Preface: So we've finally come to an end of the previews, and this is the only place that my bias will come into play—I decided to finish with my favorite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The great thing about cheering for a rebuilding team? No one accuses you of favoritism because you've got them last in their division.
Once we get to 2042 though, I may have to start putting them first.
So Cliff Fletcher is going to be the GM for the foreseeable future, Ron Wilson will be the coach, and Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk are playing integral roles in the organization.
At least it looks different than last season.
Random potshots aside however, I couldn't be happier about where the Maple Leafs are headed. They seem to have a grasp on where they want to go, and what kind of a team they're going to need to ice to get there.
Now we just have to make it through the growing pains.
Jamal Mayers-F (Trade), Jeff Finger-D (F.A.), Jonas Frogren-D (F.A.), Niklas Hagman-F (F.A.), Ryan Hollweg-F (Trade), Mikhail Grabovski-F (Trade), Curtis Joseph-G (F.A.)
Darcy Tucker-F (Buyout), Andrew Raycroft-G (Buyout), Kyle Wellwood-F (F.A.), John Pohl-F (Europe), Scott Clemmensen-G (F.A.), Mats Sundin-F (F.A.), Greg Pateryn-D (Trade)
How did 2007/08 go?
36-35-11, 83 points, 12th in Conference, last in Northeast division
Finish top-ten in Conference
Let's break'er down...
Alright, well seeing as the Maple Leafs are a franchise that can't stand still, instead of gabbing on about what'll change between this season and last year, we've got roster updates.
Boyd Devereaux and Staffan Kronwall have just joined Mark Bell on waivers—whether that means sending them down to the AHL or not I don't know, I just report what comes across on the ticker.
We're two days away from the start of the season, and even then the rosters won't be set.
Mike Myers may be the Love Guru, but Vesa Toskala is the Fashion Guru...
While there may be turmoil elsewhere in the land of Blue and White, the crease is a source of calm.
Last season there were questions surrounding the Leafs' goaltending situation: How would Andrew Raycroft respond to 2006/07's failing? Could Vesa Toskala be "the man"? What happens if both were busts? Well after signing Vesa before even seeing him play a game in Leafs' Blue, John Ferguson Jr. was playing with fire, and the spite of all Leafs fans.
Fortunately enough for Ferguson, the move worked out. Although V-Tosk was streaky at points last season, he was really what kept the Leafs in the picture, and will probably be what will keep them from totally floundering this season. V-Tosk found his game as the season progressed, and finished with a solid 33-win campaign.
The amount of shots (1824) is misleading when compared to his stats (2.73 GAA, .904 save percentage), as many times throughout the season, Toskala was hung out to dry by a defense that was usually looking a little lost, as well as being prone to taking shifts, and sometimes periods off.
I could see Toskala nabbing another 30-win season, but not much more than 30. He's got a defense that'll be doing a lot of growing in front of him, so more often than not, Toskala will be left to bail them out. With the added stress of that this season, he may rely more heavily on a backup (It's worth noting that under Toskala was 49-17 his last two seasons under Ron Wilson in San Jose, so once the system sets in on the back end, Toskala could flourish).
As of right now, that backup is former-Leaf Curtis Joseph. After a tumultuous departure, Joseph has been touring the NHL (and beyond) since 2002/03. Although he had a few slip-ups in the preseason, I stand by my support of Joseph and why he's so great for this team.
Despite being a solid option as a back-up goalie (despite being 41) Joseph knows how to win over the media in Toronto. Not only was he one of the more successful tenders here in recent memory, but he was also one of the more consistent and level-headed ones as well. Although he may only be good for 7-10 wins this season, he brings so much more to the team than just a set of goalie pads.
A scenario that might be interesting to watch out for though, is what happens at the trade deadline. If Justin Pogge can prove that his cool play throughout the preseason was no fluke and his poise carries over to the Marlies' regular season, then Joseph could become expendable if a team comes looking for a veteran presence to round out their in-crease scenario.
Now introducing some things you may not have Schenn before...
The talk surrounding Leafs Nation all preseason has been the play of Luke Schenn. The 18 year-old has played with poise, played steadily on the power play, and has looked to be ready for a little taste of true NHL action.
One of Schenn's best attributes is his ability to forget previous shifts. If something goes amiss on one shift, Schenn will remember what went wrong, but will carry no sour taste in his mouth over what just happened—a truly valuable skill for an NHL defender any age.
