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As Maple Leaf supporters well know, this past Saturday night was to be the team’s home Saturday opener at the ACC in Toronto. Because of the lockout, a lot of blue and white enthusiasts have shifted their focus to the AHL Marlies, a roster brimming with prospects and NHL hopefuls. (A nice Saturday afternoon win to kick off the new year for the baby Leafs was followed by a rather less satisfying result, a 4-0 loss also at home on Sunday...) Some are, in fact, past the “prospect” stage, like Kadri and Gardiner (and Frattin, though an injury keeps him off the ice these days, if I'm not mistaken). To me, those guys are Leafs already. We can tell ourselves they are part of the prospect pool, but if the Leafs are to be a good team soon, those three guys had better be pretty significant contributors. I say that because as much as we like to boast about how Toronto is “the youngest team in the NHL”, let’s be honest. Virtually every team in the league—especially in this cap era where there are no dynasties and rosters change a lot annually—has a number of good young players who are already impact players, legitimate difference-makers. (A check of NHL rosters confirms that.)
The Leafs had best join that group of teams, and soon.
While many were at the Marlies games on Saturday and Sunday, some Leafers were also part of a WeWantACup.com –orchestrated “rally” on Saturday in downtown Toronto. The aim, as I understood it, was to let the two sides in the NHL dispute know that many fans want them to work through their “philosophical differences” and find a way to spend more than 3 billion dollars equitably. Not everyone liked the idea of a rally, but I was supportive because I know the people behind the event have the best of intentions and were, in part, speaking on behalf of all the people whose small businesses will be impacted by the lack of NHL hockey. Besides, the NHL owners and players - and player agents - are looking out for their own self-interest, so why can't fans have a voice, even if that voice is not really heard? (My own view, as I’ve said here before to no applause, is that fans should do their best to ignore the lockout and do other, non-hockey-related things in their newfound free time. The more needy we seem for NHL hockey only reinforces to both sides that we need them more than they need us, which leaves the fans in no man’s land. For Leaf fans, even actively supporting the Marlies by buying tickets and merchandize…well, I’m not sure that is the best way to send a message to the NHL, either, but that’s a debate for another day!)
Rallies and the Marlies aside, other passionate blue and white boosters are pursuing their hockey passion by following the team’s junior draft picks, looking to see if some of the “kids” look like they have what it takes to someday help the big club.
With that as a backdrop, in my more hopeful hockey-related moments (i.e., there will be an NHL season, and maybe even soon—though common sense and the state of the snail-like pace of negotiations tells me otherwise) I can’t help but find myself drifting toward thinking about the Leafs. And projecting what might have been—and still might be, if we can ever get the two sides to make genuine efforts at compromise instead of having to “win” this new deal. My “what might be” refers to the Eastern Conference, and where the Leafs fit if and when we kick off the 2012-’13 NHL season.
Based on 2011-‘12 and the off-season handiwork of various Eastern Conference GM’s, I see the landscape in our Conference as not that dissimilar to a year ago. How so? Let’s do a quick walk-through of the squads (and I expect others will have a different take on where every team is…), in no particular order:
The Bruins should be playoff-bound, for sure. Yes, they will miss Thomas in goal, but he was not the “old” Tim Thomas (to me, anyway) a lot of last season and he became a distraction with his public comments, despite denials all around. Rask may not be as good, but if they stay healthy, and if Horton returns to form (and healthy as well), I can’t see them not making the top tier in the East.
I’ve been a Ranger-doubter for the past two years. They had been so mediocre for so many years under General Manager Glen Sather that I was lulled into thinking he would never be able to build a good team on Broadway. I was evidently quite wrong. Under Tortorella, they are now one of those gritty, hard-working, shot-blocking teams that also have elite talent. That makes them tough to beat, especially with Lundqvist in goal.
I like the Flyers. I love Holmgren’s effort to always improve his team. I know he was heavily criticized after dealing Carter and Richards—and even more so after they both ended up together, helping the Kings win a Cup. But put Jonathan Quick on the Flyers, and I think they win the Cup last year, even without Pronger. So did they really “miss” Richards and Carter? And going forward, I think Philly has loads of young talent, though injuries to some key defensemen leave them a bit shy on the blueline, at least on paper.
