Montreal Canadiens.  With the exception of Jake Gardiner playing himself into the opening night lineup, and Matt Frattin claiming second-line duty on the Grabovski line, there were few surprises.

The Leafs finished the pre-season portion of their schedule with a 4-4-0 record.  While it is true that the pre-season counts for nothing in the standings, it does help generate momentum leading up to the regular season opener.  For a team that has essentially killed its playoff hopes in each of the last two Octobers, they could have used a strong pre-season. They didn’t get one.

By no means did they look terrible in the exhibition round of play, but they were unable to shore up the inefficiencies from last year’s team, something that is a must if they hope to qualify for the post-season for the first time in seven years.  Both the power play and penalty kill showed flashes of potential at times, but potential isn’t good enough for a team that brought in two new assistant coaches in Greg Cronin and Scott Gordon with the primary purpose of rectifying the club’s special teams performance.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference continues to become stronger, with all the teams from last year’s post-season adding to their lineups, and all the bubble teams making off-season moves to compete for a playoff spot.  In order to make the playoffs this season, the Maple Leafs are going to have to leap frog the eight playoff teams from last season, plus compete with a , a reinvigorated Devils team, and youthful Islander and Hurricane teams loaded with blue chip potential.

To put a finger on where exactly the Leafs stand is extremely difficult.  It has become a trend in Leaf land for the club to play quality hockey come January or February every season, as pressure and expectation begin to dwindle.  As a result, to assess talent during such a stage becomes something that is not an exact science.

Take for instance James Reimer.  After posting a 20-10-5 record in a surprising rookie campaign – with many of his wins coming in the aforementioned pressure-less part of the season – many believe that he has what it takes to return the Maple Leafs to the post-season.  However, no one is totally sure, not even Leafs management.  He deserves a shot to prove himself, don’t get me wrong, but his play last year does not mean that he is ready to handle the load of a number one goaltender over the course of an 82 game schedule.  Whether or not Reimer can keep the Maple Leafs in games will likely play the largest role in the fortunes of the team’s season.

Bringing in Tim Connolly was clearly plan B, but it is a low-risk high-reward scenario which makes the signing a legitimate one.  Forget about the money that was given – the Leafs have no issue with dollars or cap management – Connolly’s services cost the club no assets in the form of prospects or picks.  Should he post 55-60 points and help Kessel reach the 40-goal plateau, the signing will look great.  Should he get injured and miss significant time, his 4.5 million dollar cap hit comes off the books and opens up room for Brian Burke to make a move.  It’s a win-win situation.  However, his ability to get the most out of linemates Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel – and give the Leafs two legitimate scoring lines – is what will determine whether or not his signing was a successful one.

As for the trades for John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson and Matthew Lombardi, all three are significant additions to the club. Liles fills the void left by the departure of Tomas Kaberle, and more.  He plays much better in his own zone than Kaberle, and actually shoots the puck through traffic on the powerplay. His addition should help the Leafs quest to improving their powerplay efficiency.

The trade that brought Franson and Lombardi heavily favored the Leafs, especially if Lombardi starts on opening night.  Toronto loses nothing in Brett Lebda, and brings in a young Cody Franson – a big bodied defenseman with a booming shot.  Lombardi was deemed to be a salary dump at the time, but should he play on opening night, he brings significant foot-speed and playmaking ability and could prove to be a huge addition to the Leafs penalty kill.

Every game is essentially a must-win in today’s NHL, especially for a bubble team like the Maple Leafs. If the Leafs are able to stay healthy, they will fight for a playoff spot all season.  They also need repeat performances from the Grabovski line, much-improved special teams, and better in-zone coverage from the defence.  

The pieces are starting to fall in place, but the Leafs are still one or two significant additions away from solidifying their place in the NHL’s postseason. For the Leaf fan starving for playoff hockey, tune in every game and assume it is a must-win game 7, because in what’s becoming an increasingly tough Eastern Conference, it essentially is.

Follow Beating the Buzzer on Twitter @btbsports and like our Facebook page here. You can also follow Adam on Twitter @adamhalberstadt.
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