January 10, 2007

Why the Leafs won’t make the playoffs

by Dan Bilicki In: Ice Hockey

This post was originally written on August 23, 2006
So there’s a good possibility I’ll be right.

In a league where parity is becoming more apparent, it is absolutely necessary for franchises to rebuild once their potential has been reached. The Toronto Maple Leafs think that their aging team core haven’t made it to their apex; the fact is the Leafs hit their collective heads on the ceiling before the strike even occurred. It’s this reason why their fan base will suffer their second consecutive season absent from playoff hockey.

Arguably the biggest story in Leaf Nation this off-season was the state of their coaching and management. The media demanded a head on the chopping block and it would either be Pat Quinn or John Ferguson Jr. They nailed this situation by retaining Ferguson and dispatching Quinn. If they had fired Ferguson, it would have been an admission by ownership that they had made the wrong choice by hiring him the year before. It was impossible for him to work within Quinn’s system which didn’t allow for a lot of growth for younger players.

The real mistake that was made in this decision was the firing of long-time Quinn assistant Rick Lee. According to sources close to the game, Lee sees and can manage a game the same way that Quinn does. If they had kept him around to compliment incoming head coach Paul Maurice, they could still, basically, have Quinn’s expertise behind the bench.

Speaking of Maurice, his is the right choice to take the reins of the team after serving a year coaching the Marlies. Maurice is the right man with the right system to develop the young players the Leafs have right now. He also has shown in his career that he can coach teams far into the playoffs, evidenced by leading the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002.

The Leafs have also been watching the teams in their division get stronger around them. Ottawa and Buffalo were already leaps and bounds ahead of the Leafs and figure to stay that way this upcoming season. Boston grabbed a premier defender by signing Zdeno Chara and drafted American wonderkid Phil Kessel (who has finally signed with the team). The post-Thornton Bruins won’t contend any time soon, but at least they’re showing signs of improvement.

Lastly, the Maple Leaf’s arch-rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, kept together their already strong team, chocked full of young guns with nowhere to go but up.

The Leafs off-season moves have been questionable relating to their forward progression as a team.

The deal to obtain Andrew Raycroft is especially short-sighted. In dealing Tuukka Rask, the top goaltender of the previous World Junior Championship, the Leafs are showing that they want to take a run now instead of rebuild. Raycroft and his 3.71 goals against average (before losing his starting job and being injured for the remainder of the season) clearly isn’t suited for the new NHL. His performance last season showed that he was more likely a product of the old, big goalie pads NHL, than of the new, skill-based NHL.

To improve their defense core that showed it was lacking, management signed some name defensemen to throw in front of Raycroft. The problem is that names are just names.

Pavel Kubina, member of the 2004 Stanley Cup winning Tampa Bay Lightning, showed his prowess by sporting a -12 for a playoff caliber team. Fellow signee Hal Gill rocked a -4 and a grand total of 10 points. Last but not least, Ferguson made the decision to resign unrestricted free agent Bryan McCabe to a five year $28.5 million deal. This can only be described as overpaying to keep a fan favourite. The fact is that McCabe is a defensive liability but fans can’t get over his contract year point total.

Up front, the Leafs signed “defensive specialist” and future deadline bargaining chip Michael Peca. Nobody at head office seemed to recognize that Peca isn’t the player he used to be, notching 23 points and posting a -4 while on the cup finalist Edmonton Oilers. Also, if you think the drama between he and Tucker is done, wait until the first sign of anything resembling negativity between the two for the media to blow it out of proportion. The only positive that Peca could bring to the table is as the role of mentor to penalty kill dynamo, Matt Stajan (who has reportedly put on some pounds in his time off).

Add it all up and you can expect a season on par with the last, if not worse. Even those who look at the bright side could predict a seventh of eighth place finish at best. In that unlikelihood, the Leafs don’t even have a semblance of the “built-for-the-playoffs” teams the once had.

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