by Mark Smith… Is this as good as it gets? Brian Burke has done a great job improving the Leafs’ defence, and Gustavsson makes their goaltending far better than last year, but with the loss of Antropov and Moore the Leafs forwards are made up of 3rd and fourth line players.
You hear a lot from hard core fans about the Buds ranking 10th in scoring last season, but key to remember that forwards need to play two ways to be effective…and that Kubina was a key piece of the offence last year.
Who can the Leafs count on next year? Well, Hagman is a strong 3rd line forward. Ponikavrosky will score20-25 and get in front of the net. Blake will continue to slow down but grind out 20 goals. Primeau and Orr will help form a solid energy line. Stajan will float through another season until he is traded.
After that there is hope but no certainty. Grabovski offers the most upside, but will never be the superstar Leafs want him to be. Kulemin is a year away from being an effective winger. Tlusty on the other hand offers real upside for 2009-2010, and will be fun to see him play with bigger teammates. Similarly, John Mitchell is ready for a 20 goal season. Hanson and Wallin could crack line-up, especially since Stempniak is Marlie bound.
Yikes, not too inspiring is it? Burke will surely keep his eye out for a trade, as well as potential signings, but Leafs start the year as weak as any team in the league up front.
by Mark Smith… The whispers are getting louder that Brian Burke is now interested in bringing Brendan Shanahan on board for a one season deal. Shanahan played ‘Burke Style’ hockey throughout his career and is seen as exactly the kind of character that is needed in the dressing room to help guys like Tlusty and Grabovski learn what it takes to win.
The only other team expressing interest in Shanahan continues to be the St. Louis Blues, however, GM Larry Pleau has not gone forward to the $1 million contract or less than Shanahan would earn.
A final year in hometown Toronto would be a great way for Shanahan to end his career…let’s hope this becomes fact soon.
By Mark Smith… For so many in Toronto, Brian Burke is a gift from the heavens. Not only is he a good hockey man who has already started to make smart moves that will rebuild the club…he actually encourages the idea that Toronto is the center of the hockey world and feeds the dreams of Leafs fans.
This is great news for those in Leaf Nation, who see the playoffs as simply a distraction until they can once again focus on the Leafs.
What will the team look like next year? Who will they draft? Who will they trade for? Will they sign all the best free agents?
Most boldly, of course, Burke has thrown out there that he is after the No. 1 ranked player for the draft, John Tavares.
This alone will have Leaf fans plotting and starting rumours until draft day. Beyond this, however, Burke has made many things clear regarding his plans;
1) The Leafs need to become both bigger and faster
2) There needs to be much stronger competition for ice time
3) Goaltending needs to improve
Burke has already made some ground on creating more competition and becoming bigger and better with the signings of US collegiate free agents. He will help address the need for better goaltending with the signing of Gustavsson after the world championships end.
What does all of this mean for this year’s Leafs? Well, the changes will be bolder than many expected. Leaf fans tend to fall in love with their players, even while they are losing, and the late season flashes the team demonstrated had many fans believing “success” (ie. slipping into the playoffs) was only a couple of player upgrades away.
Burke has his sights set higher, so let’s take a look at each player from this season, and their prospects for 2009-2010.
Contract: $4 million
Evaluation: Very weak year, even before he was apparently hurt. Burke made it clear that he felt goaltending (ie. Vesa) cost Leafs a spot in the playoffs.
2009: He will be back as No. 1, at least to start the year. He will play better, but he will also face real competition for starts.
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Status: Had some good starts as a Leaf, but inconsistent and hot-headed in a bad way
2009: Not returning, but will likely get a chance on another NHL team
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Status: Popular Leaf had terrible year, confirming he is finished even if he does not realize
2009: Thanks for everything Curtis…see you at the pseudo sweater retirements
Contract: Restricted free agent
Status: Many chances, but consistently disappointing after his first start.
2009: Leafs plan to have Pogge spend a full year with the Marlies, hopefully after a long playoff run.
Contract: $5 million
Status: Good offensively, but weak in own zone, and got caught pinching again and again.
2009: Burke would like to deal Kubina, but his huge contract makes Kaberle the man to go.
