Toronto Maple Leafs 2005-2006
TEAM PAYROLL: $34,050,600
GENERAL MANAGER: John Ferguson, 3rd year with the Leafs
HEAD COACH: Pat Quinn, 7th year with the Leafs
FORGOTTEN MOVES: The big move made by the Maple Leafs prior to the lockout was locking up goaltender Ed Belfour to a new 3 year contract. The move was obviously a controversial one due to his age, injury past and the uncertainty of the lockout and what would come of it. Belfour is still a great goaltender, but his contract directly hurt the team’s chances at making other moves this off-season as the team was hamstrung with too many top end contracts and little wiggle room to maneuver. The other key moves made by Toronto were locking up their own free agents in Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Ken Klee. McCabe came off a great year finishing 4th in Norris voting resulting in his rich deal. Though often criticized for it, it has turn out that his contract is a relative bargain compared to the many other signings this off season to comparable or lesser players. The Tucker and Kaberle signings were a must as they were the few Leafs that were not among the aging and old who were past their prime. It was important to the team to build up that kind of young nucleus as in this cap world, that is the way to go. Klee is a solid player but I think that signing was hasty. There were many other out there who could have done the same job, or better and probably could have been had for less that the $2 million Klee is due.
TEAM MODE: The Leafs are in the thick of playoff contention. Though they may not quite have enough to win the conference, they have the tools to at least secure a playoff spot. With the amount of veteran players the team has, they certainly will be in the middle of the playoff hunt. The Leafs will not be pushovers. With a very good goaltender, a solid top 4 on defence and 3 big centres, the Leafs will be competitive. They stack up well against their Northeast division foes and certainly will not finish last in the Conference thanks to the Washington Capitals.
The Leafs stand a good chance at succeeding under the new rules implemented by the league. They have several tools they could use on the powerplay to take advantage of the expected rise in penalties due to the crackdown of obstruction. The hopeful decline in clutching and grabbing will make Toronto a difficult club to play against as the team is one of the largest with the likes of Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Alex Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov all standing 6’4 or over. In past years size was eliminated because usually defenders could drape themselves over their opponents and get away with it. Now, if defenders can no longer hook, hold, grab or impede players, these big men that Toronto possess, should cause severe havoc down low and around the goal. The Leafs have very smart passers like Kaberle and Khavanov that should help with breakouts and take advantage of the no redline. The return of the tag-up offsides will help the Leafs as they have guys like Tucker and Domi who enjoy forechecking and should no longer be stopped by a delayed offside or being held up at the blueline. Defensively the Leafs may be in a bit of trouble. They were never good under Pat Quinn at defensive zone coverage and now without the aid of any cheat tactics (like McCabe’s can opener) they may have a rough go of it in their own end. It will be important for them to use their size and reach to get in the way of pucks and take away space of opponents. With all their large guys, i think that will not be a problem. Over the past few seasons they have learned well under the guidance of assistant coach Keith Acton who was a superior checker in his career. Speed may be a problem as well as I am not sure how the like of Berg, Belak, Brown, Marchment, Klee who are all slow will handle the opposing forwards without being allowed to get in their way. But they bring the element of physicality from the blueline that all teams need. And we all know how fickle Ed Belfour is in goal. He is so particular about everything and the rule changes to prevent goalies from handling the puck and the smaller equipment could be a big adjustment for the veteran netminder. Belfour is so technically sound that he may adjust better than many other goalies however can his old body compensate for the extra bit of equipment that has been taken away from him. definitely athleticism and quickness will be key in goal and Belfour must answer those questions. But when the veteran is doubted, he seems to play his best hockey. And Toronto will be hurt by Belfour not being able to handle the puck as he saved plenty of problems in his own end by moving the puck quickly and preventing a good forecheck by opponents. Tons of pressure was taken off the D by Belfour’s puck handling and passing but now, since he wont be allowed to do that too much, the Leafs D could be in for a rude awakening. The team may secure several extra points thanks to the shootout. The Leafs can choose from Sundin, Lindros, Allison, O’Neill to take the penalty shots and to have those kind of players to choose from, the Leafs should come out on top more often than not.
