Toronto Turnover and Other Northeast Division Concerns
The last full season before Brian Burke took over hockey operations for the Maple Leafs was 2007-08. The top ten scorers for the Leafs that year were, in order, Mats Sundin, Nik Antropov, Tomas Kaberle, Jason Blake, Alex Steen, Pavel Kubina, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Darcy Tucker, Matt Stajan, and Bryan McCabe.
Numbers eleven, twelve and thirteen you ask? Kyle Wellwood, Ian White and Hal Gill. While the team is still paying Darcy Tucker a million dollars a year for the next four years, only Tomas Kaberle remains from among the top scorers of that pre-Burke lineup.
This November will mark the end of Brian Burke's second year in Toronto as President and General Manager. The roster turnover has been almost complete with even the goaltenders being switched out. Vesa Toskala, Andrew Raycroft, and Scott Clemmenson were moved out and JS Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson have moved in.
Burke has dedicated $59.6 million in cap space to 20 players, so more change will be needed before the start of the season. This slide show is a quick look at how that turnover of personnel has left the Leafs and what might be expected in the way of change before the new year gets under way.
This is also a quick look at the most pressing concerns among the Leafs' northeast division rivals.
1. Leaf Forwards
A huge load has been placed on young Phil Kessel. Just coming in to his own as a sniper, he'll be expected to outdo young center Tyler Seguin in the coming season. He has to pray the Bruins don't pick up another gem with the Leafs first-round pick in 2011.
A lot is expected from the speedy scorer and it'll be tough for him to perform with the supporting cast he has now. There are no legitimate first line centers with the Leafs right now. Mikhail Grabovski, at 26, is the senior center available, and his 20 goals and 48 points in 2008-09 give him the best track record.
Tyler Bozak got some first line minutes last year and managed 27 points in 37 games, making him the best points per game option at center currently. John Mitchell and Christian Hanson, two other options at center, have shown no offensive upside.
Kris Versteeg gives the team another quick, 20-goal scorer. Colby Armstrong is a surly mucker who has had a half-point-a-game career, except for that first year with Crosby.
Desperation on offense has lead to talk of Tomas Kaberle or prospect Nazim Kadri competing for and perhaps winning the first line center job on the Leafs. This offense needs a lot of work and a lack of cap space makes that work hard to do.
2. Leaf Defensemen
New captain Dion Phaneuf will lead a contingent that has to be the backbone of the team. Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin help make up a group that will be miserable to play against. Expect goon Colton Orr's dance card to be filled with aggrieved opponents who have been put through the ringer by these three.
Luke Schenn needs to take a step forward this year. Jeff Finger is likely to find his $3.5-million-a-year contract buried in the minors, while youngster Carl Gunnarsson will fill a spot and create some of the cap room the Leafs so desperately need. Tomas Kaberle may be traded and he may play forward. He's a nice offensive puck-moving option to keep in the lineup, though, if the Leafs can afford him. Speedster Brett Lebda was brought onto the team for his skating and probably can contribute behind the battling behemoths in front of him on the depth chart.
This should be one of the nastiest defenses in the league to play against. Phaneuf and Beauchemin both have dangerous shots and Kaberle is a play maker, so the point on the power play should be covered. If the defense is weak this year, the Leafs are in real trouble.
Best case for Toronto sees them moving one of their $3-million-a-year defensemen for forward help. Trading Kaberle and Finger for a real first line center would be like a dream come true.
3. Leaf Goalies
J.S. Giguere has one more year on his contract in Toronto. He's famous for beating out Martin Brodeur for the Conn Smythe in the 2003 playoffs when his Mighty Ducks lost in the final to the Devils. He had a number of top quality years in Anaheim and won a cup as the starting goalie in 2007.
The last couple of years have seen his numbers decline. The year before last, he lost the starting job to Jonas Hiller. At 33, he's being asked to regain his old form and also help develop young Jonas Gustavsson into a NHL starter. Giguere managed a .916 save percentage in his 15 games in Toronto last year. He'll have to do more of the same this year.
