As a Leaf fan I follow the Leafs quite closely, but as a resident of Ottawa, I also am very familiar with the happenings and goings on with the Senators. From this perspective I have observed many things, the first being that the Senators fans have to be among the more optimistic fans in the NHL. They always have high hopes for their team and always seem to have a positive outlook on the team heading into the season. Last season they started to get a little down on the Senators, but a late season surge after Cory Clouston took over a coach and their optimism made an equally dramatic surge. Leaf fans on the other hand are often pessimistic and are often very critical of their players. Even though there have been dramatic improvements to the Leafs team heading into the 2009-10 season, many fans are still pessimistic about their chances of making the playoffs, or even competing for them. Yeah, I am generalizing here and there are definitely exceptions to both those generalizations of Senators and Leafs fans but that is my basic observations. But where Sens fans and Leaf fans do not differ is their excitement level and probably excessive exuberance over the prospects that each franchise has in their organization.
For the Senators, this training camp has all been about how center Peter Regin and defenseman Erik Karlsson have impressed in camp and made a strong case for making the team and the play of journeyman AHLer forward turned defenseman Matt Carkner has also been impressive in camp and may have earned a spot on the regular season roster. For the Leafs young forwards Kadri, Bozak, Hanson and Stahlberg have impressed at camp and everyone also expected that Jonas Gustavsson was a lock to back up starter Vesa Toskala if not challenge for the starters role.
For the Senators this has put General Manager Bryan Murray in the position of having to seek a trade to see if he can open up room for Regin, Karlsson and Carkner. The problem is, he can’t seem to find any takers for what he is offering. Specifically, winger/defenseman Christoph Schubert, defenseman Alexandre Picard, forwards Chris Kelly and Jarko Ruutu. There really is no surprise here. Chris Kelly makes over $2 million as a third/fourth line player that has seemingly forgot how to play with a bit of an edge, and Ruutu earns $1.3 million as an fourth line player, and Schubert and Picard may have been edged out on defense by Carkner, a 28 year old journeyman AHLer with 2 NHL games under his belt and who played more games as a winger than a defenseman last season for the Binghamton Senators. If Schubert and Picard can’t make the Senators roster over Carkner, is there really much chance that anyone else will want them? Bryan Murray will have some decisions to make when finalizing his 21-22 man roster but it seems unlikely he’ll get any help from anyone else via a trade.
For the record, I used to really like Chris Kelly. He used to play with speed, intensity and a dash of feistiness despite his small stature. But the last season or two he has lost his edge and while he’ll score you a dozen goals or two and can kill penalties, he isn’t worth anywhere close to $2 million if he isn’t playing with intensity and an edge to his game.
For the Leafs, their young prospects have played exceptionally well too. Kadri has shown some good offensive flair, Stahlberg has shown exceptional speed, Bozak has shown good hockey sense and all round play and Hanson has been effective as well. Problem is, unlike the Senators, the Leafs just don’t have many roster spots open. If there are 13 roster spots open for forwards Blake, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Grabovski, Stempniak, Hagman, Mitchell, Primeau, and Orr are a lock for 9 of them. Coach Ron Wilson has stated that Rickard Wallin has probably done enough to earn a spot and although he has been unspectacular this preseason I expect Kulemin to keep a spot as well. So that leaves maybe 2 spots left, one which will be given to Kessel when he returns in November and other more experienced options for the final position are Jamal Mayers and Jiri Tlusty.
In essence there really wasn’t and forward spots available on the Leafs heading into camp and barring a veteran just not playing well or a rookie absolutely playing lights out it would be tough for one of the youngsters to make the team out of camp. Adding to the young players challenge is it seems both Burke and Wilson are intent on playing players where they project them to be playing in the future. By that I mean, if they envision Kadri to be a top six player, he will only make the roster if he earns a top six roster spot. Being better than Jamal Mayers isn’t good enough. Same for Bozak, Stahlberg and Hanson. Because of this, barring injuries or a trade Leaf fans should be prepared for the possibility that none of these young forwards breaks camp with the Leafs.
As for Gustavsson, he is unlikely to break camp with the team as well. Ron Wilson has stated that he isn’t yet ready to play a full game and will only play one period or half a game tonight and then maybe another period or two tomorrow night. Are the Leafs going to take Gustavsson who hasn’t yet played a full game over MacDonald, who has played very well? Probably not. More likely Gustavsson gets sent to the Marlies for a week or two to get into game shape. Are Leaf fans prepared to watch a Leaf team starting the season without Kadri, Bozak, Strahberg, Hanson and Gustavsson? I don’t know, but they should get prepared. It could happen.