Cup hopes hinge on D

Jason Allison looks to get around Red Wing Andy Delmore during the first period of pre-season...

Jason Allison looks to get around Red Wing Andy Delmore during the first period of pre-season action between the Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre, October 1st, 2005. (Sun Photo Dave Abel)

TERRY KOSHAN

, Last Updated: 7:34 AM ET

They have shown they can crush teams and continue the next night to beat a divisional rival.

But they have shown they are no slouches when it comes to blowing leads and losing games they should win.

And getting stuffed by divisional rivals? Yes, that too.

But the feeling among observers is the 2005-06 Maple Leafs are a club which, when the regular season dust settles the night of next April 18, can make some hay in the playoffs.

How about a run at the Stanley Cup? Perhaps. Even with a few adjustments first, though, nothing is guaranteed.

"I don't think they can win a Stanley Cup right now, not with this present team," former NHL coach and television analyst Gary Green says.

"But not that they are bad. They're fine in goal, but they are in need of an upgrade with a defensive defenceman. As far as up-front goes, I am not sure they need different bodies, but they could use more speed coming through the neutral zone. But I like the fact they have adapted to playing a much better puck-possession game instead of dump and chase."

One-third of the schedule's games played does not a season make, and the Leafs, who play host to the Los Angeles Kings tomorrow night, are 15-10-0-3 in 28 games.

Though he was not asked specifically whether he thought his club has what it takes to make a long post-season run, coach Pat Quinn knows there are many areas where his team has to improve.

"We have been okay," Quinn said. "I think we need to keep challenging ourselves to get better. A lot of our game has been around good goaltending and the power play, and we need to strengthen in other areas.

"Pick up the standings, and you can look at the number of teams that are sitting around the same spot we are, so it's going to be very competitive. We can't afford not to be pushing ourselves to be better.

"Ottawa looks like it has kind of distanced itself from some of us right now, and we have to strive to keep pushing after them."

General manager John Ferguson was scolded by many in the public eye in the off-season when he signed Eric Lindros and Jason Allison, who each brought with him a history of injuries. But both have played in every game this season and they give the Leafs a luxury that Quinn has not had since he took over behind the bench in 1998 -- a solid 1-2-3 punch down the middle that is headed by captain Mats Sundin.

Importantly, Lindros and Allison are big men and, as long as the referees will continue to call penalties as they are now, they will benefit.

Furthermore, though the Leafs may still be one of oldest outfits in the NHL, the contributions being made by 21-year-old Alex Steen, along with Kyle Wellwood and Matt Stajan, both 22, are welcomed by the veterans.

"Our chances are just as good as any other year, but we probably have the best dressing room we have had since I have been here, not that we've had bad ones in the past," defenceman Bryan McCabe said. "We finally have some young fresh blood, and they have been a nice fit."

Allison, with 28 points in 28 games, leads Leafs forwards in scoring and is behind only McCabe. He has been maligned because he is seen as being slow, but that does not wash for some.

"One aspect the Leafs are so good at now is their puck control down low, and he (Allison) is almost impossible to knock off the puck," one veteran NHL scout said. "And he is getting those two young guys (linemates Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky) going. That counts for something. I really don't understand some of the Allison bashing that has been going on in Toronto."

Overall, the Leafs are one of the biggest teams in the league, and handling large forwards with the crackdown on obstruction is difficult. As San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson noted after his club erased a two-goal deficit to beat the Leafs 5-4 on Saturday night, Toronto has the ability to keep coming at you.

A major area of concern for many we talked to involved was, not surprisingly, the Leafs' defence. Individually, McCabe is having a career year and he and partner Tomas Kaberle have demonstrated that they can handle the bulk of the ice time without much fatigue.

But the consensus is there is a need for a strong defensive defenceman, and if it is not met by Ferguson on or before the March 9 trade deadline, a playoff run can't be sustained. And from a team standpoint, consistently shutting down the opposition has not been a strong point.

"I would go as far as to say they need two guys back there," another NHL scout said. "But that might not be enough."

And why not? Well, whether goalie Ed Belfour can handle the rigours of winning 16 games in the playoffs at the age of 41 -- a birthday he will celebrate on April 21 -- is debatable.

This scout was concerned about the amount of shots Belfour faces in the regular season, and what effect that can have going forward in the playoffs. Of the Leafs' first 28 games, they've outshot their opponents in just eight. How many times have Leafs players said after games that it was Belfour (or Mikael Tellqvist) that enabled them to win?

"There are no easy nights in the Toronto net and that can be a tough grind for a 40-year-old," the scout said. "Belfour petered out in the second round (against Philadelphia in 2004) and I can't imagine him not petering out again."

Therein lies one difference, among a few, between the Leafs and the Ottawa Senators. Dominik Hasek will turn 41 at the end of January, but he is not nearly as busy as Belfour.

"Ottawa is on this side, and to Toronto, I say: 'Good luck,' " a scout said. "You never know how the cookie crumbles, but I just don't see Toronto (going all the way)."


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