10 issues to watch

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:11 PM ET

It is a 40-year itch, one the so-called Leafs nation is dying to scratch.

Not since 1967 have the Maple Leafs enjoyed the privilege of hoisting the Stanley Cup, the coveted trophy that has been won by the franchise 11 times.

It has been a long, at times ugly drought, to be sure.

By the time the post-season rolls around next spring, four decades will have passed since Johnny Bower and Co. sipped from the silver mug.

By bringing in a new coach in Paul Maurice; a new influx of talent in Michael Peca, Andrew Raycroft, Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill; and by snapping ties with veterans Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Tie Domi, Ed Belfour, Alexander Khavanov and Aki Berg, general manager John Ferguson Jr. feels his Leafs are on the cusp of a new era, one aimed at reviving past glories.

But according to a survey conducted by the Toronto Sun, the Leafs still have a long way to go.

In order to better gauge the potential fortune of the 2006-07 Leafs, we put together a 12-man panel to grade the team in eight categories. Our group of prestigious hockey insiders included writers, broadcasters, scouts, ex-players, a former NHL general manager and a scouting director of another NHL team.

Each panelist was asked to mark the Leafs in a number of areas, with a perfect score being 10.

The results, which are evident in the accompanying chart, indicate a number of interesting trends.

The Leafs received their strongest marks in the categories of power play and coaching. While the strong support of the power play should come as no surprise -- the Leafs scored 107 goals with the man advantage a year ago -- it also is evident that our panel endorses Ferguson's choice of Maurice to succeed Pat Quinn as bench boss.

Ferguson and the suits who serve as his superiors were not as fortunate, however. Management received the lowest mark from our group, with the forwards, penalty killing and shootouts faring only slightly better.

Of course, predicting such things has become a crapshoot in the "new NHL," even for our panel. After all, who would have ever prognosticated a Stanley Cup final between the Edmonton Oilers and Carolina Hurricanes a year ago?

Keeping that in mind, here are 10 factors that could make or break the Leafs in the upcoming season.

Early Report
Each member of our 12-man panel was asked to supply a grade in eight different categories for the 2006-07 edition of the Maple Leafs. Here are the average marks (out of 10):
Forwards: 5.5 (C-)
Defence: 6.5 (C+)
Goaltending: 6.3 (C)
Penalty killing: 5.8 (C-)
Power play: 7.7 (B+)
Shootouts: 5.0 (D+)
Coaching: 7.5 (B)
Management: 5.0 (D)

1.FERGIE'S NOOSE

Fair or not, general manager Ferguson is said to be on a short leash. Or is that a short noose? A bad start could mean Fergie won't last the season, even though his fingerprints finally have been smeared all over this roster. Management sent a telling message during the summer by not extending his contract, which runs out at the end of the 2006-07 season.

2. DANDY ANDY?

Since being acquired from the Boston Bruins, goalie Andrew Raycroft admits being stopped on the street more often by adoring fans in his native Belleville. "I guess there are more Leafs fans than Bruins fans there," the 2004 Calder Trophy winner said. There's another difference too, Andy. Stink out the joint in Boston, and they still won't dump you in the "hah-bah." Stink out the joint in Toronto, and you'll be doing the backstroke toward Centre Island.

3. PAVEL'S PAYCHEQUE

When one Eastern Conference general manager learned of the $5 million US per season windfall handed to Pavel Kubina by the Maple Leafs, he almost choked on his offer sheet. "You've got to be kidding me," the GM said. "I wouldn't give this guy more than $2.5 (million) a year." Kubina is being paid like an elite player, so he had better perform like one.

4. HAL'S WINGSPAN

Towering Hal Gill needs only needs about five strides to get out of his own zone. Unfortunately, they are five SLOW strides. Gill's physical style was great in the pre-lockout NHL, but to give him $2 million per year in the new faster game was a bit of a head-scratcher for many GMs around the league. It's up to Pal Hal to prove the critics wrong, many of whom are poised to cry out: "Where art thou, Aki Berg?"

5. DIVISION OF DOOM?

The Bruins now have Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard; the Sabres still have one of the fastest teams in the league; the Habs have a new coach in Guy Carbonneau and new sniper in Sergei Samsonov; and the Senators still have the triple threat of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza. Tough neighbourhood. The Leafs meet the Sens four times in the first month, so they'll know where they stand soon enough.

6. SUNDIN'S SIDEKICK

The search for Jimmy Hoffa might be more successful than finding a permanent linemate for the captain. Kyle Wellwood and Alexei Ponikarovsky will start the season getting their shots at the job, but it appears more and more as if there will be a revolving door all season long for those auditioning for the role as Sundin's sidekick.

7. RED LIGHT DISTRICT

Allison and Lindros both proved to be brittle a year ago but their offence still must be replaced. Kids like Ponikarovsky, Wellwood, Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and John Pohl will be looked upon to fill the gap.

8. FIVE ALIVE?

The Leafs' goal-scoring dried up during five-on-five play a year ago, and there was little evidence in the pre-season of any improvement. The Leafs scored just three even-strength goals in their final four exhibition matchups.

9. SIN BIN BLUES

Undisciplined penalties proved to be the Leafs' downfall a year ago, especially since they struggled on the penalty kill at times. There is no evidence that officials will back off of their no-tolerance stance of last season, so stupid moves like Kubina's cross-check into the Adam's apple of Detroit's Jiri Hudler Sunday night must be eliminated.

10. BOUNCING BABY BLUE LINERS

The development of young defencemen Ian White, Andy Wozniewski, Jay Harrison, Staffan Kronwall, Brendan Bell and Carlo Colaiacovo (up until his concussion) was quite impressive last season. WIth at least two of them starting the season with the parent club, the learning curve must continue.


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