Toronto Maple Leafs
2006-07 record: 40-31-11, 91 points. Third in division/ninth in conference.
Coach: Paul Maurice
General Manager: John Ferguson, Jr.
Home arena: Air Canada Centre
It’s hard to summarize the recent history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. On the one hand, over the past eight seasons the team has won 40 or more games seven times, while reaching the conference finals twice. On the other hand, their legions of critics (who love to slam the franchise for reasons mostly stemming from their ubiquitous appearances on CBC and their eastern Canadian market dominance) can simply point out that they haven’t even been to a Stanley Cup final since 1967, let alone win one, and have not made the playoffs in either post-lockout season.
The Leafs have been stuck in a bit of a holding pattern for much of the past decade; they’ve never been shy about showing a lot of veteran love – signing aging stars such as Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Owen Nolan, and Alex Mogilny – all of whom were still decent contributors upon joining the Leafs yet on the downside of their impressive careers. The wisdom of such signings was and is certainly up for debate, as one could certainly point to the relative success from 1999-2004 when the team averaged 98 points per year – but at what cost? As these players reached the end of their tenures with the Leafs (or sometimes their careers) the team wouldn’t have adequate replacements for them, which may be a solid reason that over the past few seasons the team has been floundering for an identity.
The Maple Leafs are hoping to make small strides to build a bit more with youth (or at least younger than their standard 35+ year old acquisitions) while retaining their veterans in a push to make the playoffs for the first time since their 103 point 2004 season.
|Alexei Ponikarovsky||Mats Sundin||Jason Blake|
|Chad Kilger||Kyle Wellwood||Darcy Tucker|
|Mark Bell||Matt Stajan||Boyd Devereaux|
|Alex Steen||Nik Antropov|
|Bates Battaglia||John Pohl|
rookies/callups: C – Kris Newbury
As referenced above, change may slowly be in the works for Toronto, but for now the Leafs’ top line will likely be anchored by two high-scoring veterans. Leafs captain and future Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin will return for his 13th season with Toronto, and despite a growing legion of nagging injuries is always good for a point-per-game pace. In their biggest offseason move, the Leafs dipped into the free agent market this summer and signed 40 goal scorer Jason Blake away from the New York Islanders. The Leafs do, however, have a number of young forwards who should be seeing serious playing time with the big club. Alexei Ponikarovsky stands the best chance of playing with the top two – 21 goals is the high for the 27 year old winger, but the big man could see career highs playing the physical role and seeing power play time. Kyle Wellwood is an intriguing young center who dominated the junior ranks and just last season seemed to be on the verge of establishing himself as a big scorer in the NHL (42 points in 48 games) before a hernia sidelined him for nearly half the season. Wellwood can play soft at times but has world-class skills with the puck and should be a vital part of Toronto’s offense.
With (a hopefully healthy) Sundin and Wellwood as their top two pivots, the Leafs’ wingers will see many scoring chances all year long, but can they convert? Darcy Tucker will be good for 25 goals, many on the power play, as well as countless dives, fisticuffs, and items thrown at televisions anywhere outside of southern Ontario. Perhaps the most intriguing and boom/bust worthy man on the roster this season is Mark Bell. After two strong seasons in Chicago, Bell should have been on the verge of breaking out last season with a trade to the powerful San Jose Sharks and playing alongside Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. Instead he experienced a nightmare year that started with an awful pre-season incident and ended up with his eventual benching due to listless play - it became obvious that Bell needed a change of scenery. Toronto is hoping that he can clear his head in Toronto and get his career back on track, although being in the world’s largest hockey media market can crush the most fragile of personalities. We should know by mid-season whether or not the Bell experiment is a success. Alex Steen, son of former Winnipeg Jets standout Thomas Steen, is a highly skilled playmaker who can slot in at either center or wing, and will only benefit from more minutes. Matt Stajan is a very underrated two-way center who may never be great at one aspect of the game but excel enough for a good long career. Forward depth is still a bit of a question – the enigmatic Nik Antropov will never be the physically dominant forward that fans want him to be. Bates Battaglia, Chad Kilger, Boyd Devereaux and John Pohl round out the likely possibilities for the third and fourth lines.
|Bryan McCabe||Tomas Kaberle|
|Pavel Kubina||Carlo Colaiacovo|
|Ian White||Hal Gill|
rookies/callups: Andrew Wozniewski, Staffan Kronwall
Defence is an area for the Leafs in which they have a number of name players with skill, but the whole is not quite the sum of its parts. Overall the team gave up 262 goals, and the defence must take much of the blame. While Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle can move the puck and generate a high quality offence from the blueline, their defensive play is inconsistent at best and downright poor at the worst of times, a fact often lost in careful analysis of the Leafs' shortcomings. Pavel Kubina isn’t going to make as many highlight reels but is a more reliable overall defender. Their best young option is 24 year old Carlo Colaiacovo, an offensively-minded player who simply needs to get more responsibilities to show off his skills. Signed for the next three seasons, Colaiacovo should be an important part of the Toronto blueline for years. Ian White is a creative but small player who would be best utilized on special teams play, but won’t crack the top unit as long as Kaberle and McCabe are around. The towering Hal Gill is often criticized for high-profile mistakes but is still a solid top-six defenceman when he uses his .
So what is Andrew Raycroft to think? After being rewarded by the front office with a three-year deal, Raycroft suffered through an up-and-down season dealing with short-tempered fans and a crushing media presence. Then the Leafs make a deal with San Jose for Vesa Toskala, throwing the label of Toronto’s undisputed number one goalie completely up in the air and providing no piece of mind to Raycroft. Toskala is the older of the two (30 vs. 27) but has had great success in San Jose. Raycroft may start the season as the soft number one, but one would have to assume Toskala will certainly get the opportunity to win the job outright. Scott Clemmensen arrives from New Jersey to once again never get a chance to win a starting job in the NHL.
Standard anti-Leaf cynicism aside, there are some things to be excited about in Toronto. They have two lines that should consistently generate quality offence, providing a nice mix of veteran and youthful talent. And if not for a shootout win on the last day of the season by the Islanders over New Jersey, the Leafs would have made the playoffs and could very well have given their arch-rival Buffalo Sabres a solid run in the first round of the playoffs. However if the Leafs have improved just a bit, it is very likely teams just below and above them have also improved, so whether they can make that surge into the playoffs is still very much in doubt. They still appear to be significant steps below their division rivals in Buffalo and Ottawa, and the lack of quality depth may once again keep Toronto on the cusp of the Eastern playoff picture right down to the final week of the season.
Update 15Aug 3:15pm - Mark Bell will be serving jail time for last year's felony hit-and-run conviction. Word right now is that he'll serve after this season ends. Which means mid-April. How this will play out for Bell this year is obviously anyone's call (and I'm keeping this discussion strictly hockey-related) but Bell's career is in serious danger of being derailed permanently just as 12 months ago it seemed on the verge of taking off.