Unpredictable Leafs still a contender

For months the media savages Maple Leafs coach and general manager Pat Quinn for not giving up one of those roles. Then, when the team decides to hire a new general manager, John Ferguson Jr., the media roasts the organization and Ferguson before he even gets the keys to the executive washrooms at the Air Canada Centre.

Go figure.

Later, while the team is in Sweden for part of training camp, Owen Nolan gives a radio interview acknowledging that he likely needs back surgery because of a bulging disc and hairline fracture in his back. And then, when management is predictably horrified by the news, he tries to suggest he was misquoted or that he was "joking."

Ha, ha. That's funny. Like Nolan's performance in last year's first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia -- zero goals, two assists. Very funny.

Perhaps Nolan will learn that in a city enduring the second-longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL behind Chicago, there are fewer things taken more seriously than the Leafs. Still, as with all things in Leaf Nation, the outlook is never as bleak as the media make them out to be nor as rosy as management would have long-suffering fans believe.

Somewhere in between is a team that will once again be playoff bound. The Leafs have gone to the playoffs since Quinn took over as coach six years ago, in spite of the annual questions about its defensive depth, questions that were at least partially answered with the late signing of free agent Ken Klee; the fragility of a lineup boasting 13 players 30 or older; and a dressing room that always seems on the verge of boiling over with one controversy or another.

Only in Toronto.

If it's true that strength down the middle is crucial to a Stanley Cup run, then the Leafs are suddenly as good as any team in the conference, perhaps the league, with the addition of veteran center Joe Nieuwendyk.

True, Gary Roberts' boyhood friend and former Cup-winning teammate in Calgary, saw his production drop off to 45 points in New Jersey last season. But hey, nobody scores in New Jersey.

Nieuwendyk may end up centering a line with Roberts on one wing and perhaps Alexander Mogilny on the other, although Quinn has all kinds of options up front and will likely tinker both in terms of line combinations and power-play units for much of the season.

Nik Antropov, who had a breakout year with 45 points in 72 games, had success centering Nolan when the power forward was acquired at the trade deadline from San Jose. Meanwhile, captain Mats Sundin seemed to find some chemistry with Mogilny on his wing last season. Mogilny and Sundin evolved into a dynamic penalty killing duo, each scoring three short-handed markers.

Even without Nieuwendyk, Nolan and Roberts, who missed virtually the entire season with twin shoulder surgeries, the Leafs mounted the third-best offense in the conference.
Mogilny became the first player other than Sundin to lead the Leafs in scoring in nine years with 79 points. The electric playmaker will become the first Russian player to reach the 1,000-point plateau although -- given Mogilny's dim view of his motherland -- it's unlikely the moment will spark a waterfall of tears.

If Darcy Tucker rebounds from a chaotic season that saw brother-in-law Shayne Corson bolt from the team in the middle of the opening round of the playoffs, the Leafs should be among the most explosive groups in the conference. Tucker was second in team scoring two years ago with 59 points and worked particularly well with Mogilny.

Even Leaf fans' favorite whipping boy Robert Reichel has evolved into a solid two-way player, centering the third or fourth line, killing penalties and even working the point on the power play if need be.

For most of training camp, Quinn was comparing this year's defensive lineup to the one he inherited when he took over in 1998-99 when youngsters Tomas Kaberle, Yannick Tremblay and Danny Markov made the squad out of training camp and the team went to the Eastern Conference final.

But with the late signing of Klee, a veteran defender, all of a sudden the uncertainty surrounding the Leaf blue line is a whole lot more certain. With the addition of veteran free agent Bryan Marchment and now Klee, the Leafs appear to have plugged the holes left by the departure of Robert Svehla (allegedly retired) and Glen Wesley (nice house in Carolina).

Quinn will still have to turn over a significant chunk of ice time to less-proven players, like former No. 5 draft pick Rick Jackman, who played 42 games for the Leafs last season after enduring off-ice problems earlier in his career.

It's expected one of either Canadian junior standout Carlo Colaiacovo, Swedish prospect Pierre Hedin or the 168th pick in 2001, Maxim Kondratiev, will still find themselves with the big club, but Quinn has said he won't keep a young player around to be a seventh defenseman. Not that the signing of the solid Klee signals the start of Stanley Cup parade planning (although in Toronto all things are possible).

Given Quinn's love of free-flowing hockey, the movement of puck tape to tape as opposed to mindlessly banging it off the glass into the neutral zone, the back end will always give fans and Leaf goaltenders frazzled nerves.

Both Kaberle and frequent defensive partner Bryan McCabe will have to put their spotty playoff play behind them if the Leafs are to attain the elite status they envision. Kaberle has blossomed into a fine puck-moving defenseman who finished ninth in defensive scoring with 47 points, but he remains unpredictable in his own end, looking like Nik Lidstrom one night and Inge Hammarstrom the next.

After posting 17 goals in 2001-02 and coming into his own as a physical presence, McCabe regressed last season. He tried to do too much and accomplish little other than annoying Quinn with his "can opener," a modified trip that earned McCabe multiple visits to the penalty box.

Aki Berg, another high draft pick, lacks the dedication to be a top-four defender, while Wade Belak floats from forward to defense, pending the need for a bruising presence in the lineup.

Curtis who?

Although booed during his early starts as a Maple Leaf, Ed Belfour soon established himself as the team's most valuable player. The Eagle established a club record with 37 wins and was nominated for the Vezina Trophy in spite of a defense that often seemed to abandon him.

Although seen as prickly, Belfour meshed well with his veteran teammates and seems comfortable in playing out his career as a Leaf.

Veteran Trevor Kidd was Belfour's backup last season, but offseason shoulder surgery will keep him out of the lineup until well into the season. This opens the door for Toronto's top goaltending prospect, Mikael Tellqvist, to build in his solid play during a brief call-up last season. Tellqvist was also sensational at the World Championships last spring, leading Sweden to a silver medal.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.