It Could Happen
Somehow, the Maple Leafs will make the playoffs.
|THE CANADIAN PRESS|
|Can Toronto turn pre-season success into a playoff berth?|
There, I said it. Now it will almost certainly haunt me for the next seven months.
Maybe it’s just a change of pace after predicting non-playoff campaigns over and over in recent years.
But suggesting a Leaf playoff berth certainly isn’t about logic. There are gaping holes in this Toronto lineup that can’t be denied.
But you can bet on an improved sense of team identity to help Brian Burke’s Leafs, and let’s face it, the mediocrity of so many Eastern Conference teams leaves the door wide open for any club able to put together a 93-95 point season.
The most worrisome part of the club, however, is that it is distinctly average to below average down the middle. There isn’t a 60-point pivot on the squad and goaltending remains an enormous question mark.
As I said, picking the Leafs, then, can’t be about logic. It’s more about a feel.
Some thoughts as the pre-season (mercifully) ends:
-- If Vesa Toskala is doing anything but sharing the goaltending load this season, there’s trouble. At 32 coming off hip surgery and a so-so season, Toskala isn’t going to suddenly rival Martin Brodeur, Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas in the east. Ray Emery maybe.
But if Jonas Gustavsson can play 35-40 games and be better in March than he is in October, there’s reason for hope in the Leaf crease, and hope the NHL’s worst defensive team from a year ago can move up to at least be in the top 20.
-- Those who believe the Leafs have all this excess blueline depth that Burke is going to be able to convert into an impact forward are living in a dream world.
Look folks, Ian White is still your No. 5 on defence. If you put Garnet Exelby, Jeff Finger and Mike Van Ryn on waivers today, only Exelby would likely go because of the prohibitive salaries of the other two.
There is no depth of significance here to trade. Tomas Kaberle is still the D-man to move, but now he’d have to waive his no-trade clause again.
-- The swing guy up front has to be John Mitchell, who apparently is now a left winger, not a centre. He loves to tease with his talent but his hockey sense is at times, well, peculiar, and he fades in and out. Mitchell could make a significant difference with this team, but that doesn’t mean he will.
-- Detroit has made a handsome living in recent years with late-blooming Swedes, and it's worth wondering whether the Leafs might have one of their own in Viktor Stalberg.
Not to compare Stalberg to the gifted Johan Franzen, but Franzen didn’t start making an impact until he was 27 years old. Stalberg is similarly sized and with a nose for pucks around the net like the one he re-directed out of mid-air on Saturday night.
That said, don’t be surprised if Stalberg also plays a little in the AHL as well this season.
-- The Leafs were a surprising 10th in NHL offence a year ago, but that was with both Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore having good seasons. They may have trouble keeping that pace up this season, but two players could have more of an impact as the season wears on than they will at the start.
The first, obviously, will be Phil Kessel, likely unavailable until mid-November. He can stretch a defence with his speed, although expectations of his production should be tempered by the fact he will have missed training camp and the first 15-20 games. If he can score between 15 and 20 goals for the Leafs this season, it will be a success.
The second player is Tyler Bozak. He may be with the Marlies by week’s end, but he’s going to play in the NHL this season. He’s somewhat reminiscent of Kyle Wellwood but bigger and, the Leafs hope, more responsible defensively.
-- The Leafs were criticized for acquiring veteran goalie Martin Gerber down the stretch last season because Gerber’s mostly solid play helped turn what might have been a pick in the top three selections in the entry draft into the No. 7 selection.
But maybe doing it the right way, trying to win games instead of tanking, won the Leafs points from the hockey gods as Nazem Kadri, the player drafted with that seventh overall pick, surely looks like a keeper.
But was it really necessary for Ron Wilson to label him a future NHL “superstar?” That tag will follow the kid around for years.