It's still unseen if Schenn will stay up at the NHL level for more than nine games, but one thing is for sure: His big body and his sound defensive game have already won over Leafs Nation. Now the question is who'll be the first to buy a Schenn jersey?
With a new season underway, and all of his old buddies gone, the expectation of leading the defense rests on the quiet shoulders of Tomas Kaberle. Although Kabby has always proven to be cool under pressure, the biggest knock against him is that he doesn't use his shot—a very accurate one at that—enough. Kaberle is as good a playmaker as they come however, and he's one of the best at knowing when to join the rush.
It'll be interesting to see if Kabby uses his shot more often now that Bryan McCabe is gone, but one thing is for sure: Tomas Kaberle is the man on Toronto's defense now.
That's not to take anything away from Pavel Kubina however. Long-rumored to be on his way out of Toronto, Kubina stepped up his production towards the end of the year last season, and found himself on the team following a summer of questions. While Kaberle doesn't shoot very often, Kubina will make up for that on the powerplay (where six of his eleven goals came last season), and he's still got some size to offer the Maple Leafs.
Then we've got Anton Stralman, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Ian White. All three played with the Leafs last season, and all three can offer the same thing: puck-moving ability. The best of the bunch is Stralman, who's really started to look sharp late in the preseason. He's got a power-play-perfect shot, and for last season being his first in North America ever, he didn't do terribly (9 points, -10 in 50 games in the NHL).
Stralman will be great at finding the forwards along the boards with an outlet pass, and could turn into a star for the Leafs, much like fellow Swede Borje Salming was.
Colaiacovo meanwhile, is probably getting one of his last shots with Ron Wilson at the helm. One of Wilson's premonitions at his opening press conference was that he could "fix" Carlo Colaiacovo—something that no one has seemingly been able to do for the injury-prone 25 year-old.
Carlo is a solid defender, and has plenty of offensive potential, but again the key is that those things show themselves when he's healthy. A variety of injuries kept him to just 28 games last season, but if Colaiacovo can recapture his 2005/06 form (the season when he was at his best) before it was cut short by concussion problems, then the Maple Leafs' patience will have paid off—it has to eventually right?
Ian White is the member of that group of three that's on the bubble. White has looked to be replaceable the last little while, and he's even received a bit of a look up front with the forwards. White's size is his biggest knock against him, but if the Leafs do hold onto him and find a role to fit him into, then White could put up a bit of offense.
You'd think we'd almost be there by now, but we're hardly even close.
Jeff Finger as you may recall, was signed to an oddly large contract over the summer. $13.4 million (or something like that) to be paid over four years, which is strange considering Finger's 94 games of NHL experience. He comes highly recommended from Ron Wilson and Cliff Fletcher though, so I'd like to believe that they're on to something. Finger has shown his ability on the ice against a variety of talents in the Western Conference, and he seems to be described in just one word: dependable—which is something the Leafs could use this season.
Finger is a little banged-up currently, but when he comes back he could prove to be a surprisingly steady contributor to the Toronto blue line.
Who do you want to talk about next? Mike Van Ryn you say? Well why not. Van Ryn (who went to my highschool...although well before my time) was who Toronto received when they shipped token punching bag Bryan McCabe out of town. Although Van Ryn has run into some serious injury problems last season, he's still got the potential to be a player who could sit in the neighborhood of 30-points while playing a bit of a physical game.
Then Toronto went back to IKEA to pick up Jonas Frogren. The former Calgary Flames draft pick was signed from the Swedish Elite League over the offseason. Frogren can be a solid defensive option for the Leafs with a bit of a physical side, but the biggest challenge for him this season will be getting used to the North American game—something that may take at least a season.
Can we get Moore 'Kule'ness amongst the Leafs' forwards?
Now introducing, your top offensive player for the 2008/09 NHL season.....NIK ANTROPOV!!
Last season was a career year for the oft-injured Antropov. He posted career-highs in goals, assists, and points, and he actually stayed on the ice for more than 60 games—a challenge for Antropov the past few seasons.
This year may be a bit of a struggle as there's no Mats Sundin to fall back on, but someone has to put up points for the Leafs. And with the stock placed in Nik and the high opinion of him thanks to Cliff Fletcher, Antropov will be given a vast opportunity to produce.