TO TAKE CHARGE!: Mats Sundin is a solid leader and great captain. He is definitely going to continue leading this team, and will need to bring it even more with the losses of Roberts, Nieuwendyk and Leetch from the lineup. But the one player who could take over is Eric Lindros. Not necessarily take over the leadership duties, but take over in terms of play on the ice. He has the ability to control a game, either physically or offensively and can take over a contest by either running over everything that moves, or scoring at will which he is capable of. The Leafs have longed for someone to help support Sundin in so many ways and the Big E could be that player. If he can somehow regain some of that form he showed in his Flyers days and be dominant, he could really take tons of pressure off Sundin and really change how teams line up against Toronto.
ON THE RUSH (OFFENSE): The Leafs possess 5 former 30 goal men (Sundin, Lindros, O’Neill, Allison, Czerkawski), 3 of which topped 40 goals at least once in their career (Sundin, Lindros, O’Neill). There is potential for a 6th if veteran walk-on Steve Thomas makes the club. With 3 other players in Tucker, Antropov and Matt Stajan with 20 goal potential, offence may be the least of the Leafs worries. There is some high hope of Ponikarovsky producing on offence but he doesn’t have the kind of skill set for a top line player. The other twin tower, Antropov has yet to show anything consistent in 7 years and it may be too much to ask for him to score a lot. He has good skill, and size to be effective, but injuries, poor work ethic and brain lapses hurt his production. 20 goals may be all the Leafs can ask. And it may be too much to ask of Czerkawski to duplicate the 30 goal seasons he had 5 years ago. Sundin, Lindros and Allison have hovered around a point per game in their careers and there is a good chance that this trend continues. The key is health. Lindros and Allison must stay healthy for the Leafs to go anywhere offensively. They will take pressure off of Sundin and likely compensate for their lack of scoring depth on the wings. If the big 3 are split on different lines, it could cause some problems for opposing coaches who match lines as the Leafs will have a dangerous player on the ice pretty much at all times. You cannot focus just on Sundin, and neglect Allison and Lindros. That would be suicide. O’Neill is healthy again and highly motivated coming back to his hometown, the question will be if he can not be effected too much by his personal tragedy. And though Tucker is skilled and smart, it may be too much to ask of him to be the offensive star he once was 10 years ago in junior. He is a different player now who has found a niche as a 50-60 point player providing 20 some goals in a supporting role. However he may be the most deserving among the Leaf holdovers. The other big problem is that the bottom of the roster is filled with 3 enforcers and 2 fringe NHLers. This is why Thomas was invited to camp as the Leafs are that thin on the wings. The team is not as strong depth wise as in years past when they could roll 3 scoring lines. The Leafs need a few players to step up, a couple to make strong comebacks, and a few surprises along the way. Toronto can no longer buy its way to success.
The Leafs are an underrated group offensively from the backend. McCabe can score racking up 17 goal seasons twice in the last 3 years. He is a threat on the powerplay with his booming shot. The key to the offence may be in the hands of Tomas Kaberle. His passing, speed and hockey sense may make the difference in Toronto. He will take advantage of the no redline getting pucks to Sundin and Lindros on the break. But he should also be the team’s most dangerous 4th man on the rush. Khavanov was quietly a solid acquisition. He is a good passer, can move the puck and able to join the rush. He should offer Toronto a bonafide point man to run the second powerplay unit. Coliacovo in time may turn into the Leafs best offensive player from the defence. He has great offensive instincts and if he can play sound in his own zone, he will get the ice time to showcase his skills.
On the powerplay the Leafs will have plenty of big guns to choose from and should be a dangerous unit. The team has so many large players that they could create havoc in front by planting themselves there and letting McCabe rip from the point or Sundin from the high slot or wing. guys like Lindros, Allison will be near impossible to move it obstruction is restrictive. Allison could be their top powerplay guy because of his size, reach and passing ability. It is matchup problems waiting to happen for opponents. The team will have many of it’s offensive minded forwards taking turn killing penalties. Sundin, Tucker, Stajan, Lindros will likely all see time on the PK and all can turn up the offence while shorthanded. And with a guy like Kaberle on the backend, the Leafs can still be dangerous while a man short. Their opponents will have to be wary of the long bomb pass.
