It's game day, finally, arriving just in time for the final chapter in this latest Bloggers Roundtable. Funny how that timing works.
In Part I, it was all cap management and a first look at the Northeast Division. Part II looked further into the Northeast, with the Canadiens, Senators and Sabres getting the once-over. (In order of the panel's preference, it's a close call at the top between Ottawa and Buffalo, with Montreal next best behind them).
So here it is, the Leafs on the grill along with some quick predictions -- then it's your turn in the comments. It's Part III - let's get to it then . . .
JABS: Well, I've left the Leafs for last. From that early taste up top in Part I, there's some skepticism around the table, at least regarding newcomers Kubina and Gill, and I think it's fair to say no one is calling for them to challenge the apparent Ottawa-Buffalo hold on top of the division - just look at this odds board. But where can this team be expected to exceed expectations this season? I like what I've seen from Maurice so far, and I think Wellwood has the ability and skills to be sitting on a breakout season. Ian White, too, has looked very good both in the preseason and late last season. Let's start with the Leafs' best-case scenario - what more than anything else would get them into the playoffs? Apart from tickets, I mean.
|Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star|
|Raycroft and Maurice: Getting acquainted.|
JAMES: If Andrew Raycroft plays lights out, that goes a long way towards the Leafs grabbing a low seed. It works to Toronto's advantage that the middling portion of the conference is kind of all over the place, and quite a few of the 'up and coming' teams from last season like Atlanta don't look any better. The thing is, Raycroft wasn't merely average last season — on many nights, he was positively awful. If that's on tap again this season, it could be quite a mess as with his new three-year deal, the team doesn't have much choice but to ride him.
I think Kyle Wellwood will have a big year, as he's built for the power play, but the Leafs are just too short of breakout candidates to put much hope in an offensive explosion from an unexpected source. Ian White's a terrific young player — I saw him quite a few times while scouting the WHL prior to 2003 — but pairing him with Hal Gill could put him in tough. Alex Steen could hit 60 points.
I've asked it before, but who's going to score on this team? It's really difficult to imagine a scenario where they can match last season's total goal output, and any slip — especially on the power play — is going to be deadly.
Best-case scenario sees Toronto finish in one of the last three playoff seeds, but the worst-case could be really, really ugly. New York Islanders ugly.
CHRIS: I just don't see where their scoring is going to come from either, especially if Jeff O'Neill continues to struggle. They'll need 20-25 goals from Matt Stajan, Kyle Wellwood, and Alex Steen, and I'm not convinced they're up to the task. Their D is improved though, and that's a start. I think they'll challenge for a playoff spot but in the end just miss out.
TOM: They are going to need solid goaltending from either Raycroft or Aubin to even have a chance at the playoffs. Couple that with major strides forward from their talented younglings, Steen, Ponikarovsky, Wellwood and Stajan. But, if this team doesn't gel early, then what's the over/under on Peca and Tucker getting medieval on each other at some point (thanks to my friend Sig for that one)? Seriously, though. Should the Leafs be even thinking about contending this year? Wouldn't the long-term health of the franchise be better if they were just allowed to finally go through a real rebuilding process?
|Hans Deryk/Toronto Star|
|Wellwood and Stajan: Younglings.|
JABS: Yes, there's an argument to be made for them having to get worse before they can get better. Off the top of the preseason, there were the predictable questions being asked of Mats Sundin -- is he happy? Does he want to be here? The question might well be turned around, though, and may well come up later: If the Leafs do flounder this year and they're getting offers of decent prospects for Sundin, do they pull that trigger? That would be the clearest signal that they're serious about rebuilding this from the bottom up.
I do like what Paul Maurice has done so far, from giving Wellwood a shot on Sundin's line, even if it means moving him out of his normal position, and laying down the law with a veteran like O'Neill. Nice optics there, as far as addressing your point, Tom.
LYLE: I agree with Tom regarding the Leafs' goaltending - indeed, that was the stake through their hearts last season. Raycroft must regain his 2003-04 form and Aubin must prove he can carry over his strong stretch play from last season into this one for the Leafs to have a legitimate shot.
There's three very good puck-moving blueliners, but I think the defence overall lacks grit and has for some time. Great goaltending from Joseph and Belfour covered that up until last season when it was exposed for all to see, particularly under the new rules. That's something Leafs management will be forced to address either throughout the season or next summer.
Up front, I'm keen on their promising youngsters like Steen, Wellwod and Stajan, but they're lacking in scoring experience, particularly on Sundin's line, and that could be a problem as the season progresses. The kids have a bright future and will one day carry this club but I think it may be asking too much of them to step up and bolster the scoring.
Leafs fans should accept the fact their club is engaged in a full rebuilding program and not get their hopes up too much for a playoff berth.
TOM: This team needs a top-end talent in its system, badly - someone to replace Sundin and fast. Do not be surprised if Sundin is moved at the deadline. It would be the right thing to do for him and the Leafs, regardless of whether they're in the hunt for a playoff spot of not. No way this is a Cup contender - manage it like one.