Contract: $4.25 million per year until 2011
Status: Aside from Schenn, this is the Leaf every team wants. He ate up ice time, during a so-so season.
2009: He will be traded for a strong return, unless Burke finds someone to take Kubina.
Contract: $3.5 million per season until 2012
Status: Solid, as advertised. He blocks shots making him a fav of Ron Wilson.
2009: No question he and his big contract come back.
MIKE VAN RYN
Contract: $2.9 million
Status: Injuries kept Van Ryn out of most of the season. When he did play he was a strong Top 4 defenseman, and Leafs won more than they lost.
2009: Back after a rigorous off season training program.
Contract: $2.975 million per year until 2011
Status: Exceeded everyone’s expectations, by delivering the goods almost every night, including solid defense and good hits.
2009: Tavares trade aside, Luke will return, and seems to have a good chance to avoid the sophomore jinx.
Contract: $1.065 million
Status: Unspectacular in games he played.
2009: Frogen will lose out to numbers, and be with Marlies to start the season.
Status: White was the best Leaf playing on many nights, and took over even more ice time when Kaberle was injured. Highest plus/minus on team.
2009: Burke will bring White back. White will continue to emerge as a leader on the team, and improve on a strong season.
Contract: Three years remaining at $4.5 million, $3 million, $3 million.
Status: Blake brought his best game last season, and led the Leafs in scoring. Still too selfish with the puck. At 38, he would be good trade bait if not for a ridiculous contract.
2009: Back with Leafs, but not as effective.
Contract: $3 million per year until 2012
Status: Solid player who took advantage of ice time to show scoring ability.
2009: Leafs’ third line
Contract: $2.5 million
Status: Fletcher’s last bad move only seemed to give it a full effort in last games of the season.
2009: Stempniak is not Burke’s type of player (although he will have even more time to audition at the World Championships). He will start next season with the Marlies.
Contract: $2.105 million
Status: Most consistent season ever, and actually became stronger after Antropov was dealt. He emerged as a leader in the dressing room, especially of the other Russian players.
2009: He is Burke’s style of player, and will be back as a top 6 forward for Leafs.
Contract: $1.75 million
Status: After being called out by Wilson at start of the year, Stajan improved, but confirmed he is at best a third line player.
2009: Stajan is clearly one player Burke has in mind when he calls out those who have become too comfortable with ice time on weak team. He will look to deal Stajan before start of the season.
Status: Showed ability and aggressiveness offensively, but weak defense had him split season with Marlies.
2009: He will start season with Leafs and be a key project for Wilson and coaches. Look for him to exceed 20 goals.
Status: Did not give Leafs the physical play they were looking for.
2009: Another Fletcher mistake that will not start year with the Leafs.
Status: Showed flashes of offensive brilliance, but weak defensive play held him back.
2009: He works hard is exciting to watch. He will start year on third line.
Contract: Restricted free agent.
Status: Grabovski clearly showed he has talent, and he combined this with hard work that was not always smart.
2009: He will return for more drama next season, potting 30 goals.
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Status: Hard-working player lacking in talent.
2009: Not returning.
Contract: Unrestricted free agent
Status: One of the team leaders, he played as expected.
2009: Could be back if Burke doesn’t feel he has done enough to improve team size and aggressiveness.
by Mark Smith… While in Montreal the media is constantly attacking Gainey for not loading les Habitants with more Francophone players, Toronto seems to be shrugging off the fact that Burke and Fletcher have loaded the leafs with non Canadian players. Burke’s addition of Christian Hanson follows Burke bringing other mediocre American players to Canada’s capital, most recently Jeff Hamilton and Eric Reitz. Eight of the top ten current Leaf scorers are not Canadian. The Leafs threw money at American Jeff Finger in hopes that he could become part of a top four defense led by two Czechs. They are led in goal by a Finn.
