Years of broken dreams have left many cynical and unable to recognize that the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally for real.
The Leafs could really use some positive reinforcement in the Toronto media, instead of seeing nothing but negatives, for a miraculous rebuilding story. Leafs' management would rather be under the radar and without any pressure caused by lofty expectations, but all the pieces of a winning team seem to be in place.
Winning is contagious, and winning four straight preseason games bodes well for this team. The young Leafs have shown confidence, coming from behind in their last two games (which was also a bit of a disconcerting trademark for them last year).
But, so far, the Leafs have shown just enough to win, which is all anyone could ask of a team that just recovered from Brian Burke's open heart surgery.
The puck has yet to be dropped on the 2009-10 season, and the Leafs are already ahead of the game with the overhaul of their roster.
College stars: Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak
Free agents: Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek,Colton Orr , Jonas Gustavssen
Trade: Phil Kessel, Garnet Exelby,
That’s eight roster spots that have been filled—or in the case of the rookies, will be filled in the near future—without losing any core players. The Leafs have depth they haven’t had in years.
Burke has some tough decisions to make to bring the roster down to the appropriate 23 players to start the season. In some cases, those decisions may be dictated by guaranteed contracts rather than actual preseason performance.
Underachievers from last year most likely will have better seasons this year.
Lee Stempniak—who looks like a new player in training camp, is stronger on the puck, demonstrating better passing ability—is out to show everyone that he's nobody's whipping boy. Stempniak put the game away in the shootout last night, snapping the puck through the five-hole of Pittsburgh's goalie, which was a satisfying conclusion to a strong game.
Jason Blake is another case in point—he could possibly be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Kessel trade. Anyone that says the Leafs don’t have the ingredients for a powerhouse first line has not contemplated a Blake-Nazem Kadri-Kessel trio. These are three players with speed to burn and deft scoring prowess. If Kadri goes down to junior for seasoning, expect him to be called up come playoff time.
Solid roster spots go to players such as Tomas Kaberle, Niklas Hagman, and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Young players most certainly to show improvement this year include John Mitchell, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty, Matt Stajan, and big Luke Schenn.
Anyone that doesn’t believe Viktor Stalberg-Hanson-Bozak would be a fine scoring third line for the Leafs hasn’t watched any of the team's preseason games.
Jay Rosehill-John Mitchell-Orr would make a fine rock’em, sock’em fourth line that would be able to change the momentum in any game.
Vesa Toskala still needs to play more games to declare he is in top form, but so far, so good. Joey MacDonald has looked sharp and no doubt Gustavsson is itching to prove himself after minor heart surgery.
The defense is so deep that someone is bound to be traded in the near future, probably for a draft pick to replace one given away in the Kessel trade.
Every indication is that Ron Wilson will be going with a more veteran lineup to start the season. But the Toronto Marlies—the team's AHL affiliate—are close by, and expect call-ups early and often if the Leafs stumble out the gate, or to reward players that display top performances.
Hockey is a team game, where winners are built upon team chemistry, not individual statistics. Time to stop second-guessing Burke, and time to just enjoy the ride. It’s a long season on the road to the playoffs. Nurturing young talent, correcting mistakes, making adjustments, team building, and exploiting their strength on defense, and new scoring depth these are the details to be worked out game by game.
Burke has even increased the vocabulary of everyone in Leaf Nation—who now is unfamiliar with word truculence? The Leafs are now a punishing team, a team of fighters.
Burke has taken advantage of every means available to him to retool the team, in many cases beating other clubs to the punch. He has added top college prospects, coaches, and scouts, combined with insightful drafting and unorthodox trades to reshape the Leafs.
Every tool available has been utilized to reunite the proud Toronto Maple Leafs to their traditional place in hockey as a top contender.