JABS: We haven’t touched too much on Mike Peca. While most seem to be fixed on the defence and goaltending in this regard, Peca should help in their end too – just wanted to make the point that it’s not all gloom and doom. But speaking of steady or not, and how to manage, how safe is John Ferguson Jr.’s position? At this point, what kind of odds do you give for a JFJ extension?
|Steve Russell/Toronto Star|
|Mike Peca: Big number to fill.|
LYLE: Peca brings leadership and experience . . . but of course, that's what he was supposed to bring to the Oilers last season, too, and it didn't show up until the playoffs. In my opinion, the jury's out on Peca's effectiveness this season. As for JFJ, I don't think there's any question that his fate rests with the club's performance this season. If the Leafs fail to make the playoffs but keep it close, he may still have a shot at survival, but if the club is wallowing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, he'll be toast.
TOM: My opinion on Peca runs like this. Doug Wilson, GM of the Sharks - a team with true Cup aspirations - had the opportunity to replace Alyn McCauley with Peca and chose otherwise. You know the Mini-Meehan called and tried to sell Wilson on his client. Instead, Wilson used that money to sign one of Peca's former teammates Curtis Brown, affectionately known around these parts as CuBro, to a 2-year deal at $700k per. With the rest of the money that Peca was seeking, and eventually got from JFJ, he then lured Mike Grier away from Buffalo. For the same money, he got real character and heart, not an egomaniac with delusions of adequacy. The Peca signing was pure public relations and frankly, I'm happy to have him back in the division.
CHRIS: I view JFJ as a lame-duck GM, which is a shame because he was considered be a real up-and-comer. He just walked into a difficult situation that he wasn't ready for. If they intended on keeping him around, I think they would've thrown an extension his way. I suspect the Leafs will follow the lead of the Raptors and spend a load of cash on a highly regarded GM, perhaps prying him from his current team to get him. As for Peca, he's a good player, but the offence just isn't there, and that's what they need.
JABS: So to recap - Toronto's hopes are heavily balanced on Raycroft's shoulders; Montreal needs a hot Huet; Boston can make noise if Toivonen arrives, and Ottawa -- of course the Sens need to find a goalie. That's four teams out of five with questions in net - ain't that always the way? As for JFJ, short of a deep playoff run, I don't see him coming back next year - and if they're struggling in January, the wolves will be howling.
Looking outside the division now as we wind this down, what one or two changes or acquisitions will have the biggest impact this year?
|Lemaire: Let Wild be wild!|
CHRIS: I look at Minnesota as the team that made the biggest dip into the free agent market, and it'll pay off for them with a playoff berth. Kim Johnsson will help their power play, which was 21st in the league last year, and any time you throw Mark Parrish and Pavol Demitra into a line-up, you automatically increase your goal output. For that market, I'm happy to see the organization finally make an effort to improve, because you're not going to find a better hockey area south of the border and they've been dicked around so much in the past, going all the way back to when the North Stars headed to Texas. They've also supported this new team religiously (a six-year waiting list for season tickets is ridiculous) despite the Wild being an incredibly dull team to watch. The only worry I have is whether or not Jacques Lemaire has it in him to coach in this new league. When you have those new horses, you have to let them run wild every now and then, and he might be so stuck in his ways that they need a new vision to lead this team behind the bench.
LYLE: The impact of last year's rule changes will continue to be felt as teams continue to adapt and temper their rosters accordingly. The off-season acquisitions of Mark Bell by the Sharks and Chris Pronger by the Ducks should help firmly establish those two teams among the new elite (the Predators and Flames are also included there) in the Western Conference. The Wild's acquisitions, as noted by Chris, could move them up the standings, provided of course that Jacques Lemaire can adapt his team's style to encourage more offensive play. If as Chris noted he doesn't let his horses run, the Wild could be mild again this season.
JAMES: Pronger to Anaheim and Tanguay to Calgary strike me as the most dramatic improvements, but as for two lesser-heralded moves that I think will pay dividends, Marc Denis in Tampa Bay and Kyle Calder in Philly should both have big years for their teams. I expect the Lightning to be a lot better than many are predicting, simply because they should finally have some consistent goaltending.
|Cullen: From Cup winner to Ranger.|
TOM: All of those changes mentioned are excellent ones. Considering how many teams made moves but are not all that much better for them, I'm surprised no one mentioned the off-season moves of the New York Rangers. Cullen, Ward, Shannie, Rachunek -- all address areas the Rags lacked last year. Cullen, in particular, is a guy I really like and I thought he was a vital piece of Carolina's success last year. Tom Poti's leaving is addition by subtraction and the kids like Tyutin and Prucha should take another step forward. If Lundqvist doesn't regress or get seriously injured this team takes the Atlantic easily.
JABS: Now comes the time to show all your cards. Let's hear your picks for conference finalists, Stanley Cup finalists and who you think will be the champions. And one more -- Hockey Night in Canada on CBC or not (and how will it affect you, if at all, if it does move to CTV/TSN)?