One doesn’t have to be a xenophobe to think that the Leafs could benefit by leveraging some of the passion that exists throughout Southern Ontario and beyond for the white and blue. The team doesn’t need to be loaded with local boys, but where are the potential heroes to replace Keon, Sittler, and Gilmour? Brian Burke and Ron Wilson seem to be too busy watching college games to consider this.
by Mark Smith… The Toronto Maple Leafs are once again putting forward a late-season surge—one that will pull them out of a prime draft pick, but also once again leave them out of the playoffs.
It could be easy to forget that this team is very different than the one that the one that did the same a year ago.
In fact, less than half the current Leafs were part of the surge of 2008, making them the NHL’s most changed team.
The feeling this year is in fact different—a young team that really hasn’t had a chance to gel is exceeding expectations.
Maybe, just maybe, this time it’s different.
Maybe this team will start 2009-2010 with the same level of success that they end this season with.
And so out thoughts turn to next season—what that team will look like and whether the long playoff drought could end. Let’s fast forward to September 21, the eve of the Leafs’ opener vs. the Sabres and a look at the Leaf team that is starting the 2009-2010 season:
Throughout the 2008-2009 season, Burke repeated one mantra—the Leafs need to become bigger and faster. He made some real strides towards this in the offseason with the signing of Johan Franzen and Mike Komisarek, and bringing back Dominic Moore. The Leafs also look forward to other new faces, and importantly to seeing further development and gelling of their young core.
The Leafs start the year much stronger up front, with a real opportunity to have at least five players score 20 goals. Their young front line will remain defensively challenged, however, putting continued pressure on their defense.
With the addition of Komisarek, and relative health of Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn will help, but the key to reducing their GAA is No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala staying healthy
These Leafs will be in the mix for a playoff spot all year, and will make it for the first time in five years as their rebuilding process takes its’ next step. Burke has all but stated Rick Nash as his target for the start of next year, so things are looking up for the Leafs. Here is the lineup to start the new season.
Burke clearly knew what he wanted to do when July 1 came around and by early afternoon he had used some of his generous salary cap space to sign “The Mule” to a three-year contract.
Franzen is exactly what Burke is looking for the Leafs to become—big and skilled, and he will be expected to lead the Leafs in scoring.
Grabovski ended last season on a roll, and his conditioning coming into training camp showed all that he is ready to lead a team desperate for scoring. He starts as the Leafs No. 2 center.
Moore came back to Leafs in early July after it became apparent that he could not get the kind of money he was looking for. The Leafs and Moore are excited he is back home and he is ready to lead the team in effort.
Burke tried to deal Stajan over the summer, but with no interesting offers he is back. He will fight for ice time on the third line
After steady improvement over 2008-2009, the Leafs will give Mitchell time on the power play ahead and believe he could deliver 20 goals.
He would not be a top-line player on most teams, but he showed he doesn’t need Sundin or Antropov to score 20 goals. He starts this season as a long-time Leaf expected to lead.
Leafs are confident Blake can find the groove he had for much of last season now that Dominic Moore is back and expect 20+ goals from the veteran.
Kulemin showed only spurts of his potential last year, but he earned the chance to stick for a full season and get ice time that should allow him to put up some points.
Tlusty’s strong playoffs put a cap on an impressive Marlie performance. Wilson will be giving him lots of ice time to start the year offering him a chance to bring excitement and scoring to the NHL.
Hagman and Blake are the only two veterans over 30 with the Leafs, and he is expected to play a steady, hard-nosed role on the Leafs’ third or fourth line.
Burke surprised many when he traded Thomas Kaberle and Leafs’ first pick to land the fifth-overall spot, but surprised nobody when he used the pick to draft Braydon Schenn. For the second consecutive year, a Schenn played himself straight into the Leafs’ lineup—Schenn will start on Leafs’ fourth line.
Wilson feels that Deveaux can pair with Schenn and Hagman to form an effective “energy line” to start the year.
Kubina is one of the very few Leafs who have both the size and the speed he wants to become the team’s calling card. With the departure of Kaberle his offensive skills will become even more important. He will anchor the Leafs defense and lead the team in minutes.
Luke will start this year as he ended last year—playing 20 minutes a night. He is already a critical player for this team, and most expect him to avoid a sophomore jinx.
