Now, I think we all recognize that it’s not like the Leaf brass has sat around doing nothing all summer. They’ve re-signed RFA’s like Frattin and Kulemin, released Colby Armstrong and of course acquired James van Riemsdyk in return for defenseman Luke Schenn in a mini-blockbuster—albeit one we had been hearing about for almost a full year. There is no question that the van Riemsdyk move is a significant one, given that he should address one of our major needs: a legitimate top-six forward to log key minutes—and put up some numbers.
But I guess my question today is along these lines: acknowledging that the Leafs have certainly made some moves this summer, have the Leafs improved enough (e.g. Carlyle behind the bench, the possible influx of some young Marlies on the roster, van Riemsdyk, Komarov on the third line, etc.) to leapfrog some of the other squads that missed the playoffs like they did last season? For good measure, are they good enough now to edge out one or two of the teams that made the playoffs in 2011-’12? I ask because the reality for the Leafs (and their fan base) could be that a number of other Eastern Conference teams seem to have improved significantly this off-season—at least on paper—and that may make the job in front of the blue and white all the more difficult.
While it’s awfully early to think all too seriously about who will be the really good teams in the East (we have the whole CBA thing to clear up first, and then there will no doubt be some roster shuffling across the league), I have no reason to believe that the Bruins, for example, will fall off a cliff and into the also-ran category all of a sudden. Tim Thomas is gone, but he was not the old Tim Thomas through much of last season, and Rask should be able to fill that void reasonably well in Beantown. They still have the core of the roster that won the Cup two years ago (and Nathan Horton is returning). I don’t think they’ve slipped much.
The Rangers just grabbed Rick Nash without giving up key core guys. They play hard and have the world’s best goalie, so they will be fine, it would seem. The Penguins lost Staal, but picked up some nice pieces from Carolina. If Fleury rebounds and Malkin, Crosby and Letang are healthy, they are seemingly a lock to be a top-four team in the East.
Washington could slide with the Hunter gone (heck, they were life and death to make the playoffs this past season), but in the same breath, Mike Green was hurt a lot of last year and, if healthy, he should help shore up the back end. I’m of the view that Ovechkin may rebound as well and be the kind of player he was earlier in his career.
The Flyers lost out on their bid for Shea Weber, but if (big if) they can get Schenn to play with confidence and consistency, he should help their blueline. They have some awfully nice young talent up front and while their goaltending is still a crap-shoot most nights, I think the Flyers still have a lot more than the Leafs.
Ottawa is an interesting case. They certainly surprised me last season—a lot. Will they slide back and be more run-of-the-mill in their coach’s second season behind the bench, or has MacLean really helped the organization turn a long corner?
Tampa picked up a young goalie (Lindback) with potential who should help. Buffalo gave up skill in Derek Roy but picked up an agitator with a lot of heart in Steve Ott, who will give their line-up a lot more sandpaper. Cody Hodgson should be a boost in his first full season with the Sabres, too. (Didn't they also draft a kid last month who could have an impact pretty early on?)
I’m not worried about the Jets, though they have some nice young talent. Carolina (again, on “paper”) is a lot better with Staal and Semin. It sounds like they plan to unleash Semin and play a more offensive style under Muller. We’ll see.
For me the Panthers are like the Senators. They blew way past expectations last season but I just don’t know if they can repeat their performance. Still, Tallon is a shrewd GM and wants desperately to make his mark in Florida after he was let go in Chicago.
The Habs? Well, they re-signed Carey Price and picked up Prust, who should help a bit. They have a new GM and a new coach and maybe Markov will finally be healthy.
I do wonder if the Devils will be vulnerable. Brodeur is not the old Brodeur, though hey, he was sure good enough to get the Devils to the finals this past season (though that was a shock to me—they were much better than I figured they would be…). Most importantly, I just don’t know how they can possibly replace Parise. He was their captain, leader and he was a huge producer offensively.
I realize that’s not exactly a thorough analysis of the Leaf opponents in the East, but I guess my simple thought is: other teams in the Conference seem to have improved a fair bit. Maybe the Leafs have as well.
But has Toronto done enough to assure themselves of a playoff spot—much less something better and more hopeful than that?
I look forward to hearing your views….