Epilogue/Prologue for the Leafs

It is very easy (and fun) for us Leaf fans to get caught up in the short term. Especially when that short term sees the Leafs and Habs battle it out in a showdown on Hockey Night in Canada. There is no other word to describe then ‘fun.’ and maybe – ‘intense.’ But with both Leaf and Hab fans must realize (and many do) is that all of this – the playoff race, the showdown, the melodrama in Montreal, the inconsistency/injuries in Toronto – are all very much meaningless. [Note: this article, written on Friday April 6th, might be posted AFTER the results from the Habs/Leaf game]The simple fact of the matter is that both teams won’t stand a chance against the Sabres in the first round. both teams will likely draft between 12th-16th in the first round of the 2007 draft. both teams have a lot of question marks about their future.

The leafs simply look all at once too uptight and tired since the month of April began. They have been scratching and clawing with an injury-riddled line-up since the beginning of 2007. Now in the month of April, they looked tired and stiff. the leafs are hardly going into the playoffs with any kind of momentum. After huge wins against the East’s elite in March, they have simply run out of gas. Even if they pull out a win against Montreal, their inability to clear the puck on the PK, Raycroft’s high glove side goals, and their inability to either hit the net or not make the goalie look good and hit him in the chest with a shot will come back to haunt them.

So let us a look at leafs from a short term and long term perspective …

short term

The playoff chase:
It is just this simple: leafs must beat the habs at home (and win their 9th straight home game) IN REGULATION. any other result including a hab loss in OT/SO would mean the leafs are eliminated. The Isles must get 3 pts or less in their next 2 afternoon road games against the Flyers and Devils – both teams playing for nothing. If the Isles win both games, the Leafs will be out even if they beat Montreal in regulation.

That is it in a nutshell. if the leafs make it, they face Buffalo in the first round with Peca in the line-up and maybe Wellwood. And although Cox thinks the leafs might have a better shot than the Isles/Habs at beating the Sabres, the buds don’t stand a chance (but would at least have a shot if they make it in).

Long term

From a long-term perspective what are we to make of this season?

positives:

- Coliacovo/White: They are among the two of the most creative young D-men in the game. Coliacovo has 7 goals, is 6th in rookie D-scoring and has played half the games of the guys in front of him on that list. White is 2nd in that department and 3rd in plus/minus. both are surprises – Coliacovo returning from his perpetually-injured past, White has come out of ‘nowhere’ (well for those who dont follow the Leafs anyways).

-Tucker’s best season yet and he has proven to be a solid 2nd line winger and PP contributor. He was resigned for a very reasonable contract and gives the Leafs some of the grit they need.

- Maurice is clearly a good coach and got more out of this lesser-skilled and frequently injured team than anyone could possibly hope for. The Leafs have learned his systems and they have paid off since Jan. as they have beaten better, more skilled teams by simply forechecking hard and outworking them (and yes, even outskating them sometimes – and that is unheard of for a Leafs team)

- Sundin can still produce (despite his goal scoring slump) and is one of the best leaders in hockey.

- the Leafs have a surprisingly deep offense from the 2nd line on down. The 3rd/4th liners like Battaglia, Devereaux, Kilger, Pohl have been huge for the leafs and considering their smaller contracts, will be even bigger when it comes to next year’s cap space. Combine them with the 4 young Leaf forwards (mentioned below) and Tucker and Sundin (mentioned above), and you have 10 effective Leaf forwards.

- the Leafs do in fact have a very solid core of young players: (forwards) Wellwood, Steen, Poni, Antropov, Stajan, (defencemen) Coliacovo and White. In the next couple of seasons we’ll see the likes of Tlusty, Williams, Earl, Kulemin (sp), Kronvall, Cashman, Pogge, etc.

- McCabe might be overpaid but he does produce offensively every year. However, Kaberle is definitely in the top 10 (i would say top-5) defencemen in the NHL. period. The fact that he has returned from his very serious injury is perhaps the best news of all for the leafs this year.


so-so’s (yet to be determined):

- what to make of Raycroft? He is still young, still learning the game. but he is too inconsistent to be the starter of a team that a) wants to make the playoffs and b) wants to go far in the playoffs. still, at $2 million, a guy who can give you 37-38 wins and keep you in most games isn’t that bad (can you imagine his win total if he won more shootout contests?!).