White ended last year playing the most minutes on the Leafs. While he started last year in the press box, he starts this year as the No. 2 offensive D-man on the club. He has set an aggressive 50 points as a target for this season.
Leafs’ other big off season signing infuriated Habs fans who were already steaming over missing the playoffs. Mike Komisarek gives the Leafs a second heavy hitter on the blueline, and will pair with White.
He started last year as Jeff “Who”, but Leafs know what to expect from Finger this year. His contract suggests he should be in the top four, but he wil have to play his way back to this.
Mike Van Ryn
Leafs were hoping for more of what Van Ryn offered last year—but over more games. Unfortunately he starts the year with a groin pull that could keep him out for three weeks.
Strahlam showed bursts on excellence in training camp, and Leafs hope this is the year that he sticks with the Leafs. He will get 15 minutes a game to start the season.
Few picked fan-favourite Oreskovic to land with the Leafs, but Forgren’s disappointing camp combined with Van Ryn’s energy and O’s enthusiasm and steadiness earned him the seventh spot with the Leafs to start the year.
Now completely healthy and rested, Toskala and the Leafs need him to come back to his previous form—and at minimum not lose games for the team.
Clemensen had options as a free agent, but chose the Leafs as he believed he had a real opportunity to make the line-up and play games. He will get this opportunity as Pogge failed to impress at training camp, and Wilson is determined to give Toskala a challenge for his starts this year.
by Mark Smith… It’s all about the future for these Leafs. So who are the key men in the system today that will ensure the team ‘rebuilds’ quickly and assertively? The onus is on Burke to ensure that future picks are used well, and free agents are signed, but right now who are the five keys to the future?
1) Luke Schenn
Schenn is certainly the most important Leaf for the future. The Leafs need him to be a franchise player, and while that is by no means certain, he has shown all kinds of potential in his rookie season; while getting enough minutes that any fatal flaws would certainly have been exposed.
Last night, given the injuries, he was on the ice a lot. He thrived, breaking up many plays and showing minor offensive bursts. He could look great as captain as early as 2011-2012.
2) Justin Pogge
Will he be a Mikael Telqvist or Sean Burke? It is not certain Pogge will ever be a number one goalie, much less a franchise one, but like it or not he is a key to the Leaf’s future. If he can’t step up over next few years the Leafs will have to invest picks, players, or cash to get the goaltending they need.
3) Thomas Kaberle
There is every possibility that Kaberle will be traded this summer. The cap will be tight for all teams, but a puck moving defenseman locked in for two more years at a reasonable salary will be sought after.
If traded, he could land a first round pick and a good player, or strong prospect. Both of which are key building blocks. If he sticks around, he is young enough that he can make a real contribution to the Leafs in a couple of years as they become competitive.
4) Jiri Tlusty
Before picking Schenn, the Leafs had traded five of eight picks away, and combined two others to acquire the great Lee Stempniak. For those who need to feel the pain, we rented Nolan, Leetch, Raycroft and Toskala for these top picks.
The only man left standing is Jiri Tlusty, who has been burning up the Marlies. The Leafs need a homegrown scorer, and Tlusty is the best bet. He has the potential to be a real scorer in the NHL.
5) Nikolai Kulemin
Would be nice to see more of a sure thing in the number five position, but this is the state of the nation. Kulemin does have real scoring potential, and is a strong skater. He sees the ice well, and when he has been most effective has shown a willingness to grind it out as well.
The Leafs would love to see him to emerge as a top six forward, and while it will not be a smooth path, it is very possible.
Those are the top five as of today, look forward to seeing the Sedin twins and another Schenn on the list as of August.
By Mark Smith… Who are the Favorites for the Cup?
Sometimes in the frenzy at the trading deadline one can forget the reason the (too many) NHL teams are all playing…to win the Stanley Cup. Only a few are serious contenders though, and with most of the season over and the trade deadline having passed, here are the five favorites for the Cup in 2009.
1) Detroit Red Wings. The last time a Cup winner repeated was 1997-1998 when…the Red Wings did so. Nikolas Lidstrom was a key player on that team, and the red Wings most important veteran today. Less exciting for the red Wings is that Chris Osgood is once again their #1 goalie. That said, with Hossa now complementing Zetterberg and Datsyuk, the Red Wings remain the team to beat.