COVERING THE D-ZONE: For the seven years Quinn has been coach, this has been the team’s Achilles heel. The team has never been able to consistently show the kind of defensive commitment needed to win championships. Far too often the team suffered from defensive breakdowns, missed assignments and turnovers. The problem has been due to poor coaching (Rick Ley), insufficient personnel and a lack of accountability. The team lacks a smart defensive minded coach to help out Quinn. Acton has been great at helping the forwards and the penalty kill but Rick Ley’s time has passed being a coach. He is a poor judge in talent (remember Jason Smith) and far too often puts inadequate players in the wrong situations. The blueline has forever lacked a player to log big minutes and be a shutdown defender against the league’s best. They have also been without a crease clearing defender since the early 90s. Far too often the likes of Berg, Kaberle, Belak, Pilar have been out there against the opponents top players and getting burned for it. And Leaf players have forever been allowed to get away with mistakes after mistakes without paying the price in terms of lost playing time. It often causes an epidemic among the team as once one player is allowed to get away with poor play, others follow suit. Also, the forwards have generally lacked very much defensive commitment and focus often leaving their blueliners and goaltender left hanging to dry. Team defence is not the team’s forte. However, it seems the team always manages to get by. They are often backed up by great goaltending but at times seem to “get it” defensively. They have also shown that most times they can be terrific on the penalty kill. The constant change in personnel has not helped chemistry wise but at times, the team seems to come together quite well and can definitely shut down opponents. It will be interesting to see how the Leafs, who already have trouble on the defensive end, handle the new opened up NHL. Players like Berg, Belak, Klee, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Brown, Marchment who are rather slow and do take a lot of penalties may have trouble adjusting. Quinn is going to have to do some great coaching to hide many of his players deficiencies. It is going to be interesting to see how the team makes out in their own end. They need to do a better job making sure Belfour can see the puck and not stuck handling too many rebound chances. The team also needs to do a better job at not getting hemmed in their own zone. The team will rely heavily on the combination of quickness and smarts from blueliners McCabe, Kaberle, Khavanov and Klee to compensate for the lack of speed, lack of size, lack of physicality and in some cases lack of experience they will have on defence. I think help from the forwards will go a long way to helping the team win those close games. If their top forwards make that commitment then others will follow suit. We have seen Sundin willingly backcheck and be conscientious in his own zone and we know how smart guys like Stajan are defensively. If they can get the newcomers they have brought in who are more offensive minded, like Lindros, Allison, O’Neill, Czerkawski to at least show some vigor defensively, there is a good chance this team can do some damage. But if they fail to show that kind of commitment, it could be a very long year for the goaltenders and coaching staff in Toronto.
GUARDING THE NET: The key to the Leafs success hinges on the play of goaltender Ed Belfour. He may not be the team’s best player but certainly the most influential in terms of the team’s place in the standings. As he goes, so go the Leafs. The big thing is not poor play, when Belfour is in nets, the Leafs know they are going to get top goaltending every night. The problem is injuries. The team cannot go without Belfour on a long term basis. He seemingly wins almost every other game on his own. He is a big game goalie with a proven track record. Time and time again he has buried the Leafs out of a jam in his two years in Toronto. But the things is, his back cannot keep up with the Leafs needs. Throughout his career, Belfour’s back problem has been a cause for concern. At times throughout the season he will need to take some time for maintenance. It is time that Toronto cannot seem to afford. It will be up to either Mikael Tellqvist or JS Aubin to step up and help Eddie and the team. Whomever wins the backup battle is going to have to make sure the drop-off is not so significant as it was the past two years with Trevor Kidd in goal. Recently, captain Mats Sundin talked about how a few games were thrown away by the Leafs and it left them without the desired home advantage in the playoffs. I think plenty had to do with the games that Belfour did not play. Plain and simple, Kidd was terrible and cost the Leafs probably 5-10 points in the standings. That cannot happen again this year. Hopefully the long layoff and new rules will not hurt Belfour too much because without him playing well, the team has not a chance of winning.
