Can the Leafs make the playoffs?

Let’s cut to the chase.  The question every Maple Leafs fan (and hater) wants to know is, can this year’s version of the buds make the Stanley Cup playoffs?Given that the Leafs are entering a re-building phase, one’s first reaction is naturally to write them off entirely this season, and instead focus the debate on landing a much-needed top 5 draft pick next June.

But is it possible that the Leafs might surprise?

Well first off, my personal preference would be for the Leafs to flounder for just one more year in order to get a shot at a top blue-chip prospect.

And if I were Pete Rose, I’d probably put money down on the Leafs missing the playoffs again.

Having said that, I also think it’s not entirely outrageous to suggest that they have a decent shot at a playoff spot.

There are also some media personnel who are also coming up with the same assessment.

Take David Bastl of Sportsnet, for instance.  In his Friday blog, he states that maybe….just MAYBE, the Leafs might get into the post-season.

Here is how he sees the roster on opening day, barring any further trades.

Forward Lines:

Nik Antropov – Alexei Ponikarovosky – Jiri Tlusty
Matt Stajan – Mikhail Grabovski – Jason Blake
Alex Steen – Niklas Hagman – Nikolai Kulemin
Dominic Moore – Jamal Mayers – Mark Bell

Extra: Ryan Hollweg  (He forgot Boyd Devereaux)

Defensive pairings:

Tomas Kaberle – Pavel Kubina
Mike Van Ryn – Jeff Finger
Anton Stralman – Carlo Colaiacovo

Extras: Jonus Frogren, Ian White

Goaltending:

Vesa Toskala – Curtis Joseph

Now, as Cliff Fletcher noted this week, the Leafs have only one bona fide top 6 forward: Nik Antropov.

However, as Bastl notes, there are 4 important wild cards in Toronto’s offense: Jiri Tlusty, Niklas Hagman, Nikolai Kulemin, and Mikhail Grabovski.

If they flourish offensively in the next 6 months, things could get interesting, particularly if they gel with other intriguing forwards such as Antropov, Alex Ponikarovosky, Jason Blake, Alex Steen, and Matt Stajan.

We know that the Leafs are going to by quick this year, thanks to Fletcher’s roster moves during the summer.

We also know that the Leafs are deep on defence and have one of the better goalies in the league with Vesa Toskala.

So you never know.

Does anybody remember the 1998-99 season?  Well, the Leafs were also in a rebuilding phase entering that season (67 points a year earlier).

Remember what happened?  Their young players like Berezin, Sullivan, Johnson, McCauley, Markov, Kaberle, etc, suddenly made huge leaps in their game or, in the case with the latter two, were surprisingly good as rookies.

By the way, Paul Hunter of The Star provides an excellent summary of 12 Leaf players to watch out for this year:  (Check out the link below for details)

Ian White – most experienced player who could lose his spot
Mark Bell – hasn’t played well since his Chicago days
Jeff Finger – Leafs are high on him
Curtis Joseph – upgrade in backup G position, but aging
Jonas Frogren – very tough in front of the net
Nikolai Kulemin – good scoring touch
Mikhail Grabovski – has the skills and speed to possibly blossom
Nik Antropov – counted on as the No. 1 centre
Luke Schenn – will have to be a top 4 D to make the team
Jason Blake – could bounce back with Ron Wilson
Mike Van Ryn – injuries have apparently healed
Justin Pogge – Leafs still convinced he’s their future stopper

Anyway, although the Leafs are still a long-shot to make the playoffs, they might surprise a few people and hang around the 8-10 spot all season.

The take home message is: with a young, quick team, it’s often difficult to predict how well they’ll perform.

As Yogi Berra (or somebody else?) once said, everything in sports is a definite maybe.

Cited sources
 
http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/blogs/2008/09/19/bastl_blog_leafs/

http://www.thestar.com/Hockey/article/501978

http://www.nationalpost.com/sports/story.html?id=805503


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