Today the Leafs placed Mark Bell on waivers and also announced that rookie defenseman Luke Schenn will start the season with the Leafs and will be reevaluated around the end of October to determine whether they want to keep him around for the full season or send him back to Junior. The decision is likely to be a tough one made tougher by the fact that the Leafs are deep on defense.
Mark Bell came to the Leafs as a part of the Vesa Toskala trade and did relatively little in his time with the Leafs last season and seemingly managed to do even less this preseason. With the additions of Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg, Mark Bell and his $2 million salary just aren’t necessary.
Predicting what the Leafs will do and where in the standings they will end up is exceptionally difficult because it is highly likely that several of the players currently on the team won’t finish the season with the Leafs and with all the new players and a new coach you just don’t know how the players will mesh together. Generally forecasters believe the Leafs will be more sound defensively this season with Ron Wilson as coach but will struggle mightily to score goals without very much top end talent among the group of forwards. The forecasters may be right in the Leafs not having much top end talent but that doesn’t mean they will automatically be among the worst offensive teams in the league. Nor does not scoring necessarily mean they will be a bad team.
The Leafs were 11th in scoring last season with their top 10 point producers being Sundin, Antropov, Kaberle, Blake, Steen, Kubina, Ponikarovsky, Tucker, Stajan and McCabe. Of those 10 players, 7 are retuning this season. Sundin, Tucker and McCabe are not. Tucker’s 18 goals and 34 points will be more than made up by Niklas Hagman who had 27 goals and 41 points last year and has looked very good in the pre-season. McCabe only played 54 games last year and generally didn’t play that well compared to previous seasons scoring only 5 goals and 23 points. There is no reason not to believe that Jeff Finger (8 goals, 19 points) and/or a healthy Colaiacovo can make up much of that difference.
The big loss is Mats Sundin so unless Grabovsky can really exceed expectations you can assume that the Leafs offensive performance will drop. If the Leafs score 10% fewer goals this year they will end up with 205 goals, equal to that of the NY Rangers last year and ahead of the Devils and Ducks, all three of whom were playoff teams.
Speaking of Grabovsky, I think Leaf fans should be cautiously optimistic knowing that he scored 5 goals in the preseason and looked better and better every game out. He and Hagman looked to be developing some good chemistry as training camp went on. I am also encouraged by how well Jason Blake performed on a line with Antropov and Ponikarovsky and believe that he might improve on his 15 goals of a season ago and get back to the 25 goal guy he has been much of his career.
In short, I am cautiously optimistic that the Leafs offense, while unspectacular, will be decent enough. What Leaf fans need to watch for is their goaltending and defense. Most hockey analysts seem to believe that Vesa Toskala is a top tier goalie and that goaltending will be the least of the Leafs problems. I am not so sure. While Toskala looked good last year his numbers were still fairly unspectacular. His .904 save percentage was only good for 32nd in the league just behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Peter Budaj. Neither of those two goalies are anything to get excited about either. Beyond Toskala we have Curtis Joseph who was just OK in 9 games, just 5 starts, with Calgary last year after being pretty awful in Phoenix the year before. In his pre-season appearances he showed nothing to indicate that he has anything left in his tank or that he will be all that much better than the downright horrible Andrew Raycroft (.876 save percentage) last year.
On defense I am more optimistic that the Leafs will be an improved team not only because I think Ron Wilson is a better coach than Paul Maurice and will get the Leafs to play a smarter team game and defensive style, but because I think the Leafs will have a better mix of offensive and defensive minded defensemen. Added to the Leafs defense crew are defense first players such as Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren as well as Luke Schenn should he stick around for the season. Van Ryn isn’t too bad defensively either. All these factors, plus guys like Hagman and Mayers, should mean the Leafs should have a much improved penalty kill which was dead last in the NHL last year.
All things considered, there are definitely some positives for Leafs fans this upcoming season and I think the Leafs could surprise many of the doom and gloom forecasters. The keys to watch for are whether Toskala can pick up his game a bit more, whether forwards like Grabovsky, Steen and others can provide consistent offense, and most importantly, do the Leafs buy into Wilson’s defensive game and does that in turn improve their penalty kill measurably.
The other person to watch this season is Cliff Fletcher as I believe that several of the current Leafs will not be on this team come next summer. Likely candidates for trade are Mike Van Ryn, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Vesa Toskala, Ian White, and possibly Tomas Kaberle if the deal is right and Kaberle waives his no trade clause. If and when those trades are made will have a dramatic effect on where the Leafs might end up in the standings.