TALKING ABOUT MY GENERATION!: The Toronto Maple Leafs have constantly been vilified for their complete lack of focus on the future. Far too often, prospects, draft picks or a combination of both have been sacrificed for veteran talent. However GM John Ferguson is looking to change that perception. He has beefed up the scouting department, hired a stronger group of hockey knowledgeable men to help him out such as Craig Button and has moved the farm team to Toronto in order to keep a closer eye on his prospects. He has spoke often of procuring assets rather than moving them out. We will see if that holds true. However all is not lost in terms of youth for the team. There are several prospects challenging veterans for the final few roster spots with the team.
Carlo Coliacovo is hoping to find work on the blueline. After a few seasons on the farm, the time is now for Coliacovo to step up. Injuries and confidence problems have been what has held him back but he has the speed and skill to really be an asset to the Leafs. The blueline took a hit with Pilar getting sick and the door has opened for Coliacovo to make the team. He can move the puck, is a good passer and can run the powerplay. His play in his own zone has improved every year and he is a battler who wont give up too easily. Out of all the Leafs prospects, he has the best chance of cracking the lineup full time. In time, Coliacovo perhaps could develop into a top 3 blueliner but at this stage, if he makes the team, Quinn will likely give him 3rd pair minutes in order to get his feet wet.
Up front, the team’s top prospect is Swede Alex Steen. Son of former Winnipeg Jet Thomas Steen, the resemblance is striking. The younger Steen is skilled, smart and crafty like his dad. Though not big, he is willing to get into the traffic areas and do some dirty work. His ability to play all forward positions will allow him a greater shot at making the team. Though he did not play much last season in Sweden where NHLers took many of the jobs and much of the ice time, He has shown good promise in previous years and at the World Jrs. The time is now for him to get a feel for North American hockey, the rough going, the smaller ice, the faster pace in order to get him better ready for the pros. Time with the Marlies wont hurt him as he would be able to learn from coach Paul Maurice, however the Leafs lack of depth and skill on the wings has opened up a chance for Steen to make it. The Leafs do not want Steen to make the club but not play. He already dealt with being saddled to the bench last season and simply want the kid to play. He will stand a better chance of being the top 6 forward he is projected to be if he gets the ice time and experience he needs. There is a shot at him being the top line left winger beside Sundin, but it may serve the organization best to let him play with the Marlies at his natural position of centre and groom him to be a top line centre for the future.
Another prospect with a shot at making the big club is Kyle Wellwood. His skill level and hockey sense is NHL ready. He is shifty, he has a plethora of good moves and a nice pair of hands. Though his chances of cracking the team at centre may be limited, he too like Steen can shift to the wing and provide offensive depth in that area. The concern is his lack of size and conditioning. He has never been in good shape. He could get away with that in the AHL but in order to handle the daily grind of the NHL, he will need to get himself into better condition. He must be a step quicker, a split second faster and just that much more in shape to be able to do what he has done in the minors at the NHL level. He simply may be too small and not fast enough for the NHL game. Obviously he needs the chance to show if that is true or not, but he must earn the job and not be given it. Right now he could make the team as an offensive specialist handling power play duties plus being an option for shootout purposes. But he may spend another year working on his defensive game, play without the puck and getting stronger physically. You would think a player of his skill would be a surefire top 6 forward but without the physical attributes to handle that job, he may not get that far.
It has been great to see the coaching staff give opportunities to the likes of John Pohl, Ben Ondrus, Mike Hoffman, Ian White, Andy Wozniewski, Jay Harrison, Steffan Kronvall, Brad Leeb , JF Racine to go with their top prospects because it gives them confidence and kind of gives the team an idea of who can help the team in case of injuries. The club may not have a string of high first round picks among their prospects but they have some solid role players who could step in if the need arises.