I sense Fleury still has some good hockey in him and while the Penguins sent away Staal (a player I really like—he sure would look good as a Leaf), they also have a lot of talent and grit on their squad. I project them as a top-four team in the East, assuming Malkin and Crosby are healthy all season long.
So we have the Rangers, Bruins, Flyers and Penguins as the presumptive "elite" teams in the East. However, I do think things get interesting after that, in terms of where exactly the Leafs could fit.
It may sound absurd, but I still believe the Devils are weak on the back end. Brodeur played some good hockey down the stretch and in the playoffs, but he can’t play forever (at least I don’t think he can). Their defense is vulnerable, though I’m sure we could say that for most teams in the league. While losing Parise is not the end of the world, I think that while they hit the right note a year ago under DeBoer I’m just not a long-term believer. They’ll be wearing that Kovalchuk contract for years. But the Conference is not strong overall, so maybe they’ll be OK.
Carolina made some key roster moves, and they have Ward in net, but again, I don’t guarantee them a playoff spot just because they picked up Staal. They have some very mice young players, but as I noted above, almost every team does nowadays. We can say the same thing for the Islanders. Quite a number of young guys with skill—and not just Tavares. But how good are the Isles in goal—and on defense?
I wanted to see the ex-Thrashers do well in Winnipeg last season, and they gave it a good shot. But I think they have too many under-performers, too many players lacking maturity and no discernable leadership at this point. While everyone keeps saying Pavelec is a really good goalie, I’m not seeing the results just yet.
Washington struggled under Dale Hunter when he took over behind the bench but when they did start to click they were pretty good, playing the style he demanded. But considering they were supposed to be a Cup-contender two years ago, I believe they have regressed somewhat and are missing some key ingredients now. What Mike Green will we see this season? What about the goaltending? How about some of the under-performing skill guys? Semin is gone and while no one seems that upset about his departure, he did produce goals for them over the years. And without Hunter, will they play the hard-nosed style needed to succeed in the playoffs? Will they even make the playoffs?
Ottawa was the miracle team a year ago- at least they were to me. I honestly thought they would be lucky to win 15 games. They did a whole lot better than that. That said, while they have some young goalies in the pipeline, I think that part of their game could go south in a hurry. Also, new coaches often lead a charmed life in their first season, so year two for MacLean will be one to watch. Of course the Senators, like a lot of teams in the East, could continue to surprise me and make the playoffs. But we’ll see.
Buffalo spent all that money a year ago and then hit a wall with injuries. Whatever the cause—Miller’s injury, his inconsistency, certain guys not playing to expectations, etc.—they were a disappointment to their fans, I know that much. They have some young guys ready to help the line-up, including Cody Hodgson, yet while I think they may be top-8 material, I could just as easily see them slip into being in the lower-tier in the Conference as well. They’re a wild card for me.
I don’t know what to make of Florida and Tampa Bay. Florida was a surprise last season (including our old friend Versteeg) and Dale Tallon has quietly re-built the team on the fly. But I think they largely took advantage of a lousy Division and a weak Conference. Are they really “better” than the Leafs right now, straight-up? I don’t know.
Everyone likes Steve Yzerman because he’s Steve Yzerman, but is TB as good as they were two years ago, when they had that nice little playoff run? Lecavalier remains a good player but seems like yesterday’s news. Stamkos is a gem and they do have that corps of young defensemen. Maybe it’s where they play, but I just can’t get too cranked up about them. They had a young goalie (Mike Smith), let him go when they thought him expendable and he became a star in Phoenix. And like the Flyers, they seem to be scrambling for goaltending every year.
Montreal made some noise (and some improvements) this off-season, but can they really jump from 16th place to the top 8? I doubt it.
This is all my rather long-winded way of getting to today’s question: if we could ever end this lockout and get back to NHL hockey, where do you project the Leafs “fitting” in the parity-filled Eastern Conference? We’ve often discussed here what (click to see the stories) they need to do and what they’re missing, but even given their question marks and roster holes, do you see them making strides this coming season? Will they make enough improvements to actually sneak into the playoffs in the East? Enough to actually make waves in the playoffs, as a Tampa Bay did two years ago and Florida did this past spring?
I know it’s hard to get excited about what seem to be hypothetical situations given the lockout, but let me know what your honest inclinations were/are about the Leafs and where you feel they would/would have ended up…