2008-09 Team Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunGM Cliff Fletcher hasn't bothered trying to spin the local media before this season, telling a gathering of reporters in September that his team is headed for a season that will have many "tough days."
"Unfortunately, there's no fast track in this system," Fletcher said. "There's no miracle cure. The key for us is patience. And we will have patience."
On the other hand, maybe the crafty old vet was indeed spinning the largest media contingent in the NHL. Say your team will be brutal, therefore lowering expectations, and then any kind of surprise turns into a feel-good story?
Whatever. This team will be out of the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season.
Fletcher, who figures to be at the helm for this season before the Toronto Maple Leafs hire his younger, big-name replacement, was busy in the offseason, saying goodbye to half a dozen faces and welcoming double that. He also hired a new coach, Ron Wilson, and added front-office help in Al Coates and Joe Nieuwendyk.
The end result? A younger team that won't win a lot of games, but with a cheaper payroll and an eye finally to the future after years of repairing leaks with bandages, big money and short-sighted wisdom.
Fletcher raised some eyebrows in September when he said he believed his team had only one top-six forward -- Nik Antropov. We'll see whether that lights a fire under underperforming Jason Blake, who dropped off to 15 goals last season after his 40-goal season on Long Island in 2006-07 (he did have to battle through being diagnosed with a rare, treatable form of leukemia early last season).
Up front, Fletcher cut ties with Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood and John Pohl. And, of course, possibly captain Mats Sundin, depending on whether the star Swede decides he's coming back to the NHL and, if he does, the Leafs have left the door open for him. The new guys at forward are Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Ryan Hollweg and Jamal Mayers.
Goals will indeed be hard to come by, but the Leafs will be a gritty, scrappy bunch.
The big move was cutting ties with veteran Bryan McCabe, who was shipped to Florida with a fourth-round pick in exchange for blueliner Mike Van Ryn. Andy Wozniewski also is gone. Toronto signed blueliner Jeff Finger (whose $14 million, four-year contract remains a jaw-dropper) and Swedish leaguer Jonas Frogren.
Van Ryn, Finger and Frogren join Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Carlo Colaiacovo, Antron Stralman and Ian White. All in all, it's a good group. Kubina had a strong ending to his season last year, showing the kind of hockey that made him a top defenseman in Tampa Bay. Kaberle remains one of the NHL's premier puck-movers, and Stralman impressed late last season when he got a chance. The 28-year-old Frogen is an intriguing pickup after playing all his career with Farjestad.
Along with Sundin, Vesa Toskala was the other prominent reason the Leafs hung around and made it interesting last season before expectedly falling short of a playoff spot. Finally getting a shot at a No. 1 job after splitting duties with Evgeni Nabokov in San Jose, Toskala was a shining light on a mediocre team, playing in a career-high 66 games and winning 33. He'll be busy again this season. His backup is none other than Curtis Joseph. Credit Fletcher for bringing home the 41-year-old veteran, who starred for the Leafs from 1998-99 through 2001-02 when Toronto contended with a pair of conference finals appearances.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Toronto is new coach Ron Wilson. Not that former coach Paul Maurice didn't do an admirable job, because he did. But the improvement is that the insatiable Toronto media and fans of Leaf Nation now have fresh meat to devour, and isn't that what really matters in the capitol of the hockey universe?
Of course, Wilson is merely the appetizer. The main course will be unsuspecting Leafs defender Jeff Finger. Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire. Finger has no idea how dramatically his life is about to change. The good news is he will be able to consult fellow blueliner Pavel Kubina, who also experienced the "chew 'em up and spit 'em out" ritual during the first season of his mega-contract in Toronto. Both Kubina and Tomas Kaberle can tell Finger tales of what happened to former teammate and current Panther Bryan McCabe.
While the offseason acquisitions aren't sexy enough to excite the Nation, savvy GM Cliff Fletcher has brought in players who will work hard and compete. Wilson is a sound defensive strategist and will get the players on the same page, or they won't play for him. Still, the expectations will be minimal as even Fletcher is preaching patience. They may not be a playoff team when the dust settles, but the Leafs will battle and compete every night.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
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• Search: Leafs IN REVIEW
• Record: 36-35-11
• Division: Fifth in the Northeast
• Conference: 12th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• The Leafs will be tested right off the bat in October, opening the season at Detroit against the Cup champs Oct. 9, and then facing some stiff competition in their 10 October games, including dates with Montreal, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Boston, Ottawa, the improved Lightning and New Jersey.
Experience: 14 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Ron Wilson was the overwhelming choice as the top offseason move by Fletcher in a fans poll on the team's Web site. The 53-year-old was let go from San Jose after a number of successful seasons that all ended without a Cup. The more relevant part of his résumé is that Wilson did wonders with some average teams in Washington and Anaheim in previous coaching stints. He'll get the most out of a thin Leafs lineup.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Niklas Hagman
• Arrived via free agency from Dallas. Coming off a career-high, 27-goal season in Dallas.
F -- Nik Antropov
• Entering his ninth season with the Leafs. The 28-year-old finally broke through with a 26-goal, 56-point performance last season.
F -- Alexei Ponikarovsky
• Entering his eighth season with the Leafs. Third on the team with 18 goals last season.
D -- Tomas Kaberle
• Entering his 10th season with the Leafs. Slick-skating Czech was third on team with 53 points.
D -- Pavel Kubina
• Entering his third season with the Leafs. With McCabe's departure, he'll see more power-play time and look to improve on last year's 40-point season.
Answer: Who knows. Certainly not the Leafs, or people close to him, or probably even himself. His heart still bleeds blue and white, but his mind looks at a roster that stinks. Is that a way to cap off a great career? As we saw when Montreal pulled the chute on Sundin and instead acquired Robert Lang, Sundin's options might narrow as the season goes on, although Toronto has plenty of cap room. Still, it just doesn't seem logical for Sundin to return, not for him, not for a rebuilding team.
Outlook: There is still plenty of fantasy value to be had on a team that looks destined to miss the playoffs yet again. Coach Ron Wilson is good at what he does and will make sure this Toronto team plays to its strengths and tries to win every game 2-1 or 1-0. There are probably half a dozen or more forwards who could earn relevance in fantasy leagues, but we won't know who they are to begin the season. -- Sean Allen