2) San Jose Sharks. Will this be the year that Thorton steps up during the playoffs. He has the supporting cast in a top goalie (Nabakov), a second line center who can balance the scoring (Marleau), a scorer in Setogouchi and two top offensive defensemen in Boyle and Blake. Wild cards are Cheechoo’s ability to shake off poor year and Claude Lemieux’s ability to surprise everyone and play effectively. They go in as #2.
3) New Jersey Devils. Brodeur is playing strong in stretch of the season…nothing new there. But he is rested and has something to prove (that he still has it). This Hall of Fame clutch goalie is the anchor, but with Parise stepping up as a star, Elias coming back to top form, leadership all over the dressing room and a defense first system that wins playoff games – Devils are a top 5 fav this year.
4) Calgary Flames. Iginla needs to show he is no Joe Thorton, and step up from a season that has not been his best. That said, GM Sutter has done what he needs to to prepare this team for a run that could go all the way. Goaltending is a key strength with Kiprusoff in nets. Iginla finds lots of support up front with Camalleri and Bertuzzi now complemented by Jokinen. Bourque and Phaneuf lead the defense, and there is lots of ‘sandpaper’ in the lineup that will look good come April
5) Boston Bruins. They would seem unlikely to go all the way, but who would have picked them to have commanding lead of the East by this time of year. Thomas is a veteran unlikely to wilt under the bright playoff lights, and Fernandez could step in and spell him if needed. Chara will step up for a strong playoffs. Up front they would seem weaker. Savard has never played strong in playoffs, and Kessel may well find less room to make plays. Recchi looked very good with a big B on his sweater though, and team has to be feeling good about themselves going into the first round.
It has come to this in the 2008-2009 season.
Leaf fans try to find excitement in a meaningless game against a team from Columbus, hoping that a goalie who has been mediocre in the AHL will show signs of being a franchise goalie for the future.
Perhaps this is a good time to look back at the all-time great Leafs.
For the purposes of this article we will focus on the greatest Leafs of the Last 50 years (1959-2009).
This allows us to go far enough back to include actual Cup winners, while setting aside Hall of Famers like Broda, Kennedy, Conacher and Apps—great players from another era who most of us have only seen in grainy video images.
The list is based on their contributions to the Leafs, not overall careers, and of course playoffs and winning are key. And so…
Reserved for the Leafs player you believe should have made the list.
9. Doug Gilmour
This is a tough one as he played only six seasons with the Leafs, but they were great seasons where he was at the peak of his game. His leadership restored some pride in the Leafs that had long lacked any sense of winning.
He probably has the best point per game ratio of any Leaf, and of course (along with Clark), led the Leafs to two semi-final berths over this Leaf career.
8. Bob Pulford
Pulford won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs. He scored a crucial goal towards their last Cup win in 1967 when he beat Vachon in the second overtime of Game Three. He was one of the top two-way players of his time, one that Gordie Howe recalls as a player he dreaded facing.
Pulford played 947 games in a Leaf uniform and remains a top 10 all-time scorer.
7. Mats Sundin
As the Leafs’ all time scoring leader an obvious question may be why he isn’t ranked higher. Sundin was the best player on the Leafs for almost a decade, and often played with linemates who he was forced to carry. He played hard, however, he was not a leader, and too often could not be the difference in leading Leafs to victory.
6. Frank Mahovlich
Mavovlich played over 700 games with the Leafs, and was key to all four of their championships over the last 50 years. He won the Calder trophy in his first year with the team, and was a consistent threat for the years after.
In 1960-1961 his 48 goals were just two shy of Rocket Richard’s record. Leaf fans found Mahovlich frustrating much of the time, but it is hard to imagine they would have won more than one Cup over these years without him.
5. Borje Salming
In his prime he was a great defenceman in an era of great defencemen like Orr, Potvin and Park. Salming played over 100 games with the Buds, set club records for All-Star appearances and defenceman scoring that may never be broken.
