How do the Leafs Match up in the East?
It has been said many times over that the Toronto Maple Leafs will be hard pressed to make the playoffs. Several believe that this team is quite inferior to the rest of the teams in the East. The team is filled with aging veterans, injury riddled players and inferior talent. And of course, the pipeline of prospects is completely dry.
In reality, the Leafs have enough talent to definitely compete for a playoff spot in the East. People tend to forget quickly that the last time there was hockey, the Leafs were a 100 point team. Granted, there has been plenty of turnover from that club to the one they are about to ice in 2005-06, but the discrepancy is not that far off. Often mentioned, but not yet proved so far, is the constant assumption that Jason Allison and Eric Lindros are going to go down to injury and that they are a concussion waiting to happen. The fact is Allison had whiplash and after 2 and a half years of rest, rehab and strength training, the guy should be in great shape. People should focus more on him getting his timing and speed back than his past injuries. Lindros does have a bad concussion history, but he stayed relatively healthy in New York and after a battery of tests, was deemed fit to play. Even Jeff Oneill, another newcomer with high hopes, has been raked over the coals for his injury past. The fact is his shoulder has had a year to heal and he is once again healthy.
Though there may be risks, I think all 700 players are at risk in a game like this where it is fast paced, physical and demanding. the fact is, the 3 big name newcomers are no bigger risks than the 4 men they replaced in Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny and Owen Nolan. All missed much or parts of the 03/04 season and barely were in the lineup at the same time. The Leafs were able to play through it and still managed a 103 point season.
I think right now, the Leafs can match up with any team in the East and compete. In a league where parity and competitive balance is the flavour of the month, talent is going to be spread around. And with 30 teams, no team will be stacked, and all teams will have their holes and weaknesses. Especially in the Cap world where limited spending puts a crunch on the number of talents one team can acquire.
Here is how the Leafs stack up against teams in the East:
The Leafs have one of the better goalies in the East. Often mentioned are Ed Belfour’s bad back and his age. He has had 1 year of rest. That alone should help that back of his. He has had time to let it heal, strengthen it and give it a break. And though over 40, he keeps himself is better shape than alot of goalies. The other thing that gets alot of press is his salary. Belfour’s contract is to blame for the Leafs missing out on overpaying for talent. That’s fine if people want to say that, but when he posts back to back shutouts and carries his team through a couple of playoff rounds then the 4.6 million he is due is going to seem like chump change. I in fact enjoy it that Belfour is getting slammed as it only makes him a better player. He relishes proving people wrong.
I would say there is less than a handful of goalies who are better than Belfour in the East. Martin Brodeur is the obvious. look at the man’s track record. 3 cups, 2 vezinas and a gold medal. The guy can win, plain and simple. Roberto Luongo has so much talent and promise that he is another. He is the best young goalie in the league and if he didnt play on such an inferior team, he would do so much better. But internationally he has proven he can help a team win and hopefully with a better Panther club in front of him, he will finally succeed. I dont doubt it that if a team could get any goalie but Brodeur, Luongo would be the name often mentioned.
But after those two, it becomes a bit of a crapshoot. I think there may be some goalies on the same level as the Eagle but few who could be considered better. Jose Theodore is the man who can steal as many games as Eddie. He too gets alot of negative press but seems to come alive when the Habs need him most. Another goalie who just happens to be on a Canadian team too and who gets beaten in the press is Sens goalie Dominik Hasek. Another goalie in his 40s with an injury history and with much to prove. He too is one that seems to thrive when written off. I would say he has more concerns than Belfour in that he has only played roughly 15 games in 3 years and so he will need to quickly shake off that rust. But the man with a cup win, a gold medal and 6 vezinas is not someone i would bet against.
I would say the rest of the teams in the East have goaltending that is a very very small notch below the above mentioned ones. Robert Esche is a very good young goalie but one who needs to string together a few good seasons. He won the starting job midway through the last season and has only 1 year of playoff experience. Though beating Brodeur and Belfour is a good accomplishment, it doesnt make him a top goalie just yet. He does not have the track record of the above mentioned goalies and that is fact.
teams like Carolina and Tampa will rely on former backups to take over the starting roles. The Rangers, Pens and Sabres will likely have a goalie platoon of a veteran and a promising youngster and you could even put the Lightning in that group as well. The Caps have the very good Olaf Kolzig but this team is going nowhere. While teams like Atlanta, Boston and the Isles have very promising young goalies who in my mind will only get better. But right now, i dont think any of those teams have a better goalie than Belfour.
The Leafs blueline gets more negative press than any other position or team in the league. The fact is the Leafs have 4 solid players back there who can contribute. Bryan McCabe is the leader. Though not a number 1 guy he brings a big shot and a physical element to the team. Tomas Kaberle is often criticized for not shooting or hitting but he brings speed and terrific playmaking. Alexander Khavanov is no Brian Leetch but he offers a solid two -way game and another guy who can move the puck. Ken Klee gives the Leafs some grit and experience who is very steady in his own end.
