Futility Has Its Rewards
As the saying goes, sometimes you have to be bad before you can be good again. This is so true for the Toronto Maple Leafs. A 41 year cup drought and no playoff appearances since 2004 have resulted in the franchise bottoming out and starting from the ground up. The hope is they gradually make their rise up the standing doing things the right way and avoid the quick fix.
GM Cliff Fletcher has started the process of breaking things up and rebuilding the team. He is however by no means finished (At least he should not be). He has cast off several veterans, he brought in a credible coach and picked up a defenceman in the draft to build around. All solid moves, but there is still a long way to go for the Leafs.
A few more good solid drafts will go a long way to boosting the process of getting this team to be respectable again. To do that, it will take a few more lumps in the foreseeable future to get that to happen.
For now, coach Ron Wilson will try and get this team to play sharper, cleaner and smarter. A tall task indeed considering the dearth of talent the Leafs have. There is much work to be done. He will need to improve the development of the team’s young players. Many stagnated under coach Paul Maurice or simply weren’t giving a legitimate chance. He needs to vastly improve the team’s defensive play. They are nothing short of pourous and at times hideous. Special teams will need to be better. That may prove to be difficult especially for the PP where there is a definite lack of scoring prowess in the team. And if anything, he needs to get the Leafs to play with their heads held high win or lose. Its a necessity the team stops the trend of folding under pressure and suffering embarrassing losses and letting teams walk over them.
The key for the Leafs is to stay on track and lean heavily on drafting and development. There is no other way around it. They are not good enough now and will never be if the temptation for 8th spot creeps into their mindset.
A look at the roster clearly shows the Leafs are thin up front when it comes to offence and has a logjam of similar type blueliners on defence. Their strength lies in goal with Toskala and at the very least, it gives the team a foundation to start with.
C: Nik Antropov, Mikail Grabovski, Matt Stajan, Dominic Moore
RW: Niklas Hagman, Alex Steen, Mark Bell,
LW: Alex Ponikarovsky, Jason Blake, Jamal Mayers, Boyd Devereaux, Ryan Hollweg
With Captain Mats Sundin unlikely to return, who is going to score or at least be the focal point of the offence? They have players capable of scoring 20 goals but really are very limited when it comes to creating plays and setting up teammates. Antropov is their best all-around forward. He is in his contract year and a good season could mean a big payday or from the Leafs point of view an asset to move for futures. Can he do it without flanking Sundin, that remains to be seen. Blake needs a big comeback year and to do so he needs to use his teammates better. A player like Ponikarovsky will suffer badly without Sundin. He is another who could be on the outs.
There are high hopes the kids like Grabovski, Tlusty and Khumelin will play well, earn a roster spot and produce. They should be afforded the chance to show their stuff as there isnt a lame duck coach behind the bench ignoring them. Wilson should give these players every chance to succeed as the Leafs really have nothing to lose by playing them.
There is a decent crop of role players on the Leafs. Players like Steen, Hagman, Mayers, Stajan will be counted on to improve team defence but also provide needed offence. Mayers, Bell, Hollweg should at least make the Leafs harder to play against and more willing to stand up to their opponents. This team is going to have to bring their lunchpail every night and work their teils off for the team to even be slightly competitive.
D: Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Mike Van Ryn, Jeff Finger, Carlo Coliacovo, Ian White, Anton Stralman
Something will have to give on defence as the Leafs again have too many similar players at this position. The only two veteran surivors of the purge were Kaberle and Kubina. Both were almost traded at the deadline but for now will be counted on to be leaders and role models for the team’s youth. Kaberle is their only star skater. He is one of the best offensive defencemen in the league and with his NTC possibly revoked if the Leafs miss the playoffs, he is another player who could be moved and the only one who could bring an embarrassment of youthful riches to the team. Kubina survived the cuts and with Kaberle should form a top end pair.
The continued development of Stralman is a necessity. The organization is high on him and he has the potential to be a really good offensive blueliner. The player not many outside the team are not high on is Jeff Finger. With McCabe, Gill, Raycroft gone, Finger may be Leaf Nation’s new whipping boy. He is the only one who resembles a defensive defenceman and may prove to be a very effective player should Wilson sharpen the team’s defensive play. There should be a real battle between the likes of Kronvall, Frogren, Coliacovo, White, Van Ryn for the backend spots on D.
G: Vesa Toskala, Curtis Joseph
Toskala is the team’s best player. He proved last year he could be a very capable number 1 who can carry a big workload. Having had Wilson as coach in San Jose should put goalie and coach on the same page. He is the only thing standing in the way of the Leafs being the worst team in the NHL. He should keep the team in every game and probably will steal a few along the way. Cujo returns to the Leafs but this time as the low maintenance backup the team has sorely needed. He should provide leadership, reliable relief for Toskala and finally some controversy free goaltending this season.
F: Bates Battaglia, Darryl Boyce, Alex Foster, Jeremy Williams, Kris Newbury, Tim Stapleton, Ben Ondrus, Greg Scott,
D: Richard Petoit, Staffan Kronvall, Jonas Frogren, Chris Harrington, Phil Oreskovic, Josef Boumedienne
G: James Reimer
By no means do the Leafs have an embarrassment of riches in their system. The addition of Schenn is only the beginning. The team may need another high end pick or two to really show true promise going forward.
F: Nikolai Khumelin, Jiri Tlusty, Joel Champagne, Jimmy Hayes, Rob Earl, John Mitchell, Dale Mitchell, Chris Didomenico, Mikail Stefanovich
D: Luke Schenn, Jamie Sifers, Korbinian Holzer, Dmitri Vorobiev
G: Justin Pogge
Khumelin decided to join the Leafs, leaving good money in Russia, as he was pretty much guaranteed a roster spot with the big club. He should play on the top 6 and give Toronto a solid forward who can do quite a few things well. Good skill, solid both ways, capable of being a sound 25 goal man. Tlusty is another who has a great chance to be a NHL regular. He is the closest the organization has to a true sniper. He has lots of speed and skill. And then there is Schenn who isnt going to win many skills competitions. He is a warrior. A rock hard defensive defenceman who isnt afraid to maim someone to win. He is the team’s future heart and soul player who should give premium effort each night and endear himself to fans and teammates alike. All 3 have a good chance to play quite a bit on the Leafs this coming year.
Some of the team’s other prospects include:
Justin Pogge – Will have 1 more year as team’s top no. 1 in the A
John Mitchell – Energy forward could make team as 4th liner
Mikail Stefanovich – Possible late round steal has big skill little desire
Jimmy Hayes – A project. Big power forward with decent hands
Rob Earl – speedster has chance to make team as energy guy.
There really isnt a whole lot the Leafs have to get too excited about. Schenn is a good start.
Players like Pogge, Tlusty and Khumelin are decent but grabbing another top name in the draft like a John Tavares, Anton Hedman, Brayden Schenn, Taylor Hall, over the next two years is a necessity.
Projection: 14th in the East, 28th Overall
Things may get ugly for the Leafs over the next few months as the team’s lack of leadership and talent could have them on the wrong end many nights. But in doing so, they will reap the rewards of a high draft pick and add another piece to the puzzle they have not been able to solve for decades. Patience will be a major buzzword around the Leafs camp as plenty of it will be needed by Leaf Nation. So long as they avoid knee jerk reactionary moves to win now, don’t get embarrassed and have their young players show some promise, the wait for success will be well worth it.