|Despite adding stars like Stanley Cup winner Kris Versteeg (above) to their roster, improvements made by other Eastern clubs could stifle Toronto's playoff hopes. (BRUCE BENNETT/Getty Images)
This is just the first week of school, but the Maple Leafs are already facing math problems.
Of the eight playoff teams returning in the Eastern Conference, only the Montreal Canadiens seem in any danger of point subtraction and only if Carey Price gets stage fright as their No. 1 goalie.
Of the six others that finished ahead of Toronto and missed the playoffs, count on the four Southeast Division clubs, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Florida and Atlanta to be among the most improved. Then there's the New York Rangers, 13 points better than the Leafs and denied eighth spot by a Game 82 shootout loss. Now that goalie Henrik Lundqvist has agreed that time off is in the team's best interest, they can avoid a similar fate in 2010-11.
So students, using the margins for your rough work, that would appear to leave Toronto at or near the bottom of the column again. And four hot-off-the-press hockey magazine previews sampled from the shelves have the Leafs finishing in the ninth to 12th range.
There are variables of course. Even Leafs bashers must concede Toronto will be better in goal and on defence, two weak areas last year that conspired for one win in the first 13 games. And top scorer Phil Kessel won't be stuck in the barn until November.
But heading into training camp next week, they still lack a proven first or second-line centre. And unless they're about to dramatically alter three years of sub.-500 hockey against the Northeast Division, they'd better get a bushel of points elsewhere in the conference.
That means better results against the Southeast. While those four teams trailed league-leading Washington by almost 40 points. Carolina was far better in the second half and the other three all have new blood, either as general managers, coaches or players.
"We're not just trying to survive, we're going in with the attitude where we expect to win," new Thrashers coach Craig Ramsay told the media, reading from the same textbook as Toronto GM Brian Burke.
Meanwhile, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau knows all that daylight between his team and the emerging Southeast pack is going to turn cloudy.
"Tampa is immediately a lot better," Boudreau told QMI Agency. "They have made some real upgrades (new GM Steve Yzerman brought in Simon Gagne and Pavel Kubina for starters). The culture of change is going to take hold in Florida (GM Dale Tallon had a hand in the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup success) and in Atlanta (GM Rick Dudley and Ramsay). It's going to get tougher for us."
While the Leafs sat out the first round of the June draft, seven of the top 10 picks went to Eastern rivals, including Tyler Seguin to Boston with their pick and defenceman Erik Gudbranson third overall to Tallon's Panthers.
"You see what (Tallon) did in Chicago, and why can't he do it in Florida?," Gudbranson told NHL.com. "I really do believe in the next five or six years, maybe even earlier, that Florida can make a name for themselves."
But none of the also-rans are going to move up at the expense of the Caps. Though the sheen came off Boudreau, Alex Ovechkin and the rest in the first round against Montreal the eager coach is hot to prove his team can play into June. He certainly won't give up pursuit of a second Presidents Trophy.
"I don't think we knocked our brains out last year, playing guys who were injured, just to get an extra two points each night," Boudreau recalled. "We clinched the Southeast early and in mid-March, it looked like we were going to win the conference. We thought: 'This is going to be good'."
Then came goalie Jaroslav Halak and the Habs. The Caps melted and a dour Ovechkin settled for the Ted Lindsay as the players' MVP, another individual award when he wants the sport's ultimate team trophy while his team is still a cap-friendly clan.
"We have Alex and Nik (Backstrom) and Mike (Green)," Boudreau reminded. "We didn't lose a lot of players and our young guys in Hershey have won two Calder Cups. People might not know their names yet (John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Michal Neuvirth), but they're really good players ready to step in. (GM) George McPhee has done a good job and hopefully we can live up to our billing."