Over the past couple of weeks we’ve discussed how training camp usually brings hope—for virtually every team in every sport every year.
For the Leafs, this camp has seemingly been about identifying the “bottom-six” forwards, nothing more, nothing less, as best I can tell. I say that in part because one of the “fun” things about this time of year is the occasional surprise that jumps out at you as a fan, and more importantly, at the team.
In recent posts I’ve talked about D’Amigo, Kadri, Hanson and some others, but after Sunday's roster shuffle the reality is that the Leafs will be exactly what we are seeing now and have been expecting all along. For all the players who have been given a “chance” to perform in the pre-season games to date, the fact is
has been simply waiting patiently to cut down the roster to manageable numbers. And within that construct, there are no surprises. Wilson
Despite five games in five nights (which had to be more about revenue than finding a hidden gem...at least the Leafs lead the league in meaningless games played), we are pretty much back where we started.
What would have been stunning, or surprising, or just fun? I suppose if one of the kids (especially someone like the comparably less-hyped D’Amigo) popped up and earned a spot up front. That couldn't happen on the back end because they already have plenty of defensemen that they are financially committed to. So even if any of the incoming guys have looked good, and some have (Lashoff, etc.) they won’t soon be playing here.
So it comes down to the third and fourth-line guys, and now I’m not even sure there will be any surprises there. Wilson said Saturday night that Brown and Orr are his fourth-line wingers. Mueller is now with the Marlies so it's down to Hanson, Kadri and Mitchell for the two remaining center spots. (They have seemingly been quietly hoping that Kadri will step up and grab the spot.) I'd like to give Hanson a chance.
In truth, fans rarely get cranked up about the third and fourth lines on most teams. In the salary cap era, these are largely interchangeable players from one organization to another.
Thinking back to memorable names from say, the early ‘70s, it was different. The Leafs had a Brian “Spinner” Spencer to cause all kinds of havoc on a fourth line, someone who brought not only energy but body-checking capability. He was exciting to watch. They also had a third-line center like Jim Harrison, who loved to go through people in the open ice when finishing his checks. If we had those kinds of players here now, that would be something to get excited about.
But the bottom line is there will have been dozens of guys at Leaf camp, and we’ll likely end up with the same roster we all had projected back in the summertime. Not saying that’s bad— just no fun.
The Leafs have all but finalized their roster and while we don't know how good they'll be, this much we know: this is going to be a young team.
There will be no outstanding old veterans like Mark Recchi or Bill Guerin to bring that certain presence. Brendan Shanahan is not making a comeback in blue and white.
Now, being young often sounds promising, but it doesn’t always mean that a young team will be a really good team. But we can maybe all agree the jury is out on that one, whatever one’s training camp impressions are of this year’s squad to date. Some fans are optimistic, others still think the Leafs are still very far away. But it's too soon to know, either way. It's a long, long season.
We do know that Giguerre will be the old man in the bunch, at 33. Assuming he stays around, Kaberle anchors the blue line in terms of NHL experience, Leaf seniority—and his age. He is 32.
Am I wrong, or beyond that, is there a player over the age of 30 on the roster?
Things can’t be all bad. The Leafs have blueliners like Schenn (not even 21) Gunnarsson (still 23) and Phaneuf (a loud 25) who are still relative “kids”, despite their NHL experience. They are all shy of their (hopefully) prime years.
Gustavsson (assuming he is here for the long-term and will be part of the "core") tips the age scale at a soon-to-be 26. No problem there.
Up front, there is not a guy within yelling distance of 30. Bozak (24), Kessel (23), Kulemin (24), Versteeg (24), Armstrong (an old man at 27 ) are the backbone of the offense. Prospects like Caputi (21) and Kadri (20) don’t even have to make the big club this time around to have a bright future with the organization.
So, despair not. As we have said before, a lot of the fun is in the ‘hoping’. And there may well be some things to be hopeful about, this time around.