THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
Things are never as bad in Toronto as the local media make them out to be, and never quite as good as the rabid fans in Leaf Nation hope for. This maxim is true again for the 2005-06 version of the Leafs. There was a school of thought that GM John Ferguson Jr. should have used the team's vast resources to buy out veterans like Ed Belfour, Bryan McCabe, Ken Klee and Tomas Kaberle. Why?
Offense: The Leafs boast three monstrous centers in captain Mats Sundin, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. There are, naturally, serious questions about Lindros' durability given his history of multiple concussions. Allison hasn't played since early 2003 with a nerve injury in his neck and missed much of training camp with a hip flexor. But the potential there is considerable.
Winger Jeff O'Neill returns to his hometown and looks to recapture the form that saw him record seasons of 30, 31 and 41 goals between 2000-01 and 2002-03. Nik Antropov, another big guy at 6-foot-6, has promised to be less of a pushover, although he must not confuse physicality with simply chopping people down. The streaky Mariusz Czerkawski was a late addition to the Leaf roster and could provide a pleasant offensive surprise.
Defense: The team's supposed Achilles heel, all McCabe did was tie for fourth among defensemen in scoring in 2003-04. Yes, the rough-and-tumble McCabe may have trouble adjusting to the new rules. Name one physical defenseman that won't. Conversely, the smooth-skating Tomas Kaberle should see his offensive numbers jump in the new NHL. Ken Klee, Aki Berg and newcomer Alexander Khavanov make this a solid if uninspiring blue-line group.
Goaltending: Belfour may be 40, but he managed to record 34 wins in 2003-04 and single-handedly carried the Leafs past Ottawa in the first round of the playoffs with three shutouts. Yes, he's got a bad back, which required surgery in August 2004, but he's a nut about staying in shape and should still be able to log 55 to 60 games. The problem is finding an adequate backup, and to date they have not. Mikael Tellqvist, once the heir apparent to the Leafs' goaltending throne, has revealed himself as only average and is now fighting Pittsburgh cast-off Jean-Sebastien Aubin and J.F. Racine for the backup role. Yikes.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If the old and injury-prone (Belfour, Allison and Lindros) stay healthy, the Leafs are a definite playoff team. If O'Neill regains his form and if McCabe stays away from his trademark checks, the division title is a possibility.
If Belfour goes down or even if his workload drops him much below 50 games, the Leafs are in trouble. If key veterans like McCabe and Tucker cannot adjust to the new rules, and if Allison and Lindros are not productive, the team will struggle to make the playoffs.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Darcy Tucker. This scrappy forward has been Jekyll and Hyde, at times displaying an offensive flair, at other looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. If he stays away from the behavior that earned him the nickname Sideshow Bob, Tucker is an important part of the Leafs' attack.
Veteran coach Pat Quinn, often the target of criticism in Toronto, has always preached an up-tempo style, so the new rules changes shouldn't offer much of an adjustment to the team's approach. After guiding the club to a franchise-record 103 points in 2003-04, he was given a contract extension in June.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> COMING HOME
Giving Jason Allison a chance. Although prone to injury, Allison has been one of the most consistent point-producers in the NHL throughout his career. Along with Lindros and Sundin, Allison gives the Leafs tremendous depth down the middle.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> MISSED OPPORTUNITIES
It's hardly John Ferguson Jr.'s fault they had no room under the cap, but the team missed out on all of the elite free agents. That said, not finding a capable backup for Belfour may come back to haunt the Leafs in a conference where the fifth through 13th figure to be separated by a few points.
Mats Sundin, C
Sundin had 31 goals and 44 assists in 2003-04.
Ed Belfour, G
The Eagle ranked second in the league with 10 shutouts in 2003-04. He also had a 34-19-6 record.
“The use of your stick, we've done it so long
that it's ingrained in a lot of players. It becomes your method of doing things, so you have to re-train to break it. ”
— Pat Quinn on NHL's new rules