NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Twelfth in Mats Sundin's Eastern Conference (36-35-11, 83 points). A post-trade deadline burst pushed the Toronto Maple Leafs perilously close to playoff contention after a lackluster season, but the Leafs fell short despite the Herculean efforts of players like Mats Sundin.
Paul Maurice, who coached Mats Sundin for two years, was replaced by Ron Wilson, who has never coached Mats Sundin. While the hockey world waited to see if Brian Burke would realize his destiny as Toronto's latest savior, GM Cliff Fletcher was able to dump some veteran salaries, add a few new ones and attempt to show the kind of leadership that would make someone like Mats Sundin proud.
So, in summary, Mats Sundin, Mats Sundin, Mats Sundin and Mats Sundin. Oh, and much of the Leafs' offseason was overshadowed by the indecision and constant teasing of some bald guy in Sweden. Mats somethin'-or-other.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Have we mentioned Mats Sundin? Yeah, it looks like he's not going to be in Toronto, at least at the start of the season. So the honors here go to Tomas Kaberle, the defenseman entering his 10th NHL season.
Kaberle was one of the names tossed around with reckless abandon at the trade deadline, as those anticipating a Leafs fire sale salivated at the thought of a top-pairing defenseman hitting the market. But Kaberle wasn't waiving his no-trade clause, and returns as Toronto's top defenseman and likely captain.
The more Kaberle plays, the better his numbers are. Wilson has been known to be a coach that allows his better offensive defensemen to join the fray, so expect a solid contribution from Kaberle on that end this season.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Let's hope for his sake that Jason Blake has a rebound season, statistically and off the ice. His 15 goals were his lowest total since 2002. Distractions from his illness and overall depression derailed his season; expect Blake to bounce back.
The Leafs seem determined to make forward Mikhail Grabovski a vital part of the offense. The former Montreal Canadiens pick has played up with Nik Antropov, one of the team's only legitimate offensive threats, during the preseason. One expects Grabovski will be better than the rather underwhelming nine points in 24 games he had with the Habs last season.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Bryan McCabe probably still stings from the whipping administered to him by the Toronto media. The defenseman was a symbol of both the excess and the unfulfilled expectations of the team's veteran core. Mike Van Ryn is younger, cheaper and obviously doesn't carry the negative connotation McCabe has shouldered during his waning days in Leafs land.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): The argument could be made that Niklas Hagman has already broken out with a 27-goal last season for the Dallas Stars. But his stats were overshadowed by the bigger fish in that pond; in Toronto, Hagman's in a pool that's been both overfished and is filled with ones you'd toss back in revulsion.
With the team's forward situation completely in flux, Hagman could find himself in any number of line combinations. During the preseason, he's seen time with Alex Steen, an underwhelming but at least competent offensive player. Hagman is here to play an offensive role; line chemistry will determine if he improves upon his 41 points from last season.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Leafs had 25 fights last season, one in which beloved brawler Wade Belak was shipped down to Florida. This summer, super-pest and dependable pugilist Darcy Tucker's contract was bought out. Mark Bell can drop the gloves, and has that added street cred having been part of a California work crew this summer after his DUI charge. He's a hardened criminal; watch out for the shank!
Two newcomers to watch: Toronto native Jamal Mayers, picked up from the St. Louis Blues; and former New York Rangers pest Ryan Hollweg, who is likely thrilled that Chris Simon's stick can't reach all the way from Russia. Solid fighter ... better dancer:
Teacher of the Year: Outside of the 2002-03 season, when he took over the San Jose Sharks with 57 games left on the schedule, Ron Wilson's last seven teams have all been over .500. He has a track record of turning around teams with middling rosters, focusing them into his system and figuring out how to make things work for 82 games. (Those games that come after the regular season have been Wilson's biggest detraction; but the Leafs should really cross that bridge when they come to it. In three or four years.)
Of the coaches available for this gig, Wilson was an obvious yet inspired choice; something that will be even more evident
when if his friend Brian Burke joins him for the rebuilding process.
His relationship with the Toronto media will be something to behold.
