2007-08 Team Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs
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The Starting Line
By Scott BurnsideOK, so the rebuilding program is officially out the window, what with GM John Ferguson mortgaging the future in the form of three draft picks, including the 13th overall selection in June's draft, to acquire netminder Vesa Toskala and troubled forward Mark Bell. Now, both acquisitions may yet turn out to be winners. Toskala may yet be the next Miikka Kiprusoff, a Finnish netminder who comes out of nowhere to be a world-beater. Bell could chip in 20-30 goals while roughhousing opponents once he returns from his 15-game suspension stemming from his drunken-driving conviction. The bottom line: The Maple Leafs once again have revealed themselves as a team devoid of a genuine plan for the future. One day, it's build from within; the next (or in this case after two straight playoff misses), it's win today. Still, the Leafs finished just one skinny point out of the playoffs, so they aren't that far off from a trip given that the East again figures to be achingly close. OFFENSE
The Leafs were no slouches with the puck with the eighth-best offense in the league. They should improve with the addition of Jason Blake, who scored a career-best 40 goals with the Islanders last season. The assumption was Blake would be a good fit with captain Mats Sundin, who signed a one-year deal in the offseason. Coach Paul Maurice told reporters he thought of a Blake-Kyle Wellwood combination, with gifted Wellwood moving back to his natural position as a center. But Wellwood recently underwent sports hernia surgery and will miss at least three weeks. There's been a lot of talk that center Jiri Tlusty, the 13th overall pick in 2006, could crack the NHL roster out of training camp. The Leafs didn't return veteran forwards Jeff O'Neill, Yanic Perreault and Michael Peca, and the team was hoping Bell would fill some of that physical/offensive void. He will be going to jail for six months at the end of the season and will miss the first 15 games to suspension, so one wonders how much that will affect his focus at the center of the hockey universe. DEFENSE
For years, Toronto's Achilles' heel was always its spotty blue line. But the Leafs now boast an impressive group of up-and-coming blueliners that includes Carlo Colaiacovo, who appears to have put an early spate of injuries behind him; Jay Harrison; Staffan Kronwall; and Andy Wozniewski. These youngsters will complement a group of veterans that includes Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Hal Gill and much-maligned Pavel Kubina. It might be true the Leafs wildly overspent on Kubina (four years, $20 million) last summer, but he wasn't as bad as many fans believed. By the end of the season, he was among their best blueliners (as he should have been). McCabe will always be high risk/ high reward, and Kaberle continues to be one of the best blue-line bargains in the business. Throw it all together, and the back end is suddenly one of the team's strong suits and should continue to be going forward. GOALTENDING
If there ever is a case when the statistics lie, it's in Andrew Raycroft's 37 wins last season. The mark tied a franchise record, yet the first thing Ferguson did this summer was bring in a goaltender he thinks is better. Trust us, with last season's 24th-ranked goaltending tandem, the rest of the lineup thinks the same thing. Raycroft, a former rookie of the year, simply could not provide enough consistency to get the Leafs into the playoffs. In five of his last six appearances, he gave up at least three goals, so the word "clutch" doesn't exactly apply. Will it apply to Toskala? It had better if Ferguson wants to keep his job. The problem with Toskala is there isn't a great body of work to contemplate. In two seasons sharing top billing in San Jose with Evgeni Nabokov, Toskala went 49-17-5. Those are pretty darned good numbers. He didn't get a sniff in the playoffs this past spring but was the man between the pipes when the Sharks blew a 2-0 series lead against Edmonton in 2006. If the Leafs get that far in 2007-08, it won't matter if Toskala shows up wearing a Spider-Man outfit while pulling a wagon full of chickens because the experiment will be deemed a success. COACHING
In Maurice's first season as Leafs coach, the team missed the playoffs by one point, which is one point closer than Toronto got the year before under former coach Pat Quinn. Closer to what, however, is the big question. It's hard to imagine Maurice would survive another non-playoff season, but that doesn't seem to bother the erudite bench boss. The Leafs play up-tempo and try to use a bruising forecheck to create offense. Maurice isn't likely to change his style, and provided his lineup stays a little healthier, he shouldn't be too worried about job security. Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
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• Record: 40-31-11
• Division: Third in the Northeast
• Conference: Ninth in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
PLAYERS TO WATCH
For the first time in his career, the Finnish netminder will get the starting job in a hockey-mad market. Does he have the intestinal fortitude for the job? Defenseman: Carlo Colaiacovo
By the end of last season, Colaiacovo, 24, appeared to have put a grisly assortment of injuries behind him to become the versatile kind of defenseman the Leafs envisioned when they made him the 17th overall pick in 2001. Forward: Kyle Wellwood
Injuries limited Wellwood to 48 games last season. But in that short time, he established himself as a gifted playmaker with an eye for the dazzling. If he can return from hernia surgery and stay healthy, watch for a strong year.
MORE FROM BURNSIDEBuzz Cut
When does the first "Should the Leafs trade Mats Sundin?" radio talk show segment hit the airwaves? We guess 10 minutes after the team has its first two-game losing streak. In a town where calling up a fourth-line center can create days of controversy, the future of the Leafs captain and his one-year deal figures to be an ongoing soap opera this season. Where Leafs Will Finish
The Leafs will finish third in the Northeast Division and seventh in the Eastern Conference.
SPORTSNATIONWhere do you think the Toronto Maple Leafs will finish this time around? Who will lead the Leafs in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!