LYLE: I subscribe to Toe Blake's credo that predictions are for gypsies, but since in our line of work we're expected to come up with them, I'll say Buffalo in the East (despite their crappy new jerseys. Sorry, Tom, but at least that's the only thing about the Sabres that sucks this season) and San Jose in the West.
As for a potential move of HNIC to CTV/TSN, it won't affect me at all, although I would certainly feel sorry for those folks who only get what we here on the Island call "Farmer TV", meaning they can only get CBC and don't have access to cable. Still, given the advent of satellite TV, the internet and other mediums, it may not be as serious an impact as some suggest it could be.
Still, not having HNIC on CBC would feel strange. After all, my love of hockey was fostered in the 1970s by HNIC, watching Guy Lafleur and Errol Thompson on Saturday nights (HA! Knew I'd work in that Errol Thompson reference somehow!).
TOM: No offence, Lyle. You are certainly entitled to your opinion, and I mine. And, as for suckage well, I said it when the Slug-a-troversy was at it's most strident, "I’ll be damn happy to watch the boys hoist the Stanley Cup in the Ugliest Uniforms In The History Of Professional Sports." I wished for and hoped for a Buffalo/San Jose final last year, for the entertainment value alone, so, it seems prudent to do likewise this year. But, with the changes to both the Rangers and, believe it or not, NashVegas, because of Dumont, Arnott and Markov, I wouldn't be surprised to see either of them rise to the top either. You gotta have one semi-off-the-board prediction in your repertoire or it's just not worth doing one.
JAMES: I'd like to see CBC keep HNIC, if only for the familiarity of it all. You also have to wonder what that means for CBC Sports if the network doesn't have hockey — and that's a big chunk of high-end sports coverage lost if they decide to pack it in.
Stanley Cup predictions . . . now . . . are very difficult. I'll go with Calgary in the West (who advance after downing the Oilers in Game 7 of the Western final), and Carolina making a surprise reappearance in the East once the injured fellows return. Flames win it all, bringing the phrase “Shirts Off For Kiprusoff” back into the sports fan's lexicon as all of Cowtown spontaneously streaks in celebration. I'd watch that.
JABS: Rabinovitch said last week it'd mean 400 hours of lost programming and result in a 're-evaulation' of the CBC's English-language television operations – and one estimate pegs the financial losses at $100 million annually. I'd miss CBC, at least insofar as it would mean switching over to TSN's high-decibel, American-style alternative m.o., not to mention how it would affect 'Farmer TV'.
And for what it's worth, I'm going with Calgary (over San Jose) and Buffalo (over the Rangers), the Flames winning it all with a controversial Game 7 winner when the ghost of Scott Norwood re-appears to screen Ryan Miller.
|Red Mile redux, says James.|
TOM: ... and the puck goes in through the side of the net, while Brett Hull leaps from the Jumbotron to pick off Lydman, killing him in the process allowing Norwood's ghost to get position. The goal will stand, Colon (Clown Shoes) Campbell will declare that Hull's hit was a "good hockey hit" while he suspends Lydman 10 games next season for diving, and the NHL will send another letter of apology to the Sabres while explaining that they'd issued a memo allowing both retired players to Jumbo-Dive and Canadian teams to have too many men on the ice if one of them is dead.
CHRIS: In the East, I see the Rangers coming out, for all the reasons already mentioned. Jagr will have a lot more help and the load won't be as significant. Shanahan, Cullen, and Ward bring a knowledge of how to win, and Lundqvist will be the best goalie this season. As for who they beat, I'll be a homer and say Ottawa, though I'm not sure another loss in the final four is something to be happy about. Out West, I'm going with Anaheim over San Jose in an all California conference final.
Hockey Night In Canada is HNIC regardless of what network broadcasts it. Everyone in 2006 has cable so it's not like there is a big chunk of people who won't have access. TSN's coverage has been superior to CBC's for some time now and I'll trade Pierre Maguire's scary enthusiasm for Don Cherry's veiled bigotry anytime.
TOM: As an American I don't have the same perspective on HNiC that you guys have and I wouldn't presume to. I understand it is an institution and I would certainly miss the Odd Couple that is Coach's Corner, but sometimes, change is for the best. But while you guys are mulling the changes to HNiC, me and the rest of the Sabres Fans are being confronted with the retirement of Rick Jeanneret from covering the Buffalo games. It's going to happen soon, probably at the end of this season. So, I'm hoping they win the Cup this year for him as well as everyone else in the Buffalo area who has suffered sports heartbreak after heartbreak.
I'll say this, though, of the three Canadian Networks that I get to see on the Center Ice Package I'm most impressed with Rogers Sportsnet's coverage. The CBC runs a close second. As I'm no fan, personally, of state-run anything, especially media, I would like to see the CBC and entities like it go the way of the Dodo. No offense intended, just a matter of principle. As for TSN, well, the less Pierre McGuire the better and anything that derails the ESPN machine is a good thing in my book.
JABS: I believe that wraps it up. Thanks to you all. Now let's get on with the season.