There may be teams with better talent on defence but the Leafs are not as bad as they are made out to be. I would say the Sens, Flyers, Devils and Lightning are probably the deepest teams on the back end. The Sens may have the best top 4 in hockey. The players Philly acquired have added the physical element the team was missing and make them real deep on D. The Lightning’s top 4 helped them win the cup and have a great balance. and the Devils have 7 quality NHL dmen and maybe more if Tom Albelein and Scott Stevens decide to return. I would definitely say these teams have a stronger defence than the Leafs.
But after that, the difference is negligible. The rest of the East has some pretty good talent on D but as a whole, I cant seen any of the other teams boasting a defence better than Toronto. Maybe just as good, but not better. Some teams have little depth like Washington and Carolina. Some teams are quite young like Buffalo and Florida and may be good in a couple of years. Teams like the Islanders, Pittsburgh and Boston have good guys on the top, but are thin on the bottom. While teams like Atlanta, the Rangers and Montreal have players to choose from, but no top end guy which is just like the Leafs.
The Leafs may have the best or one of the best group of centres in the East. Not too many teams out there can boast a big 3 in Allison, Lindros and Sundin. Those 3 at times can be dominant on the ice and are huge impact players. In a 30 teams league, the Leafs are fortunate to have 3 number 1 type centres at their disposal. The only other team who i think has a better group of centres than Toronto is Philadelphia. With the likes of Forsberg, Primeau, Handzus, Carter and Richards to choose from, who can argue that claim?
But can one say the rest of the teams are so much better than Toronto? Tampa has Lecavalier and Richard and Boston has Thornton and Zhamnov. a nice duo but 1 less than the trio the Leafs can put out. Talent wise, I dont see much of a difference between Toronto as these teams.
The Panthers, Habs, Thrashers and Devils have nice depth down the middle. Florida with Jokinen, Nieuwendyk, Gratton, Stumpel, Weiss, Montreal with Koivu, Bonk and Ribiero, Atlanta with Holik, Savard and Stefan and New Jersey with Gomez, Madden, Kozlov and Parise. but are those groups any better than what Toronto can throw out there? I would say not. Perhaps as good but not better.
Teams like the Islanders with Yashin, Buffalo with Briere, Ottawa with Spezza and Pittsburgh with Crosby will need to add more depth to match the Leafs mix of talent and depth at centre.
In time the Rangers, Caps and Canes may be much better down the middle but currently offer the likes of Nylander, Cassels and Brindamour as their best most proven guys. All have some good young talent but will need time to have them develop.
Toronto’s strength down the middle will have to make up for their lack of talent on the wings. with only 1 proven goal scorer in O’Neill and a slew of role players the Leafs biggest need is more depth on the wings. They may have one of the thinest group of wingers in the East. Perhaps the Caps and Canes have less talent and offence from the wings than Toronto but that’s about it. The Sabres could have a great group of wingers if their young prospects pan out. But they still have to prove themselves. The rest of the teams have at least 1 impact guy and in some cases have more than 1.
Montreal: Kovalev, Zednik, Ryder
Tampa: St Louis, Modin, Prospal
Philly: Gagne, Kapanen, Knuble
Boston: Bergeron, Murray, Samsonov
Atlanta: Hossa, Kovalchuk
FLorida: Horton, Roberts
NY Rangers: Jagr
NY Islanders: York, Satan, Parrish
Ottawa: Heatley, Alfredsson, Havlat
New Jersey: Elias, Mogilny
Pittsburgh: Mario, Palffy, Recchi
Definitely the Leafs need scoring depth on the wings. They have many role players that will give them depth but you have to score to win. It is unsure if their top centres can put up the points playing with guys who cant finish. It will be interesting to see what the Leafs do to rectify that problem because at some point this year it will need to get addressed.
It is pretty false to say the Leafs have no young players. Stajan, Coliacovo, Steen, Rask, Wellwood are a pretty decent top 5 group of youngsters. Of course no Ovechkins or Crosby’s in this group but that is the price you pay for winning. You dont get a top 5 pick every year. And sure they traded away some decent young talent like Immonen and Boyes to add veteran help for the stretch and the plan failed. But you have to give them credit for trying even if it didnt work because they would have been criticisized either way if they didnt go after Nolan or Leetch for a run at the cup.
It is going to take some time to build up their assets but i think Toronto is on the right track. The team may have not won a cup, but they are right up there in terms of playoff games and wins over the last few years and when you are that close, chances have to be taken to try to win. the plan could have worked and the Leafs could have won and no one would bother saying the Leafs are thin on the farm.
So as you can see, the Leafs are far from the pathetic team that many people make them out to be. Of course injuries are going to play a huge part in how Toronto does, but if they can stay healthy, I see no reason for Toronto to miss the playoffs. I have said this before, the team has to be given a chance to play the games. JFJ has to be given some time to get the winger the Leafs need. he has about 6 months to find one before the stretch drive for the playoffs. The games are not played on paper folks, they are played on the ice, let the season play itself out before slamming the Leafs.