Leafs are better, by default

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

We can make this declaration now, in these early days of July: The Maple Leafs will be a playoff team this coming season.

A contender? No.

A threat? No.

But by acclamation and a couple of yeah-but moves by the yeah-but general manager, John Ferguson Jr., the Leafs have pushed themselves into a favoured position to attain the great goal they have set for the Eastern Conference -- and that is to finish eighth.

Eighth looks like a slam-dunk in light of what has occurred since the NHL draft. And that is nothing to be excited about.

The Leafs have gotten slightly better, although at a price and term we can argue at another time.

For reasons that have never been completely explained, the Leafs have 17 of the 18 skaters they dressed for the final game of the regular season under contract -- and really, that Bates Battaglia signing was necessary, wasn't it? -- but at least they have added a scorer in Jason Blake to the mix.

The teams they are chasing and competing with -- primarily the New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens -- have seen their rosters depleted for a variety of reasons.

Consider the case of the Islanders, who beat the Leafs out of the playoffs by a single point last season. They were led in scoring by Blake, now a Leaf; led on the ice by Ryan Smyth, now an Avalanche; led in shootouts by Viktor Kozlov, now in Washington; and led on the power play by Tom Poti, also in Washington.

Five of the top seven Islanders scorers are gone from last year's team. The only thing they may be competing for next season is the right to draft Steven Stamkos, or maybe they're behind the push to allow John Tavares to be selected one year ahead of schedule.

The Habs traded away veteran Craig Rivet at the deadline and probably have lost 26-goal scoring defenceman Sheldon Souray to free agency. That can't help a team that lived on the power play and didn't offer up much offence the rest of the time. Sure, they added Roman Hamrlik and the forever travelling Bryan Smolinksi, yesterday. But realistically, the only area they might be better off in is in goal, where rookie Carey Price and veteran Cristobol Huet give them options and some depth.

The one emerging team in the East might be the Florida Panthers, who have upgraded themselves in goal, but made odd and inexpensive choices in free agency.

The Leafs, meanwhile, erratic in goal last year, are now trying to trade Andrew Raycroft so that Vesa Toskala can come in as their No. 1. That should make them better in net and better on the penalty-kill, also a problem last year.

Blake, the soon-to-be 34-year-old on a five-year contract -- imagine a Leafs team in about three years without Mats Sundin, but with an old Blake, an old Bryan McCabe and an old Pavel Kubina -- should help in every area but the dressing room.

He scored 26 even-strength goals last season -- only seven NHL players scored more -- but the Islanders' penalty-killing, with a premier goalie, was only 3% better than the Leafs, which may mean Blake's short-handed work is over-valued.

Blake is also considered to be a me-first kind of player, which should make his role fascinating to watch on the club. As a left-handed shot and 40-goal scorer, it is naturally assumed that Blake would take Darcy Tucker's spot on the first power play. Considering that 15 of Tucker's 24 goals came with the man advantage, and knowing how much he values his offensive contribution, it will be interesting to monitor how this situation plays itself out.

But while they have no real future and no chance to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, the Leafs should be a bottom-half playoff team in the East. They have next to no emerging youngsters and, in fact have attempted to deal Matt Stajan, Raycroft, and Ian White in recent days.

And with Buffalo having lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, New Jersey without Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez, the only dominant teams in the division might be the Ottawa Senators and the New York Rangers (although don't write off the Sabres' depth and goaltending) there is every reason for the Leafs to be a playoff team.

Memo to Ferguson: No team finishing between eighth and 16th in the NHL (all of them playoff teams) has ever won a Stanley Cup in a fully played season. But that's not the goal is it?

The goal is to stay employed. The Stanley Cup? We can see it any time we want downtown, at the Hockey Hall of Fame.


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