Scanlan: Toronto has reason to be-Leaf in this squad

One of the challenges your Ottawa Senators will have this season is that they are not functioning in a static environment. In other words, it’s not just about them, their team, and whether some of their promising prospects are ready for the big time. It’s about finding a place in a bustling Eastern Conference that figures to be a lot stronger than last season, with gains expected from several franchises, including the one Ottawa fans love to hate.

BY WAYNE SCANLANOTTAWA — One of the challenges your Ottawa Senators will have this season is that they are not functioning in a static environment.

In other words, it’s not just about them, their team, and whether some of their promising prospects are ready for the big time.

It’s about finding a place in a bustling Eastern Conference that figures to be a lot stronger than last season, with gains expected from several franchises, including the one Ottawa fans love to hate.

Yes, there is optimism in Toronto – and not just because it’s September and the Maple Leafs are tied for first place along with everyone else.

The Leafs are in Ottawa tonight for the Senators’ final home date of the preseason.

Approaching the third anniversary of his arrival in Toronto from Anaheim, general manager Brian Burke finally has a team that could threaten to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when the Leafs eliminated you-know-who in Game 7 of the first round.

One Hockey News columnist went so far as to predict the Leafs would nudge out the Montreal Canadiens for the eighth and final playoff position in the east.

(He also has the Senators finishing 15th, which means he is making new friends all over Quebec and eastern Ontario).

Predictions are hardly real currency in the NHL (remember all the love for the New Jersey Devils at this time last year?), but if the Leafs aren’t closer than their 10th-place finish in 2010-11, eight points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers, Leaf Nation will be a grumbling blue-and-white mess.

Here’s why the Leafs should be better:

Goaltending – Doesn’t seem so long ago that “The Monster” Jonas Gustavsson was going to make ancient Leaf fans forget about Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk. (What? A Leafs prospect overhyped?) Suddenly, the job is James Reimer’s to lose, with Gustavsson as his backup. (Sure looks as though the Senators have the better Swedish goaltending prospect in Robin Lehner). If the Leafs are to make the postseason, Reimer will have to follow up on his 16-7-5 finish to the season (.921 save percentage) over his final 28 starts.

Defence – John-Michael Liles adds a puck mover to Toronto’s big-bodied defence corps, but it’s rookie Jake Gardiner who has been turning heads in the preseason – turning to watch him wheel up ice, that is. Gardiner, 21, skates beautifully and makes smart decisions with the puck, which is making the Leafs’ decision about their final defence spots interesting. It’s been assumed because prospect Keith Aulie got into 40 games last season that he would have the inside track, but coach Ron Wilson said that Aulie is in a “battle,” likely against Gardiner, in Toronto’s AHL/NHL sortout.

Gardiner has complicated the defensive picture, just the sort of pleasant problem an organization loves to have in training camp. Gardiner was scooped from Burke’s former Anaheim Ducks, along with Joffrey Lupul and a draft pick for defenceman François Beauchemin.

Forwards – Tim Connolly (Buffalo) and Matthew Lombardi (Nashville) are the main additions. They’re both centres, which means the Leafs are much deeper down the middle than they were when Tyler Bozak was asked to play over his head. Lombardi is expected to be back from concussion symptoms in time for the regular season. Connolly, though, penciled in as No. 1 (dangerous to use ink with him) represents a leap of faith by management. No one questions Connolly’s skills, just his medical chart. While he has been free of head injuries in recent seasons, he did miss virtually two full years with concussion issues and has had chronic hip problems.

While the Senators are much younger through the middle during the start of a rebuild, it’s interesting to compare the careers of Ottawa’s top centre Jason Spezza with Connolly. Since the lockout, Connolly has averaged 50 games and 42 points per season (he played just two games in 2006-07 after getting hit to the head by the Senators’ Chris Neil in a 2006 playoff game). Spezza has averaged 69 games played and 76 points per season. Connolly brings a lighter cap hit ($4.8 million compared to $7 million), but, at 30, is two years older than Spezza.

Like the odometer reading of a hockey family’s car, Connolly has high mileage ahead of his time. He did play 68 games for the Buffalo Sabres last season and 73 the year before, so the Leafs hope he’s trending in a healthy direction. If so, he’s a major boost to the power play and the much-maligned penalty-killing unit.

Missing this year is the hype about winger Nazem Kadri, which is probably good news for the seventhoverall pick of 2009. While Kadri still looks like he could use a good steak dinner, he is stronger, has great puck skills and figures to enjoy his first full season in the NHL.

If Lombardi, now cleared for contact, can be ready by Oct. 6 when the Leafs open their season against the Canadiens, Burke and Wilson will have the roster they envisioned this summer, perhaps with the addition of a Gardiner.

Contact Wayne Scanlan at wscanlan@ottawacitizen.com. Follow him on twitter @HockeyScanner.

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