Much to his credit, Maurice didn’t con Leafs fans by sugar-coating things, and nothing that has transpired leading up to the regular-season opener at home Wednesday night against the Ottawa Senators has altered his view.
“The air was slightly sucked out of the room when that came out,” he said of his candid early assessment. “But that’s our hope, and that’s the way this league works now.
“For years I felt you could predict 10 of the top 16 in the NHL with high accuracy. I don’t know that you can do it as easily anymore. Because of that, that puts you in a dogfight. Some teams don’t want to admit to that and I think it hurts their chances or their sense of urgency to fight every night.”
Maurice sends a lineup into the dogfight that has been radically revamped by GM John Ferguson from the one that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last spring, and it says here that there are enough improvements to lift the Leafs into the top eight and the playoffs.
Gone are goaltender Ed Belfour, forwards Eric Lindros, Tie Domi, Jason Allison and Clarke Wilm and defencemen Aki Berg, Alex Khavanov and Luke Richardson.
The main area Leafs fans are uneasy about is goaltending. New No. 1 Andrew Raycroft will have to quickly show he’s the main man – the 2004 Calder Trophy winner and not the 2005-2006 disappointment that he was with Boston – or the uneasiness will linger.
Replacements for the others who have left will all be upgrades. The most important pickup is defensive centre Mike Peca, who’ll provide a much-needed boost to the penalty kill.
New defencemen Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina join incumbents Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle on the defence. Add any or all of Andy Wozniewski, Ian White and Jay Harrison from the AHL Marlies and the Leafs have a better defence corps than last season.
On a league-wide basis, however, the defence corps is average. As much as fans disliked Berg, he was a minus-five before fleeing home to Finland, while Gill was a minus-4 in Boston. The axed Khavanov was a minus-11, and free-agent pickup Pavel Kubina was a minus-12 with the Lightning. So, don’t expect a brick wall to all of a sudden go up in front of Raycroft.
Up front, Maurice will give captain Mats Sundin more ice time than did Pat Quinn, and that’ll be a plus at both ends of the ice. Sundin had 31 goals and 47 assists last season. A 90-point season isn’t out of the question.
Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Chad Kilger and second-year NHLers Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen will be the most prominent forwards. Wade Belak remains as an extra forward.
The Leafs can’t afford any regression by Ponikarovsky, who scored 21 goals last season, and Stajan, Wellwood and Steen need to step up. Management considers them a big part of the club’s future. They totalled 44 goals last season. That number has to climb towards 60.
John Pohl, Bates Battaglia and Alexander Suglobov should be promoted from the Marlies.
Only eight teams in the league allowed more than the 270 goals scored on the Leafs last season so fewer turnovers and better backchecking are musts.
Veteran forwards Jeff O’Neill, with his team-worst -19 plus-minus, and Nik Antropov are expendable. It would be a mistake to retain either over Pohl or Suglobov, the slick Russian who would come in handy in shootouts.
Antropov broke into the league in 1999 and has never scored more than 16 goals in a season. He potted only 12 last year, when he was again afflicted with injuries. Leafs fans have waited long enough for the six-foot-six Kazakh to have an impact.
Maurice hit the nail on the head: the Leafs will struggle to make the playoffs.
Oddsmakers have them at 40-1 – right there with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild. Geesh, the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers are 30-1.
The Carolina Hurricanes proved last spring that pre-season odds mean nothing.
“I like our chances as well as any team’s chances,” says Sundin. “Get into the playoffs and anything can happen.”
With Maurice instigating a fresh approach, the Leafs should get the chance to prove it.