PROJECTED LINES: How Toronto lines up will be difficult to say as they have rookies challenging for jobs, a couple of walk on veterans looking to keep their careers going and very few spots left in the lineup thanks to guaranteed, one way contracts the Leafs have committed to. There are several players on the bubble. A group of youngsters like Coliacovo, Kronvall, White, Harrison, Wozniewski will be challenging veterans Berg, Brown and Marchment for the final few spots on defence. They also have to keep in mind that Karel Pilar may eventually come back causing more of a logjam on D. They also have to figure out where Belak is going to play as he could line up back on D or remain a forward which he has done the past couple of seasons. Up front, the team has many spots set but still have some spots to fill. Will journeymen like Kilger, Wilm, Perrott, Leeb be regulars? Will Belak again be a forward? Will Steve Thomas make the team? What about kids, Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood? can they win a regular spot? Also what to make of Matt Stajan? will he get stuck behind the big 3 centres or be shifted to wing where he will play more? plenty of questions left for Quinn and the staff to figure out. And even after Quinn gets all the roster spots filled, he will then have to decide who plays with whom and that too is a big job. Here is how I think Toronto will line up to start the year:
Alex Steen – Mats Sundin – Marius Czerkawski
Darcy Tucker – Jason Allison – Jeff O’Neill
Alex Ponikarovsky – Eric Lindros – Nik Antropov
Tie Domi – Matt Stajan – Steve Thomas
Bryan McCabe – Tomas Kaberle
Carlo Coliacovo -Ken Klee
Alex Khavanov – Aki Berg
Ed Belfour – JS Aubin
Reserves: Bryan Marchment, Wade Belak, Chad Kilger
Bubble: Brad Brown, Clarke Wilm, Nathan Perrott, Brad Leeb
Prospects: Ian White, Staffan Kronvall, Jay Harrison, Kyle Wellwood, Mikael Tellqvist. Ben Ondrus, John Pohl
Injured: Karel Pilar
EXPECTATIONS: Expect Toronto to be fighting among the final 4 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. We have seen several of the bottom feeders in the conference like Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Florida improve significantly to go with the usual playoff teams like the Habs, Isles, Devils and B’s and those that have been hovering at the top for the last few years like Ottawa, Philly and Tampa. It will not be easy because there are simply more teams in the race this time around. The team has more question marks this year than in the previous few seasons and is perhaps why they may not finish near the top of the conference. It remains to be seen how well Jason Allison and Eric Lindros can come back after unusually long layoffs. longer than most players. How they play will greatly influence where Toronto will finish. A few big games here and there to take pressure off of Mats Sundin could go a long way and add some important wins in the standings. However if they sag or get hurt, Toronto will be in trouble. Every point now will be crucial, especially with the schedule heavily weighted towards divisional and conference games. If someone other than Jeff O’Neill can put up big numbers among the wingers, it will help ease the loss of the likes of Roberts, Mogilny and Nolan who were regular contributors. The Leafs are expecting big things out of Antropov, Ponikarovsky and Tucker and they need to step up. If they do not, there is not going to be much help for the Leaf centres. If one of the youngsters, beit Steen, Stajan or Wellwood provides a decent contribution, that could be the added spark the team needs which they will not be able to provide via a big mid-season deal for a big ticket player. The team has the goaltending to compete, if McCabe on D plays at a high level again and Kaberle steps it up, Toronto should have enough to finish in the top 8 in the East. Obviously they will need their 40 year old goalie to steal some games for them like he has the previous two seasons and stay off the injury list which Belfour has not done in his time with the Leafs. Certainly plenty of questions need answering, a bit of luck on the injury front is needed as well. If all those ifs can happen then Toronto should be giving teams a run for their money in the playoffs.
PROJECTED: The Leafs have a shot to at least game home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They have one of the top goalies in the East and that may prove to be a huge difference maker. The Northeast division is a big more muddled compared to other divisions who will have a clear top team. The Sens are great but they have greater questions to answer in goal with an older, more injury prone goaltender plus a thin centre ice group beyond Jason Spezza. The Sabres are a year or two away from competing as they still need to clear their goaltending picture plus allow their strong young core to gain more experience. The Habs have a top flight goalie but they too have a few ifs in their lineup and are very soft. The B’s have the most new faces but have a paper thin defence and the least experience in goal. It may be quite the stretch to have Toronto win the division because they will need plenty of things going their way, but definitely they should be in the playoffs. The talent is there. If Toronto can use the rules in their favor, play disciplined, and get good chemistry they are going to surprise quite a few people.