The Custodians (Goalies): "I'm just trying to give the team the chance to win every night and not to try and do too much. If you try to do too much, you're screwed pretty much." - Vesa Toskala.
With that mindset, it's no wonder Vesa Toskala had what was a beacon of hope in a sometimes stormy season. In his first season as a legit No. 1 starting goaltender in the NHL, he posted 33 wins and a GAA of 2.74. Any notion of a goalie competition between himself and Andrew Raycroft (now in Colorado) was quickly dispelled.
He enters this season as one of the only predictable parts of the lineup. Veteran Curtis Joseph returned to Toronto as a backup, despite being 10 years the elder of the starter. Justin Pogge is in the AHL, ready should CuJo falter.
But will Toskala falter in his second season as a starter? The defense in front of him has its question marks, and the offensive doesn't inspire much hope for solid support. But if Toskala plays within his abilities, he should be solid; as long as he can handle those shots from the blue line. Or the red line. Or the other blue line. Or the other goal line:
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The top three is rather well-established: Kaberle, Pavel Kubina (40 points last season) and Jeff Finger, the 28-year-old much-maligned newcomer from the Colorado Avalanche.
Jonas Frogren is an import from Sweden, and appears to fill the much-needed role of a physical defensive defenseman. Van Ryn, the oft-injured Carlo Colaiacovo, Anton Stralman and Ian White are all in the mix for the other defensive openings. The wild card throughout the preseason has been No. 1 draft choice Luke Schenn, who as of this writing was still battling for a roster spot this season and impressing the hell out of Wilson.
Kaberle provides a stability and leadership that could make this group better than it is on paper. It's an improved group from last season; but that's a bit like saying that this year's cast of "SNL" is better than the one with Anthony Michael Hall.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Remember how Bryan McCabe was a symbol of the systemic problems for the Leafs, even if he played well on any given night? Jeff Finger has a similar problem. Unless his play completely blows fans away, he's going to be the unknown defenseman who received a $14 million, four-year contract. Which isn't actually a hell of a lot of money as far as a cap hit goes, but speaks to a certain financial recklessness and managerial self-handcuffing that has defined the last several seasons of Leafs hockey.
On the blogs, Howard Berger's Nothing But Leafs is truth in advertising. For non-MSM fun, we read Pension Plan Puppets religiously; Battle of Ontario, Bitter Leaf Fan, He Shoot He Score, Down Goes Brown, and Raking Leafs are also wickedly entertaining.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Overcoming the completely undeniable message from management that the team totally blows.
They're giving away tickets to preseason games. Fletcher is telling the media the team only has one top six forward. And for the first time in at least 10 years, owners MLSE aren't budgeting for any postseason games in 2008-09.
Wow ... so where does the Cup parade begin again?
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: C+
Management: D+ (saved only because some contracts have been shipped or bought out)
Prom Theme: "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Monty Python. The Leafs will somehow be the perfect marriage of stiff-upper-lip optimism and lowbrow comedy. And because there's always a chance that, at some point, they'll be the life of Brian Burke.
Expected Graduation: Nik Antropov, Bates Battaglia, Mark Bell, Jason Blake, Andre Deveaux, Boyd Devereaux, Robert Earl, Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Ryan Hollweg, Jamal Mayers, Dominic Moore, Kris Newbury, Ben Ondrus, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, Jiri Tlusty and Jeremy Williams.
These are the forwards listed on the Leafs' current roster. And this is, to put it bluntly, an expansion-level collection of maybes and have-nots that are wearing the uniform of an Original Six team in one of the league's major media markets.
It's easy to assume those fans who believe the Leafs should (or will) tank their season for the top pick in the next draft are a bit delusional; then you look at this lineup and think, "Well, they're certainly set up for it, aren't they?"
Obviously, this team is tearing it all down before it builds up again. It had to, with those horrible contracts that were handed out over the last few years. This will be a struggle, but it has to happen for the future.
If this moribund collection gets even a sniff of the postseason, then Ron Wilson's coaching genius is confirmed. Because on paper, the offensive attack for Toronto reads like a fantasy team entirely constructed from what's left on the waiver wire.