Last year was one crappy year for the Leafs. After what was supposed to be a big signing in Jason Blake, and a promise by Paul Maurice that the Leafs would compete for the Stanley Cup, the wheels came off the bus. The team never got in a groove, and seemed to only be able to win on nights when they were on top of their game and the opposition was struggling. The bus, sadly, never really left the station. There was no intensity. There was no sense of urgency. There was shoddy effort all over the place, except for a handful of players.
Who would have thought?
Really - who would have thought that Tucker, McCabe, and Wellwood would be complete non-factors pretty much the entire season? Who would have thought that Toskala would take that long to find his groove? Who would have thought that Raycroft would only manage 2 wins? That Blake would have so much trouble finding the back of the net?
And on the flip side, who would have thought that Sundin would produce so magnificently? That Antropov would stay healthy and notch career highs? That Stajan would emerge with legitimate leadership potential. Not this scribe.
Unfortunately for the Leafs the surprises of the negative kind far outweighed the positive. But the point is, really, that the season never, ever, ever turns out the way you think it will.
So what about this season? Cliff Fletcher and Ron Wilson have gone out of their way to set expectations low. Some fans are hoping the team will fare so poorly that they will win the Tavares sweepstakes. Lets look at the team Fletcher has cobbled together and see if we might get a sense of what surprises - both good and bad - that may be in store this year.
Toskala: Expected to be 1) a top-notch #1 goalie 2) able to steal a handful of games 3) have some kind of short-term groin issue. Possible surprise: 1) Long term groin injury.
Cujo: Expected to 1) elicit the most cheers at Air Canada Centre, 2) steal a game or two, 3) cry at a press conference. Surprises: 1) actually have a reason for a press conference, 2) Fill in magnificently long term when Toskala has injury.
Antropov: Expected to 1) achieve stats similar to last year, 2) become the new #1 centre 3) have another injury-free season. Surprises: 1) some kind of season-ending, long-term injury in training camp.
Blake: Expected to 1) Struggle to score again. Possible surprise: 1) Can’t miss and leads the Leafs in goals.
Steen and Stajan: Expected to 1) continue to develop as solid 2nd liners. Possible Surprises: 1) Stajan is nominated for the Selke. 2) Steen and Blake catch fire on the top line.
Ponikarovsky: Expected to 1) miss some good chances 2) score some goals. Surprises: 1) Actually starts hitting, 2) gets in a fight.
Hagman: Expected to 1) Score like he did in Dallas last year. Possible surprises: 2) Scores like he did in Dallas 3 years ago.
Bell: Expected to 1) Play on the 4th line. Possible surprises: 1) Plays on the first line. 2) For the Marlies. (wait – that’s not a surprise…)
Kulemin: Expected to 1) Play on the top line, be the second coming of Malkin and win the Calder. Surprise: 1) Turns out to be over hyped and struggles without a star centre. 2) clicks with Antropov and leads leafs in assists.
Grabovski: Expected to 1) Play second line centre 2) avoid getting hit at all costs. Surprises: 1) actually comes back over the Leafs blue line, 2) makes everyone miss Wellwood. 3) lands a body check
Hollweg & Mayers: Expected to 1) Show grit grit and more grit. Possible Surprises: 1) take dumb penalties night after night, 2) get beat up a lot.
Dominic Moore: Expected to be 1) fourth line centre. Possible Surprises: 1) fourth line centre.
Tlusty: Expected to 1) Score a lot. Possible surprises: 1) Actually does score a lot.
Kubina: Expected to 1) continue his strong play from the end of last season, 2) be a leader on the team. Possible surprises: 1) Becomes this year's Bryan McCabe.
Finger: Expected to 1) get booed for every mistake. Possible Surprises: 1) Rises to the challenge and plays to his salary 2) folds under the pressure and becomes a mini-McCabe
Kaberle: Expected to 1) continue to pass up chances for passes, Possible Surprises 1) leads defense men in goals
Colaiaccovo: Expected to 1) get injured in training camp. 2) get injured during rehab from his training camp injury 3) play 15 games and get injured again. Possible Surprises: 1) learns how to hit without hurting himself. 2) pulls an Antropov and plays 72 games.
Stralman: Expected to 1) continue to develop. Surprise 1) Leafs management actually lets him develop.
Ron Wilson: Expected to 1) blow up at press conferences. Surprise: 1) blows up the press box.