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Stops and starts heading into Leaf camp

It’s the most hopeful time of the year for all NHL teams and their fans. Every team thinks they can make the playoffs and to a large extent, that’s true. There is probably more “parity” now in the NHL than in the NFL, for example, where last season, there were just too many teams that weren’t very competitive.
A few thoughts as camps are almost ready to officially get underway:  

  • If the Maple Leafs had as many players vying for so-called “top-six” sports as “bottom-six” positions, it really would be an interesting training camp. As it is, some guys may make the first two lines almost by default.

  • Many Leaf fans seem excited at the apparent depth on the Leaf blueline heading into camp. We are assuming, in making this assessment, that Beauchemin will play like he can this season, that Komisarek stays healthy and the Kaberle “situation” is not a distraction for the player or the team. But I think what people are really leaning on is the expectation that both Schenn and Gunnarsson will take steps forward this season. For many, Gunnarsson was a revelation, Schenn a bit of a disappointment last year. We’ll find out if our expectations are fair—or realistic.

  • I expect to hear all kinds of positive things about young Kadri from the moment camp starts. The team desperately wants to project that they have the team in place to be competitive, and that includes having a credible second-line center. My guess is that while the best thing for the young London grad is significant time with the Marlies, he will get every opportunity to earn an opening-night spot on the roster.  I'd much rather a player "start" in the minors, and work their way up and never have to return to the minors.  I don't like the idea of a guy starting with the Leafs, then everyone finding out he's not ready ten games into the season.  It's disappointing for the athlete and can be a psychological blow.  (That said, I thought last year it would have been helpful for Schenn to spend a bit of time with the Marlies when he was struggling early in the season.).

  • If Lebda, a contributor on top playoff teams in Detroit, is the “number 7” defenseman, then the Leaf defense corps should be better than it has been in years. Maybe not Ellett, Gill, Lefebvre, Macoun and Rouse—all in their prime during that memorable run in 1993 and ‘94— but pretty good. Beyond Lebda, Finger is still an NHL defenseman and young Aulie will likely get a look. You need to be ten-deep back there if you are serious about lasting more than a week in the playoffs, and the Leafs may be close.

 Elsewhere around the league: 

  • After all is said and done with regards to the contactual legalities, I’ll repeat what I wrote months ago when I first heard the Devils wanted to get and then keep Kovalchuk—why? He’s a wonderful talent, for sure, but absolutely the opposite of what the organization has stood for, for so many years. That doesn’t mean they can’t try something different, I realize. I just don’t see how this signing makes sense, long-term. I said when the trade was first made that this would not be a happy marriage and I don’t think it will be. They gave up some good young talent to get him in the deal with the Thrashers and are devoting huge cap space to him. I just don’t think they are a Cup team anymore, and while the great Brodeur is still great, he's on borrowed time. Even if Kovalchuk “fits in” (somehow) the New Jersey “system”, I see Lou regretting this before too long. We see this all the time in sports now. Teams sign players to huge contracts, then two years later they are trying to “get out from under a bad contract”. 

  • I like the Sharks grabbing Niemi. Hey, they’ve had Cup-caliber talent for years, but never had a goalie that could quite bring them to the finish line. Maybe Niemi’s experience with the Hawks last spring will provide something, come next April, that the Sharks have been missing. 

  • Nice to see one of the most popular ex-Leafs in recent memory, Steve Thomas, net his first NHL off-ice gig. He was brought on board by former Detroit teammate Steve Yzerman with the Lightning. 

  • If Marc Savard is indeed staying in Boston (as his GM has supposedly assured him), and he is healthy, then the Bruins should be a formidable opponent this season. This will be a year where we also see if former Leaf prospect Rask is the real deal.  I'm guessing he is.

  • It may take some time, but the Oilers should be much, much better before too long. With Eberle, Hall and Pajaarvi-Svensson, they now have three bona fide and very young future stars that they didn’t have in their stand-pat lineup just a year ago. Compared with last season, it’s like a brand-new—and much improved—roster. Tom Renney gets the huge benefit Pat Quinn wasn't provided a year ago.

  • As I’ve posted previously, I think Chicago has lost too much grit and character to repeat. A lot of their heart and soul difference-makers on the third and fourth lines, not to mention their goalies, are gone. That said, they still have tons of high-end talent.

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