92-93's Crystal Ball for the Leafs in 2007

Just for fun, I am going to take a stab at predicting what will happen to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the next 6 months. (note: take your time reading this. get a cup of coffee and relax. Also, understand that i am fully aware that this is all wishful thinking, that there may be some errors (if anyone can correct any info in this I would appreciate it), and that i do NOT think Neil Smith is infallible.

February: The Leafs are hanging around in the playoff hunt between 8th to 13th in the East and around .500. In other words, they are in the same situation they were in last year. And, like last year, Ferguson decides to (unfortunately) stand pat at the deadline. The reality is that there is not much he can do outside of trading Tucker. Sundin’s contract is to huge to move and both Sundin and Tucker are huge fan favourites. The MLSE Board also ties his hands with the kinds of moves he could make. He is heavily criticized from all quarters but other Toronto journalists suggest that it is perhaps better that Ferguson, a desperate GM who might make bad deals out of desperation, does nothing.

March: The injury carousel continues and JFJ uses it as an excuse in interviews for the team’s continued inconsistency. In March, he signs Tucker to a 3 year $9.75 million contract, averaging out to $3.25 a year. The return of White along with the stellar play of Coliacovo keep the Leafs a high scoring team from the blue line. Wozniewski returns and admirably fills in for the briefly injured Hal Gill. But towards the end of March, inconsistent defensive play from everyone – forwards, defence, and goaltending – sees the Leafs get eliminated before the month of April even begins.

April:
The Leafs miss the playoffs and finish with a 33-34-15 record (81 pts). They finish 14th in the conference just behind the Panthers and Capitals and finish with the 5th worst record in the NHL (behind the Blues, Blue Jackets, Kings, and Flyers). Shortly after the season ends, the Leafs confirm that they will be picking up Sundin’s option which will impact next year’s cap space for $6.3 million.

May:
After weeks of closed-door meetings and rumours, MLSE confirms that they are buying out JFJ’s contract and shortly after announce that Neil Smith is the new GM of the Leafs. Smith is picked over other candidates such as Keenan and Tambellini. Yet the hiring is almost scuttled after Smith demands certain concessions. He is especially weary after his experience with the Islanders a year earlier. But his concessions, which include more autonomy from MLSE and a long term contract that is aligned with Maurice’s expiry date, seals the deal. He spends most of May analyzing and learning about the Leafs organization from top to bottom.

June: Smith quickly goes to work making his stamp on the team. At first his moves are mostly uncontroversial (if such a thing is possible in the Toronto market). Antropov, Steen, and Ponikorovsky are all resigned for $1.2 million but Poni and Steen get 3-year deals while Nik gets only one year. O’Neill is resigned for 2 years and $2 million a year. Other young RFAs (Coliacovo, White) are qualified as well.

On the 23rd in Columbus, the Leafs get their expected position and get the 5th selection overall and choose Sam Gagner ahead of names like Gillies and Alzner (Voracek, Couture, Kane, and Esposito are all chosen ahead of Gagner). But the biggest news during the day are two shocking Leaf trades.

The first trade is aided by Smith’s knowledge of the Isles organization. To everyone’s surprise, Bryan McCabe agrees to waive his no-trade clause in a deal that sends the defenceman and Brendan Bell to the Isles for Chris Campoli, Tom Poti, and a conditional 2008 draft pick (perhaps more surprising is MLSE approves of the deal). However, that conditional draft pick is key to the deal. If the Leafs are not able to resign Poti before July 1st and lose him to free agency, the conditional draft pick is a 1st rounder in the 2008 draft. If they do resign him, the pick is a 4th rounder in the 2008 draft. But Smith has absolutely no intentions signing Poti and opts for the 1st rounder instead. The Isles clear $3.2 million (Campoli and Poti) to make room for both McCabe’s contract. In an interview after the trade, McCabe says that he was unhappy about missing the playoffs two years in a row and saw the playoff-bound Isles squad as a welcome destination (along with his wife’s family ties to the area).

The second trade hinged on the Coyotes finding a way to sign Nagy to a 4-year deal worth $4.25 million a year. Once that deal is signed, the Coyotes then trade the left winger to the Leafs along with a 4th round pick in 2008 for the Leafs’ 1st rounder in 2008, Darcy Tucker, and Alexander Suglobov.

July:
Smith has effectively remade the team by the free agency period. Before that period begins he resigns depth players like Devereaux, Green, and Battaglia to one-way deals – all in the $600-$900K range. Mike Peca, J.S. Aubin, and Wade Belak all become free agents. Peca’s demands for a slight raise on the previous season’s contract and for a 2 or 3 year length doesn’t makes sense to Smith.

The top priority for Smith is to acquire a solid back-up to Andrew Raycroft, one who could potentially take over the #1 position. Biron is already gone. Instead Smith signs Manny Legace to a 2 year deal worth $1.75 million a year. In a move to appease the fans after the loss of McCabe and Tucker (and to replace the latter’s grit). Smith also signs 40-year old Gary Roberts to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million.

The 2007-2008 team is pretty much set:

Nagy (4.25)——Sundin (6.3)——Wellwood (0.8)
Roberts (2.15)—Steen (1.3)——-Antropov (1.2)
Poni (1.2)——–Stajan (0.8)——-O’Neill (2.0)
Kilger (0.9)——Green (0.7)——–Pohl (.45)
[Battaglia (0.8), Devereaux (0.6)]

Kaberle (4.75)———————–Kubina (5.0)
Colaiacovo (1.0)———————Campoli (0.5)
Gill (2.1)——————————White (0.8)
[Wozniewski (.475)]

——————–Raycroft (2.0)
——————–Legace (1.75)

Payroll: $41.925 million; cap: $47 million; $5 million cap space

The Marlies also introduce a slew of newcomers for the 2007-2008 season. am Gagner remains in the OHL for another year but will soon join the Marlies. Goaltender James Reimer stays in the WHL but is making some positive advancements with the Red Deer Rebels:

Newbury——Westrum——Engelhardt
Tlusty——–Williams——-Kulemin
Earl————Foster——–Gagner
Nash———-Mitchell——-Aubin
[Murphy, Ondrus, Corey, D’Amour, Leeb]

Harrison———————Kronvall
Stralman——————–Harrington
Oreskovic——————-Vorobiev
[Moro, Sifers, Cloutier, Brown]

—————-Pogge
—————-Racine

The Leafs enter the 2007-2008 season with a good coach behind the bench, a better GM, and have one of the youngest, cheapest, and most mobile defense corps in the game. Their tandem in net is much improved and the Leafs have just as much grit up front but have more skill – especially on the top line. The team had no trouble scoring the previous two seasons, and will only score more with this team and under Maurice’s two-man forecheck.

Concerns over the PP (deletions of Tucker and McCabe) are answered quickly now that Nagy and
Roberts help out on the first and second PP units. The maturing young forwards – Poni, Steen, Stajan, and Wellwood – also help the PP’s success. Meanwhile, the PK is not that bad considering Peca’s departure. It has become obvious that players like Steen, Stajan, Devereaux and Green are cheaper and younger PK forwards than Peca and in a cap era, that is a very important realization.

The 2007-2008 Leafs are cheaper, younger, more skilled, and playoff-bound. Furthermore, despite their deal with the Coyotes, the Leafs do have a first round pick in 2008 to look forward to thanks to the deal with the Islanders.


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