Leaf fans and non-leaf fans alike simply must watch the hyperbole they spew (both positive and negative) about this guy. it is just not that simple or black and white either way.

- JFJ: yes, JFJ is a so-so. I think he has refined himself a little bit as a GM. He has made many good moves – mostly smaller ones – and he has made a few big ones as well (start with Maurice, moving the AHL team to Toronto, and go from there). maybe he is becoming a better GM. maybe he is going to develop a shrewd and creative track record. we’ll know, if he keeps his job and after the free agency period, just how shrewd and creative he can or cannot be. so far, the results have been mixed at best.

- cap space: The situation with the cap is by no means clear cut. some could say the leafs are doomed here and after the McCabe and Kubina signings there is certainly room for an argument for that. But with the Sundin contract situation still up in the air, the raise in the cap ceiling and with all these smaller contracts still undetermined, it is IMPOSSIBLE to say that the Leafs are screwed at this point.

- Hal Gill: Admittedly, i was very rough on this guy to start the year (and he certainly had a very rough start to the year to say the least). However, as the year progressed, he has surprised me and a lot of people by having his best offensive season yet (20 pts!) and he has been a responsible, effective guy in his own end. Although the lack of speed and his contract is still an issue that is gnawing away at his positive attributes, with 2 years left on his contract and with his contributions, Gill is not the make-or-break issue for the leafs here.

- Perreault/Peca: the most JFJ should do here is sign one of them and for less than $2 million a year (and for no more than 2 years). Certainly keeping both is not a good idea unless they sign for less. Peca is a solid leader, good PK guy. The Leafs clearly missed him on the PK this year. Perreault is the best in the business on the face-off and has better offensive numbers than Peca, but is not as reliable in his own end (although winning faceoffs in your end certainly help from a defensive standpoint). Letting go of both wouldn’t be a big deal IMO, but signing for more than they are worth would be a classic JFJ mistake.

- Farm system: it has definitely improved depth-wise and talent-wise over the last few seasons. Despite what hockeyfutures might say, the Leafs’ farm system is in the best shape it has been in decades (which isn’t saying much really). The solid drafting must continue, but the process of restocking the farm system could always be accelerated by trading one of your elite NHL players (missed opportunities include Tucker and McCabe). It will be difficult to do considering the lack of tradeable, older assets on the Leafs (Kubina’s contract is huge, Antropov and Poni are other options).

- Karl Pilar: why do I mention this 29 year old, injury-riddled player? Because
I still believe that this guy has the potential to be a solid NHL defenceman. he is capable of putting up decent offensive numbers from the blueline and has always been solid in his own end. Hopefully next season he will be a feel good story like Coliacovo was this year.


negatives:

- Simply put, the leafs need to find a way to do the impossible: trading either Kubina or McCabe. it won’t happen, but if it does, it would a) probably bring in some future assets, b) clear up some huge cap space for the leafs, and c) get rid of the two-way blueliner redundancy on the blueline (i’d take Coliacovo and White over Kubina any day. heck i’d take Danny Markov and the injury-riddled Bryan Berard over Kubina).

- Jeff O’Neill: he had an improved season but was still invisible on most nights. He could have been an interesting trade deadline move, but even at the meager salary he is making for 20 goals, its time to free up room on the right side and in the cap for someone younger – my choice: Jeremy Williams (a nice line for next year: Tucker-Wellwood-Williams).

- Wade Belak: please WAIVE WADE!!!

- back-up goalie situation: now is the time to acquire a more effective and solid back-up. Joseph, Garon, Toivenen, Markannen are all slight upgrades IMO (Toivenen seems very intriguing if Boston lets him go). But a slight upgrade here would get the leafs and extra few wins. How HUGE do a few extra wins for the Leafs look right now ?

- A top line winger for Sundin is still needed. Another route to pursue would be to get a top line UFA centreman to replace Sundin when he leafs. But the acquisition of a Smyth or a Gomez can only occur after some cap space has been cleared. And if the UFA period is characterized as an unreasonable bidding war, having a GM like JFJ making those bids make me cringe just a little bit.