Leafs wouldn't stack up

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:52 AM ET

DETROIT -- The spiral of mediocrity continues for the Maple Leafs with the premise they based their season around being proven incorrect in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

John Ferguson said it. Paul Maurice repeated it. Mats Sundin continued with his ever-optimistic ways, chanting the mantra day after day.

All they had to do was make the playoffs. Then anything was possible.

That is what they said. Right to the last day. The National Hockey League was that close. The opportunity for eighth-place teams -- the Leafs, for the record, finished ninth in the East, 18th overall -- was never more apparent.

Only here we are, as the Western Conference finals begins tonight with Detroit versus Anaheim one vs. two in the conference.

And here we are, on the morning after the Eastern Conference final begins, with Buffalo vs. Ottawa. One vs. three, if you go solely by points.

The Red Wings and Ducks had 113 points and 110 points, respectively throughout the season: That puts the Leafs 22 points behind Detroit, the same number they finished behind the Sabres.

So, Ferguson gets another year to prove he can't build a winner, which means one of two things: Either the board of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., finds 18th place acceptable, or it can't find a suitable replacement for the general manager to sell to the public.

The betting here is that Ferguson will continue on as lame-duck GM, with no contract extension, while around him the search for his eventual replacement quietly will continue.

It's not a good situation for him, not a good situation for the hockey club.

And it looks worse when you consider the Final Four teams and realize just how far the Leafs are away from being a meaningful contender.

All you have to do is take stock of those teams to see what the Leafs are lacking.

They can't compete with any of these teams in overall

speed. They can't compete with most of these teams in depth up front. They certainly can't compete in goal.

But begin on the wing, where the Leafs have their deepest needs: Their leading point-getter among wingers last season was Alexei Ponikarovsky. He had 45. Ponikarovsky, at 27, is an honest, decent hockey player. The first winger on a team he is not.

Darcy Tucker led the Leafs in goal-scoring among wingers. He would have had more than 24 had he lasted the entire season. And while he does score most of his goals on the power play, that means something. It also means he is the Leafs' No. 1 winger and that does not a contender make.

The Sabres have a 43-goal scorer in Thomas Vanek and a 34-goal scorer in Jason Pominville. Neither have celebrated their 25th birthday yet.

Anaheim has a 48-goal scorer off the wing in Teemu Selanne. The Red Wings' leading goal-scorer, Henrik Zetterberg, plays the wing as does Tomas Holmstrom. Both are 30-goal scorers (the Leafs didn't have a single 30-goal scorer).

And the Senators can serve up 50-goal man Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson as their top two wingers.

Compare that with Ponikarovsky, Tucker, Jeff O'Neill and Nik Antropov and try to do it without wincing.

No doubt, the Leafs will throw large money at a winger such as Ryan Smyth in the off-season, which will bring another high-priced, 30- something player to a team with too many high-priced 30- somethings.

The biggest difference between the Leafs and contention, however, may be in goal. The goals-against averages of the remaining playoff netminders range from Jean-Sebastien Giguere's 1.28 to Ryan Miller's 2.07. The save percentages range from a low of Ray Emery's .919 to Dominik Hasek's .930 to the .952 put up by Giguere.

Andrew Raycroft isn't in that stratosphere. But he is good enough to play for a team that turned over half its roster and its coaching staff and managed to vault all the way from 18th place to 18th place in a league of 30 teams.

With progress that affirmative, who are we to argue?


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