This Wednesday marks the new hockey season start, and the second year under the new salary cap and rules. During the last season we saw some surprising successes, from teams like Buffalo. My Leafs did not do as well as I would have liked, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years, and that failure marked the end of Pat Quinn's time in Toronto. There's many reasons why the Leafs missed the playoffs last year. Lackluster goaltending, a lack of depth in defense past McCabe and Kaberle, lack of speed and youth, and Sundin being out a good portion of the early part of the season all made for a difficult season for the Leafs. A Late Season rush by Toronto, carried by J.S. Aubin and Mats "Put the freaking team on my back and carry them" Sundin made for some interesting games as the Leafs struggled for the last playoff spot, but ended up just missing the postseason.
So, what's changed?
Ed Belfour, and his massive contract, GONE. In his place comes Andrew Raycroft. Raycroft had a dismal season last year in Boston. This could be because he had an injury for the first part of the season, and eventually was replaced by two other goalies who were able to pick up their games. Raycroft, as well as having close to the best lastname ever, won the Calder Trophy his rookie year in the league, just before the lockout, and was an MVP in the OHL prior to that. Which Raycroft did Toronto get? MVP-Calder Quality Raycroft? Or Injured beginning of the season Raycroft? We, of course, are hoping for the former, because picking up a young top goalie like Raycroft would make giving up perhaps the best "prospect" goalie worth while. If Raycroft is able to repeat his Calder season, we have a nice goalie backbone till Pogge is ready to take over. If Raycroft isn't able to meet his old form... will he be better then Belfour was last year?
Hopefully the answer is yes, and hopefully he'll be aided by the new defense corps the Leafs picked up. Back are Thomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe, with new contracts, and this is a good thing. McCabe and Kaberle work well together on defense, they make a great tandem and can cover up each others weaknesses. McCabe was a scoring dynamo for the first part of last season, so there will be pressure on him to repeat this year. If Kaberle starts to shoot the puck (and he was showing signs of doing so near the end of last season) they'll be putting up some rather nice numbers. Joining these two are Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. Kubina is probably the better signing of the two, and once he settles into Toronto will hopefully be back to the form he was with the Lightning on their Cup run. Gill, picked up from Boston, will be a stay at home guy infront of Raycroft (also from Boston) and is known as a crease clearer. He's not Chara big, but he can use his body, and that sort of defenseman was something the Leafs were missing last year. Two spots remain open, and there's a large crop of talented young defensemen trying to take'em. Carlo Colaiacovo seems to be one of the favorites to make it, but after a nasty concussion last year, and a possible reoccurance of symptoms early in camp, who can tell. One of the not-so-young defensemen trying to fill a spot is Brad Brown (a former North Bay Cent) and shows a lot of grit when playing. He's a bit older, but was willing to step up to McGratton of the Sens and drop the gloves with success. With Domi gone, Brown could fill the role of competent defenseman AND enforcer if need be.
Beyond the defense, the Leafs have gotten faster, but not by who they added but by who they dropped. Gone are Lindros and Allison, and with them gone room is made for some of the youngsters to step up. One such "kid" is Suglobov, acquired late last season from the Devils for Ken Klee. An offensive minded hotshot, who has been impressing during the training camp, Suglobov could be a great addition to the team, and played well on a line with Stajan and Steen. If he can learn to be a little more defensive and get more of the team mentality down, he'd do well with the Leafs.
Speaking of a little more defensively, who better to teach a young guy to be a bit more defensive on forward then Mike Peca? Peca was brought in to help with the Leafs penalty kill, which was mostly horrible the last year. Along with that, Peca will be more then able to add a little grit to the team, and maybe even pot himself a few grinding goals. Peca's leadership and defensive abilities will do well on the team, and alot of the younger players could learn a thing or two from him.
One of the big question marks for the team is Jeff O'Neill, who had a rather dissappointing season last year. Depending on who you ask (three articles in three different papers have O'Neill listed as either "OK" "On the bubble" or "On the outside looking in"). I personally think you'll see O'Neill on the team, and while he might not get to the 41 goal mark he had when he was with Carolina, I do think we'll be surprised by him.
Speaking of Carolina, the reason I think we'll be surprised by O'Neill is actually two reasons. First of all, he had some great chemistry with Bates Battaglia, who he played with in Carolina, during the preseasons. Second, and perhaps most importantly, is the new coach of the team, Paul Maurice, also, formerly of Carolina. Maurice lead the Hurricanes to the finals a few years back, and his regime for the 'Canes is probably a very big reason of why they are last years Stanley Cup Champions. Maurice was brought in to coach the Marlies last season and was groomed to replace Pat Quinn. All accounts show Maurice is willing to push his team to be the best they can be. A rash of strains, pulls and soreness this training camp might show how hard he's pushing the team. A new face behind the bench maybe the key to the Leafs season.
One big plus for the Leafs last year was "the kids" - Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan and Alex Ponikarovsky all played exceptionally, and this year will be rewarded with more responsibilities and more ice time. Maurice has even put Kyle Wellwood on the wing of Mats Sundin, and the kids creativity seems to be working well for Mats.
Speaking of Mats... by far, the Leafs best player. After the Olympic break last year, when Mats and Team Sweden won the Gold in Hockey, Sundin became a force. injured in the first part of last season, after a puck to the face in the opener against the Senators, Mats after the Olympics seemed to have the ability to pick up the team and carry it on his back. A year older, and still without the much sought after "winger" Leafs Fans are clamouring for, Sundin does have the ability to elevate the game of most anyone who plays on his wing. Last year he stated he liked having the creative Wellwood on his line, and Maurice seemed to like the chemistry, so there could be good things coming for Sundin. Sundin will also be getting top minutes like never before, and hopefully that will make Mats elevate his game to new heights. The Leafs need it from him.
Last year, Darcy Tucker elevated his game to become one of the top scorers for the Leafs. A favorite amongst most Leaf Fans, it seems Tucker matured a bit, and finally filled the role the Leafs needed him for. If Tucker can keep the maturity he start to show last year, and become a gritty, grinding offensive power, the Leafs will do well. That, and if he can not fall back into his pre-lockout whining ways.
The leading even strength goal leader among the Leafs last year was Chad Kilger. Kilger stepped up his game last year, but will he be able to continue with that trend this year? Kilger could be a huge question mark for the Leafs, but in his role as a third or fourth line guy, it's likely Kilger could be a rather effective force for the Leafs, even without leading the team in even strength goals this year.
The big story during the preseason this year for the Leafs really seems to be the backup goalie battle. Who will be backing up Raycroft? Aubin or Tellqvist? Aubin has been slightly better during the preseason, showing better form and better rebound control. Aubin also has the advantage of being the corner stone of the push to try and make the playoffs, following Tellqvist's meltdown in the back-to-back games against Montreal. Aubin also seems to be more confident in net and has the least flexible contract, so all signs are pointing to him as being the back up. Maurice, however, coached Aubin in the Marlies before he was called up and yanked him out of net on more then a few occassions, so it will be a mystery who will be behind Raycroft for at least a little while longer. There is also the possibility that the Leafs will carry two backup goalies into the beginning of the season. While Aubin has been better, in my opinion at least, during the preseason, there is a possibility Tellqvist could get the backup slot because the Leafs could get more from trading Aubin then Tellqvist. The gap between the two hasn't been too wide, so who knows what could happen.
That's that, really. There's still alot of questions before Wednesday's season opener, and there's alot of question marks. I can't wait to see how things happen this year, it looks like it will, at the very least, be an exciting year for Leaf Fans.
So: Go Leafs Go!