July 15, 2011
Leafs better but are they good enough?
By TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency
The burning question is one that even the Maple Leafs' rivals are wondering out loud.
"Are the Leafs going to make the playoffs this year?" a member of an Eastern Conference rival asked us at the NHL Players' Association annual charity golf tournament this week.
The same words have been uttered across the National Hockey League since 2004, when the Leafs most recently participated in the Stanley Cup tournament. At times, it feels like the simple query has been put on a loop.
In mid-July, it's close to impossible to gaze into the crystal ball and try to determine whether the Leafs will be playing past the regular season next April. A number of factors, from slumps to injuries to surprises, undoubtedly will have an impact on the playoff race. It happens every year.
But Leafs general manager Brian Burke has added some pieces in the past few weeks that should make the team better. We won't know Tim Connolly's full worth until he proves he can get Phil Kessel the puck on a consistent basis, but the potential is there. John-Michael Liles will bring some offensive punch to the blue line, while the 6-foot-5, 213-pound Cody Franson is mobile and has a devastating shot. Matthew Lombardi, at some point, will try to resurrect his career after a concussion kept him out of all but two games in 2010-11.
No matter how much the newcomers contribute, the Leafs' success ultimately will be measured by how well goaltender James Reimer performs.
But in handicapping the Leafs' chances of making the playoffs, it's worth taking a look at what the teams around them in the Eastern Conference have done since the Boston Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup a month ago.
The Leafs finished 10th in the regular season with 85 points, eight behind the New York Rangers, who claimed the eighth and final post-season berth. In ninth were the Carolina Hurricanes, who had 91 points.
Directly below the Leafs were the New Jersey Devils, Atlanta Thrashers and Ottawa Senators. None of those teams have added game-breaking type players. Atlanta, now the Winnipeg Jets, acquired forward Eric Fehr from the Washington Capitals, but little else; the Devils signed no one of consequence and still have yet to hire a new head coach; and the Senators are wafer-thin when it comes to depth. New head coach Paul MacLean and his staff will have plenty of obstacles to overcome in the 2011-12 season.
It's the teams above the Leafs that Leafs Nation members should be a little more concerned about, especially the Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres, who were seventh with 96 points. The Rangers, as many observers thought they would, signed the plum player available in free agency when centre Brad Richards put his signature on a nine-year, $60-million US contract. Richards wanted to work with his old Tampa coach, John Tortorella, and if Richards stays healthy, we don't envision a tumble in the standings by the Blueshirts.
The Sabres, thanks to the loosened purse strings by new owner Terry Pegula, bolstered their defence corps with the signing of Christian Ehrhoff and the acquisition of Robyn Regehr from the Calgary Flames. Forward Ville Leino blossomed last year with the Philadelphia Flyers, and even though the six-year, $27-million contract the Sabres signed him to was a bit ridiculous, he's a solid addition.
In sixth place were the Montreal Canadiens, who also had 96 points. The Habs made the Hurricanes a poorer team when they signed forward Erik Cole as a free agent. But Montreal also has said goodbye to several contributors, including defencemen James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik and forward Benoit Pouliot.
The 'Canes, of course, continue to be the team where former Leafs go to continue their hockey careers. Defenceman Tomas Kaberle, winger Alexei Ponikarovsky and centre Tim Brent all joined the Hurricanes via free agency.
Importantly, Burke, at least, has kept pace with the off-season additions to the Leafs roster. Once the regular season gets underway, we will begin to have a better idea of whether Burke did enough to end the Leafs' lengthy absence from the post-season dance.