Another player given an opportunity to strut his stuff will be Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens over the offseason in hopes of finding a quality offensive weapon. The biggest knock on Grabovski has been his two-way play and being too small for the game, but he's shown the ability to go into traffic during the preseason, despite his occasional lapses.
He'll be good for the Leafs this season, but the big thing will be the fans dealing with Grabovski during his struggles. Aside from that though, the fans could be too enraptured with his offense to notice.
Nikolai Kulemin is another youngster that Leafs fans are excited about. There's been a ton of talk about this kid and how he could be the replacement for Darcy Tucker—a player who'll be physical, be an energy guy, and even put up some points. Granted he's a little banged-up right now, but Kulemin might be a bit of a surprise for the rest of the league this season.
Alex Steen and Matt Stajan will also continue to develop into solid scorers and two-way players for the Leafs. Steen could be good for 50-points this season if he can really find his stride, and Matt Stajan is turning into a solid penalty-kill specialist who'll produce a bit of offense.
With some NHL experience under his belt, Jiri Tlusty should be looking to establish himself as an offensive threat in the Toronto lineup. Although (like some other Leafs' players this season) Tlusty is still working on establishing himself within the North American game (He jumped three levels in two years here), Tlusty's shiftiness and creativity will pay dividends immediately for the Leafs.
Tlusty will probably start to develop into a solid goal-scorer this season (In the neighbourhood of 15 or 20), but he's still a few years away from reaching his full potential at the NHL level.
Jason Blake was another player who had a very tough year last year. Despite taking 332 shots last season, Blake only scored 15 goals—25 fewer than his 2006/07 total which netted him his monster deal with Toronto. Although Blake was going through something none of us can understand (playing with a treatable kind of cancer), he never used it as an excuse, and went through the bashing that always seems to come with such a large contract.
Although battling disease is never easy, Blake may have an easier time this year, after having the experience of playing through it last season. Jason may also benefit from being more of a feature player and a leader for this team on offense, and once he recovers from a few of the bumps and bruises of preseason, he could at least hit the 50-point mark once again.
Alex Ponikarovsky could be entering a make-or-break season for himself. On one hand, Poni is a two-time 20-goal scorer. On the other hand, he's never produced without riding shotgun to Mats Sundin. If Ponikarovsky can prove that he can be a goal-scorer without needing an All-Star to set him up then he may have a place on this team. Otherwise, Toronto may be looking at giving up his spot to some youth, or a quality depth guy.
Replacing Poni though, will be the blazing speed of Niklas Hagman. Although Hagman isn't expected to repeat his 27-goal season from last year, Hagman still brings some penalty-killing prowess and legs that can help him fly.
With the depth guys who may be hungrily eyeing a move up the depth chart, Jamal Mayers seems to be safe. Although he's been sought after by the Leafs for a few seasons, Mayers brings some grit and some leadership at a time when the Leafs need it most. Granted he'll never produce eye-popping offensive numbers, but Mayers can be integral to this team in every other facet of the game.
Ryan Hollweg meanwhile will just offer a reckless player who can fight (but not necessarily win) and be a pretty chippy guy. As much as I liked him the first time I saw him this preseason, his act wore thin pretty quickly, swiftly earning himself that two-game suspension to start the season. Maybe Mark Bell could see action in those two games?
Add in to that Dominic Moore who's coming off a near-career year and Jeremy Williams could thrive with an expanded role in Toronto.
If any other spots open up for the Leafs though, look for Robbie Earl, Ben Ondruss, or Darryl Boyce to see some more NHL ice time.
Update: As I'm watching TSN while writing this, I just heard that Ian White will play on a line with John Mitchell and Matt Stajan, answering the question of where White will play.
So what's it all mean?
Basically, this year is going to be painful for Leafs fans. There's no one that's a proven scorer on this roster that didn't relate directly back to Mats Sundin's ability to raise the level of play of those around him.
Jason Blake could be the go-to guy, but he still has to prove it to the Leafs and their fans.
So the forwards may be searching for production, the defense may be looking to gel, and the goalies may just be begging to keep their sanity.
If the Leafs go anywhere, some youngsters and veterans alike are going to have to surprise.
For Leafs fans, the surprise would certainly be a welcome one.
5th in Northeast Division