With the signing of Peca as well as youngsters Wellwood, Bell, Colaiacovo, and Jay Harrison over the past couple of days it seems most of the Leafs off season moves are now complete. There may be some tweaking here and there but for the most part I think what you see is what you get. So, where does that put the Leafs? In the playoffs I think.
Last season the Leafs had two significant problems. They gave up too many goals (10th worst in the NHL) and though they finished 9th overall in goals scored, they struggled to score goals at even strength. This summer they clearly focused on the first of those problems but I think that despite not adding a big name goal scorer they may have helped the second problem as well.
Last year Ed Belfour and Mikael Tellqvist struggled for consistancy and that was a huge part of the Leafs demise. When Aubin came in and played quality goaltending towards the end of last season the Leafs were nearly unbeatable – Aubin had a 9-0-2 record.
The first significant move was made to shore up the goaltending by adding former rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft. Last season Andrew Raycroft had a horrible season but he was downright awesome in his rookie season. Which Raycroft shows up will go a long way to determining how much success the Leafs have this season but I am optimistic. I think with the year off a lot of players struggled to get back in the groove and for Raycroft that was compounded by injury problems. A tandem of Raycroft and Aubin could be a huge boost for the Leafs.
The next moves the Leafs made was to shore up the defense. Gone are Klee, Berg, Khavanov and others and in are Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. Kubina plays a solid all-round game and would be a #2 defenseman (or better) on most other teams and Hal Gill is a solid defensive defenseman. Rounding out the top six will likely be Carlo Colaiacovo who is ready for a break out season and Ian White who played great last summer. Other options include Jay Harrison, Brendan Bell, Staffan Kronwall and Andy Wozniewski.
The problem last year on defense is that while Berg, Khavanov, Klee, etc. are serviceable defensemen they are not 20 minitutes per game type of defensemen and that required McCabe and Kaberle to get over worked. Kubina and Gill are 20 minute per game defensemen (or more in Kubina’s case) and that should help out both McCabe and Kaberle as they can play 25 minutes per game instead of 28-30. With Kubina and White both being more than capable of anchoring the PP and Kubina and Gill both being more than capable of killing penalties the McCabe-Kaberle duo can spend less time doing that (both played >40% of their time either on PP or on PK) and more time playing even strength hockey. This should be a boost to the Leafs even strength offense. Kubina, Colaiacovo and White should also all produce more offense from the defense than last years crew.
Up front the only significant addition was Mike Peca while the Leafs lost Lindros and likely won’t re-sign Jason Allison. Between them they only played 99 games so really it is more like they lost just one player and a bit. But between them they lost a fair amount of offense, particularly on the PP where Allison was extremely valuable. It will be up to young Kyle Wellwood to jump into the role of second line center, improve on his good rookie season and mitigate many of the losses of Allison and Lindros. Peca meanwhile will have the role of shutting down the oppositions top player as well as being a top penalty kill guy and this is something the Leafs never really had last year. Kilger, Wilm and others do a good job at that but Peca should be that much better.
So, as it stands now, this is the likely lineup for this upcoming season.
Darcy Tucker-Mats Sundin-Alex Steen
Alexei Ponikarovsky-Kyle Wellwood-Jeff O’Neill
Chad Kilger-Mike Peca-Nik Antropov
Stajan still needs to be signed and Ondrus and Pohl will compete with Erik Westrum, Jeremy Williams, Aleksander Suglobov and Bates Battaglia for the fourth line roles. Belak will likely play the versatile role of rugged winger and 7th defenseman as required.
The two keys to success in my mind are:
1. Can Raycroft and/or Aubin provide top tier and more importantly consistant goaltending.
2. Can Wellwood step up his game into a true second line center in order to offset some of the offense lost in Allison and Lindros. A 65-70 point season would be nice.
If those two things happen and the rest of the team remains relatively injury free I think this is easily a playoff team and one that could possibly do something in the playoffs.
(Note: It would not surprise me if JFJ is looking to move some of those young defensemen for another young scoring forward. A package of one or two of those defenseman with Stajan and/or Antropov might net a nice young skilled forward in return.)