After years of trying cobble together a team worthy of making the playoffs and ultimately not being a Stanley Cup contender, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally committed to rebuilding the right way. Now, will the franchise be patient enough to see it through?
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2007-08: 36-35-11, 83 points (fifth in Northeast)
WHAT WENT RIGHT:Nik Antropov finally started to look like the power forward Maple Leafs fans have been waiting years for him to become. Vesa Toskala proved to be a quality No. 1 goaltender despite plenty of shoddy defense in front of him. Tomas Kaberle was a rose amongst thorns. Mats Sundin had another stellar, loyal campaign.
WHAT WENT WRONG: Sundin was a little too loyal for some people’s liking. After GM John Ferguson, Jr., was canned, interim boss Cliff Fletcher was hamstrung in his attempt to blow the team up by the no-movement clauses Ferguson handed out like lollipops. Did we mention the defense was terrible? Andrew Raycroft in net was also a disaster Leafs fans will be happy to forget. Beyond Sundin and Antropov, the forwards struggled to generate much offense. It all added up to a brand of bad-but-not-quite-bad-enough hockey, which cost Paul Maurice his job but failed to land the organization one of the first picks in the draft.
ARRIVALS:LW Niklas Hagman, D Jeff Finger, D Mike Van Ryn, RW Jamal Mayers, LW Ryan Hollweg, C Mikhail Grabovski, G Curtis Jospeh
DEPARTURES: D Bryan McCabe, LW Darcy Tucker, C Kyle Wellwood, G Andrew Raycroft, D Andy Wozniewski
IMPACT PROSPECTS: LW Nikolai Kulemin, D Jonas Frogren, D Luke Schenn, LW Robbie Earl, G Justin Pogge
Who is going to score?
Should Sundin not come back (and it looks pretty unlikely he will in Toronto), top-six caliber forwards are going to be a rare commodity for the Leafs. Antropov blossomed riding shotgun with Sundin, but he may have to move back to the middle because he might be the team’s No. 1 center. Toronto needs Hagman to prove those 27 goals weren’t a fluke and Jason Blake to return to something close to his 2006-07 form. If any of the young guys like Kulemin or Jiri Tlusty can break out, that would be great too.
Who has WJC tickets?
Despite Ferguson’s best efforts, Fletcher has done a decent job of dismantling this club. That’s going to make for a season-long debate about which top-flight prospect the Leafs can snare at the 2009 draft. The candidates are likely to be John Tavares, Viktor Hedman and Schenn’s little brother, Brayden. A Sweden-Canada matchup in Ottawa might be the most anticipated hockey game by Leafs fans all season.
PROGNOSIS: Maybe Hagman and Blake each pot 30, Antropov becomes a full-fledged star and the defense improves in front of Toskala and the Leafs end up being a pesky team on the fringes of playoff contention. That would be better than the aging, disappointing Leafs teams on the fringe of playoff contention from recent years, but it isn’t what the franchise needs. There will be some long nights at Air Canada Centre, but after the first couple months of the season, losing might not be such a bad thing if it nets the organization a legitimate franchise player for Brian Burke — I mean Fletcher or the next GM — to build around.
|Niklas Hagman||Nik Antropov||Jason Blake|
|Alex Steen||Matt Stajan||Alexei Ponikarovsky|
|Nikolai Kulemin||Dominic Moore||Jiri Tlusty|
|Mark Bell/Robbie Earl||Ryan Hollweg||Jamal Mayers|
|Tomas Kaberle||Pavel Kubina|
|Jeff Finger||Mike Van Ryn|
|Ian White||Carlo Coliacovo|
|Aaron Stralman||Jonas Frogren|
|Curtis Joseph/Justin Pogge|
*NOTE: This is not necessarily an attempt to guess line combinations