Why the Leafs won't Suck
There seems to be a common thread when discussing the Leafs chances this upcoming season. That thread is that the Leafs will struggle to make the playoffs. I seriously disagree with that claim. The basis for that claim is that they lost way too much talent and the guys they brought in are just way too injury prone. But let’s look at each player that has left and gone and see where things stand.
Gone is Gary Roberts who had 28 goals, 48 points in 72 games in 2003-04. Now, in my mind, it is not a stretch of anyone’s imagination to believe that Jeff O’Neill can equal or match what Gary Roberts provided the Leafs in 2003-04. O’Neill is coming of a substandard season in 2003-04 in which he suffered from some nagging injuries but the four seasons before that he played in 82, 76, 82, and 80 games scoring 30, 31, 41, and 25 goals. There is no reason to believe that O’Neill can’t score 30 goals this year and be a more than adequate replacement for Gary Roberts.
Gone is Alexander Mogilny who had 8 goals, 30 points in 37 games. Ok, this is an easy one. There is every reason to expect that Mariusz Czerkawski will exceed what Mogilny provided the Leafs offensively. Czerkawski is coming off a 25 goal, 49 point season with the Islanders and 20 goals is certainly an easily attainable goal, even 30 goals isn’t out of the question. While not a great defensive player Czerkawski could actually benefit from the new rules and I think Czerkawski can be a nice replacement for Mogilny. At least for the contribution to the Leafs that Mogilny made in 2003-04.
Gone is Joe Nieuwendyk who had 22 goals, 50 points in 64 games. It also wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination that Eric Lindros can match those numbers, or at least come reasonably close to them. If Lindros was able to play 64 games 15-20 goals and 40-50 points is certainly not a stretch of the imagination.
Gone is Owen Nolan who scored 19 goals, 48 points in 65 games. This is where Jason Allison comes in. Although they are different types of players, if Jason Allison is healthy it is easy to assume that he match Nolans numbers and quite possibly surpass them, although the distribution between goals and assists might differ since Allison is a center and Nolan is a winger. But it certainly wouldn’t surprise me that if Allison can play 65 games that he would get 50+ points.
I know everyone is going to say, but what if Lindros and Allison do get injured. Well, if you read my above analysis, I am already factoring in that they will miss 17 or 18 games. Could the miss more? Yeah, sure, but they could miss fewer too and neither you, I, nor anyone else can predict which it will be, but predicting 17-18 games missed seems like being reasonably cautious without being overly pessimistic.
There is also no reason to believe that young guys like Antropov and Ponikarovsky will not improve or that Tucker can’t produce more offensively when placed in a more offensive role.
And what about Belfour? What if he gets injured. Well, sure, if Hasek gets injured in Ottawa, or Kipprusoff gets injured in Calgary, or Brodeur in New Jersey, or Turco in Dallas, those teams will all struggle to make the playoffs too. But what I do know is that over the past 7 seasons that Ed Belfour has played he has played in 61, 61, 62, 63, 60, 62 and 59 games plus another 17, 23, 23, 10, 0, 7, and 13 playoff games. To me that is a model of consistency so predicting Belfour might miss a significant portion of the season seems a bit pessimistic. Now, I do realize that he did have back surgery after the 2004 playoffs but that was 15 months ago, has been cleared to play for almost a year, has shown no ill-effects so far, and by all reports is in excellent condition.
The core of the Leaf defence is the same as 2003-04 led by McCabe, Kaberle, Klee and Berg. Added is Alexander Khavanov who should prove to be a good #4/5 defenseman as well as another guy who can play the point on the PP. The sixth defenseman duties will be spread around between the best of Wozniewski, Kronvall, Colaiacovo, Wade Belak, Brad Brown and Karel Pilar if he can ever overcome his health issues. I know you are going to ask, what about Leetch? Well, Leetch only played a handful of regular season games with the Leafs and so was only a limited factor in the Leafs very successful 103 point season. They were a very good team before he arrived.
So, when all is taken into account, predicting the Leafs will get 95 points in the upcoming regular season is not that crazy and if Allison can produce anywhere near the level he did prior to his injuries, reaching 100 points is certainly not out of the question.