Toronto Banking on Phil Kessel, James Reimer to Help End Postseason Drought

Toronto Banking on Phil Kessel, James Reimer to Help End Postseason Drought The Leafs extended their franchise-record playoff drought to six seasons last year, but they did move up five spots from 15th in the East in 2009-10 to 10th this past season. That creates some reason for optimism in Toronto, but the fact remains that the Maple Leafs and the Florida Panthers are the only two teams in the NHL that have not qualified for the playoffs at least once since the owners' lockout.

Two years after mortgaging the future in a trade for Phil Kessel, general manager Brian Burke continued to tweak the roster this summer. The Leafs failed in their bid to land coveted free agent Brad Richards, but did sign Tim Connolly away from Buffalo and added to their defense with a pair of trades for John-Michael Liles and Cody Franson.
 
2010-11 Record: 37-34-11, 85 points (4th Northeast Division; 10th Eastern Conference; did not qualify for playoffs)

Bruins record vs. Maple Leafs: Boston leads the all-time series 278-255-98-8, but went just 2-2-2 against Toronto last year. The Bruins opened with a 2-0 win at home on Oct. 28, with Tyler Seguin scoring a goal to lead to chants of "Thank You, Kessel" in the Garden, but Kessel got a measure of revenge with the shootout winner in Toronto on Dec. 4 and two goals in Boston in a 4-3 Leafs win on Feb. 15. The Leafs also won in a shootout in Boston on March 31, despite a goal and an assist by Brad Marchand, but Marchand may have also contributed to that Toronto win by inspiring the Leafs when he taunted their bench with a golf swing motion at the end of the second period.

When to watch: The Bruins host the Leafs on Thursday, Oct. 20, Saturday, Dec. 3 and Monday, March 19, while heading to Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 5, Wednesday, Nov. 30 and Tuesday, March 6.

Familiar faces: In addition to Kessel, who spent his first three seasons with Boston after being taken fifth overall in the 2006 draft, the Leafs also feature former Bruins Colton Orr, Matt Lashoff and Joe Colborne, who was sent to Toronto in the Tomas Kaberle trade. With Kessel, Lashoff (2005) and Colborne (2008), the Leafs have just one fewer former Bruins first-round pick in their system than Boston does. Only Dougie Hamilton (2011), Seguin (2010), Jordan Caron (2009) and Zach Hamill (2008) remain in the Boston organization.

Former Bruin Dave Poulin is Toronto's vice president of hockey operations, while general manager Burke and coach Ron Wilson were teammates at Providence College. Assistant coaches Scott Gordon (Easton, Mass./Boston College) and Greg Cronin (former Northeastern head coach) have New England ties as well, with Gordon also coaching the Providence Bruins for five seasons.

Key additions: D John-Michael Liles (trade with Colorado); F Tim Connolly (free agent); F Matthew Lombardi (trade with Nashville); D Cody Franson (trade with Nashville); F Philippe Dupuis (free agent)

Key losses: F Tim Brent (signed with Carolina); F John Mitchell (signed with NY Rangers); F Fredrik Sjostrom (signed with Farjestads, Sweden); G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (signed with Colorado); F Christian Hanson (signed with Washington); F Fabian Brunnstrom (agreed to camp tryout with Detroit); D Brett Lebda (traded to Nashville); F Robert Slaney (traded to Nashville)

Burning question: Is James Reimer the real deal in net?

The Leafs, the franchise that gave Tuukka Rask to the Bruins for the low, low price of Andrew Raycroft at the 2006 draft, have been searching for a legitimate No. 1 goalie ever since. They may have finally found their man in Reimer, who sparked Toronto's late-season rally with a 20-10-5 record, 2.60 GAA and .921 save percentage after being called up from the AHL for good in January. NHL history is littered with examples of young goalies who made a huge splash in the league but didn't have the staying power to maintain that level of performance. Will Reimer suffer the same fate now that opposing shooters have a book on him? Or is he going to emerge as the next star netminder in the league?

The Leafs are banking on the latter, as they signed him to a three-year, $5.4-million extension this summer. Reimer's ability to maintain the level of play he exhibited late last year may be the biggest key to ending Toronto's postseason drought.

2011-12 outlook: The Leafs didn't get Richards but hope that Plan B will work out after adding Connolly. Connolly could be the playmaking center Toronto has lacked, but he has to stay healthy. Connolly has missed 190 games over the last six years, sitting out an average of 32 games a season over that span. He had just 13-29-42 totals in 68 games last year. Despite some lengthy slumps, Kessel led the Leafs with 32-32-64 totals last year, while Clarke MacArthur proved a free-agent bargain with a 21-41-62 campaign. Mikhail Grabovski (29-29-58) and Nikolai Kulemin (30-27-57) give the Leafs' offense some additional punch.

Toronto added some skill to the back end by trading for Liles and Franson, who join captain Dion Phaneuf and youngsters Luke Schenn, a restricted free agent who still needs to be re-signed, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Aulie on an improving blue line. The Franson deal also brought center Matthew Lombardi to Toronto, and he could upgrade the skill up front if he can recover from the concussion that cost him the final 80 games of last season in Nashville.

Did you know? Kessel struggled mightily against his old club for his first season and a half in Toronto, failing to score a single goal with just one assist and a minus-6 rating in his first nine games against Boston. But Kessel finally found the range late last year. He scored twice in a 4-3 win at the Garden on Feb. 15, then added three assists in the final two meetings of the year, both Toronto victories. 

With the bulk of the offseason moves complete and the start of another NHL season inching closer, NESN.com Bruins beat writer Douglas Flynn will be previewing one team from each conference every day through August 26.

Wednesday, August 24: Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers

Friday, August 26: Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks

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