But Salming will be remembered best for the breathtaking rushes and threatening wrist shot that got Leafs fans out of their seats over and over again. He was not a leader, but he definitely had style.
4. Johnny Bower
He came into the league at 34, led the Leafs back into the playoffs, then two years in the finals, before backstopping them to four Stanley Cups. He was an aggressive and fearless goalie who pioneered the poke check to great effect. He was a winner who refused to quit, playing a key role in the Leafs’ last Cup win at the age of 43.
3. Tim Horton
Professed by many to be the strongest NHL player ever, Horton played 1185 games as a Leaf, always at a high level as evidenced by multiple All-Star appearances. He led a strong Leaf defence for three-consecutive Stanley Cups.
2. Darryl Sittler
Sittler was an offensive powerhouse throughout his career. In his 844 regular-season games with the Leafs, Sittler picked up enough points to rank today as the team’s second highest scorer of all time.
In 1975-1976, Sittler had a phenomenal year, scoring an NHL-record six goals in one game during the regular season, followed up by five goals in a playoff game. He was a classy leader at a time when Leafs had the worst possible ownership and management.
In 1977-1978 Sittler had another great year, scoring 117 points and leading the Leafs to the semifinals. However, by 1979 Ballard brought in Imlach to take apart the team and drive away the Leaf captain.
1. Dave Keon
Dave Keon won with Calder trophy in his first year in the league, and went on to a Hall of Fame career as the greatest all-time Leaf, playing over 100 games.
Keon had a great offensive career—he ranks as third all-time on the Leafs’ list despite playing in a lower scoring era, but he was a two-way player, known as the best penalty killer of his time.
Keon managed to be an extremely effective forechecker while avoiding penalties. He won the Lady Byng trophy twice, but more impressively won the Leafs’ only Conn Smythe trophy in 1967. Four Cups, key to all of them.
by Mark Smith… How long must we wait for a strong Toronto Maple Leafs team, and what could it look like? With valuable cap space available, the answer to the first question might be as little as two years. The second question has no real answer, but we can play out scenarios to get an idea of what is possible.
The key question is how the Leafs can put together a strong ‘core’ of players who they can build on for years to come. A good team requires role players and chemistry, but it also requires a strong core of talent in goal, defense, and forward. Who could this core be made of for the Leafs?
I’ll keep the scenario aggressive, but realistic. Let’s start with those already in system. Luke Schenn is for real, and will be an anchor on defense. Following the examples of Pittsburgh and Chicago, Leafs could look to make him captain as early as 2011-2012.
Justin Pogge is an NHL goalie, let’s assume for this scenario that he develops into a clear N.1 goalie in two years. Finally, let’s put Grabovski or Tlusty in as a top six forward for the same time frame.
There is some further potential amongst prospects, but let’s assume none of them come through to become part of the core. We go next to the prime draft pick we’ll have at the end of this year. This could easily be a N.2 pick (Hedman), but let’s be conservative and assume they scoop Luke’s brother Brayden with the N.4 or N.5 pick.
He becomes a young core player within two to three years. The Leafs will also land a strong young player or prospect in trading Kaberle and/or Antropov/Kubina. Last year Philadelphia offered Jeff Carter (a young goal scoring forward with clear star potential even before his breakout season this year) and a first round pick.
Young, with a very reasonable contract in place, Kaberle remains very valuable in a trade. Let’s go with a rumour and have him packaged with Toskala to the LA Kings for Anze Kopitar. This is all before any free agent signing, so finally let’s assume Leafs land Bouwmeester with some of their cap space.
Going into next year, this would have the Leafs’ core looking as follows;
Goal: Justin Pogge (23)
Defense: Luke Schenn (20), Jay Bouwmeester (26)
Forward: Anze Kopitar (22), Brayden Schenn (18), Mikhail Grabovski (24)
Looks like the start to a good core for many years to come. It’s not unrealistic, and still leaves room for Leafs to complement them with some good grit, leadership and role players. Leafs can add more to this young core with next year’s first rounder, as well as prospects or picks they get from trading Antropov or Kubina.
So over to Burke to make this happen. It’s doable and gives us an exciting Chicago style team as early as two seasons from now.