Jonas Gustavsson started the season with heart problems and his season was ordinary at best. A .902 save percentage in 42 games puts him near the bottom of the league among goalies who are allowed to play in that many games. Hopefully, the big youngster will get better.
The Leafs will need great goaltending this year to succeed. A tighter defense could certainly help the goalies out.
4. Standing Pat In Buffalo
Buffalo won the Northeast Division last year despite making almost no moves in the offseason. A Vezina Trophy-winning performance by goalie Ryan Miller helped lead this team to its division championship.
Unfortunately, Buffalo bowed out in the first round to the Bruins.
They have made almost no moves in the offseason this year. They have replaced defecting defensemen with the ordinary Jordan Leopold and pedestrian, if physical, Shaone Morrisonn. They didn't even bother to replace useless backup goalie Patrick Lalime, though Jonas Enhroth may finally come forward to take that spot from him.
Buffalo has a fair offense, a fair defense, and great goaltending. They have about five million dollars in cap space. It would be nice to see them add a top quality forward to the mix. Otherwise they'll be depending on improvement from Myers and Ennis and praying that Ryan Miller doesn't get hurt.
The Sabres are perhaps only a player or two away from going somewhere in the playoffs and they better do it soon. Ryan Miller won't be at the top of his game forever.
5. New Faces In Boston
The Bruins have the best depth down center in the league. They have Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and newcomers Greg Campbell, Tyler Seguin and Zach Hamill. Throw in goalies Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas and it's an intimidating group.
They're in desperate need of some scorers to pump up an offense that stalled last year. Twenty-five-year-old Nathan Horton was added from Florida and is likely to have a career year with the Bruins. Seguin is probably due to get a shot at playing the wing in Boston.
The defense, with the loss of Wideman, should be a little worse this year, but Chara, Seidenberg, Boychuk, Stuart, and Hunwick shouldn't be horrible.
The Bruins are still pretty tight to the cap and will have to be careful not to go over, but I look for a much improved Bruins offensive team this year. If the goal-tending of Rask and Thomas remains as solid as it was, this could be a great year to be a Bruins fan.
6. Only Gonchar In Ottawa
Sergei Gonchar was Ottawa's big off-season acquisition. Often injured and 36 years old, he doesn't make the Senator lineup look more durable.
He does make them look more exciting, however. When healthy, Gonchar is one of the most talented power play quarterbacks in the league. The team has to be hoping for some sort of Russian synergy between him and the under-performing and over-talented Alexei Kovalev. Throw in Spezza, Alfredsson, Mike Fisher, and Michalek and the Senators have a pretty good collection of top six offensive forwards.
The defense has been tight over the past three years, but the loss of Volchenkov may hurt them there. Gonchar will be leading a group of of puck movers in Karlsson, Campoli and Kuba. Karlsson is coming off a great playoff versus Pittsburgh. The team has to hope he can pick up some new tricks from Gonchar.
The key for Ottawa is going to be goaltending. Pascal Leclaire had a miserable season in Ottawa. Yet when called on at the end of the year he played well. Ottawa needs the Columbus Pascal Leclaire from 2007-08. The fear has to be that that man no longer exists. Brian Elliot had a fair season in nets for Ottawa, but doesn't really seem like the goalie to take a team deep in the playoffs.
7. All About The Goalie In Montreal
The still-unsigned Carey Price is going to be called upon to carry the load in Montreal this year. Jaroslav Halak did it last year and willed this Montreal team into the playoffs.
The Canadiens' team is virtually unchanged from last year. PK Subban is in and Bergeron, Metropolit, and Moore are out. Expecting this aging team to be significantly better than last year is illogical. The big hope has to be that the playoff performances of Hal Gill and Scott Gomez can be duplicated in the regular season.
The Habs, like every Northeast Division team but Buffalo, has cap issues. They will have to be careful to keep under the cap this year. Any additions to help the team will have to be paired with subtractions of equal or greater salary.
If Price doesn't manage to duplicate Halak's high level of play from last year, look for the Canadiens to sink in the standings.