TORONTO (Oct. 6) – Prior to watching the Maple Leafs during their nine-game exhibition schedule, I had been slightly wavering about where they could fit among the NHL’s bottom- feeders this season. But, there is no longer any question.
Hold onto your hats, Leafs Nation. For the first time in 24 years, the Blue & White will be looking up at the rest of the league when the regular season ends on Apr. 12th. Not since 1984-85 have the Leafs finished dead-last in the NHL, but the plan by management this summer to scale back in the interests of ultimately moving forward will bear spectacular results.
And, nothing could be more beneficial for the long-term welfare of the franchise.
The Leafs will place 30th among 30 teams and the only question to be answered is whether they will break the post-lockout record for fewest points in a season. The Philadelphia Flyers hold that distinction with a 56-point showing in 2006-07. In fact, that remains the fewest number of points accrued by any team since Atlanta had 54 in 2001-02. Coincidentally or not, the Leafs 2-5-2 exhibition mark this autumn places the club on a collision course with Philadelphia’s dubious honor of two years ago. Multiplying the Leafs’ preseason effort over 82 games results in a record of 18-45-19 for 55 points. That is a colossal 16 points less than the worst team in the NHL last season. Tampa Bay brought up the rear with 71 points and won the draft lottery.
Could the 2008-09 Maple Leaf bottom out to that degree? Absolutely.
Will they bottom out to that degree? Maybe not.
Goaltending and an improved defensive posture under new coach Ron Wilson might enable the Leafs to approach Tampa’s accumulation of a year ago. But, after further consideration, I’m not certain that 70 points is attainable [as I suggested in my previous blog]. Toronto should, however, partake in a ferocious, season-long battle with the Islanders, Atlanta and Los Angeles to see which team actually finishes in 30th spot. As such, the immediate future of the franchise will be largely dependent on nine games this season – four with the Islanders [Dec. 8th, Dec. 26th, Feb. 26th, Mar. 10th]; four with Atlanta [Nov. 25th, Dec. 22nd, Dec. 30th, Jan. 16th], and the lone meeting with the Kings, Dec. 1st, at the Staples Center. If the Leafs can limit their accumulation to no more than seven or eight out of 18 points during these games [a very real possibility], either John Tavares or Victor Hedman will almost certainly be theirs next June 26th in Montreal. And, the club will finally be heading in the proper direction.
This has been the plan ever since Cliff Fletcher assumed the managerial reigns from John Ferguson last January. It has become increasingly difficult to dissuade followers of the Maple Leafs through the years, as a crack over the head with a mallet wouldn’t be sufficient to cloud the rose-colored glasses indigenous to this tribe. In modern professional sport, only fans of the Chicago Cubs are comparable among those willing to absorb infinite punishment. As with the Cubs, force of habit and gullibility have been the Maple Leafs’ greatest allies.
But, Fletcher, ever the diplomat and keenly aware of the unshakeable love for his team, has refrained from offering to the public his most portentous thoughts – choosing, instead, to say things like “We hope to be better in December than we are today, and better in February than we are in December.”
Fletcher’s actions of the past nine months, however, speak louder than his conciliatory words. He finds himself in the most envious position of any GM in the history of the club. His lucrative contract, at post-retirement age 73, expires next August, prior to the 2009-10 NHL season, and he therefore has almost no burden to engender an improved product on his watch. It is the complete antithesis of the crushing strain felt on a minute-to-minute basis by Ferguson, whose inexperience and obligation to a meddling board produced a bevy of ruinous decisions. Fletcher, conversely, has the abetment required to put into action a formula consistent with the post-lockout model in the NHL. And, it has long been evident that the up-coming season is not at all beholden to that blueprint.
Without the presence of Mats Sundin to make a dreadful club just terrible, the Leafs will finally slide, unconstrained, to the depths of the 30-team league. For at least one year, it seems as if the ownership pyramid at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is willing not to encumber its hockey department with guidance and brainpower – the sort that has positioned the club, in recent years, to scramble for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Condominium sales being what they are, MLSE hasn’t even budgeted for playoff dates next spring at the Air Canada Centre. Given the Leafs’ immediate potential, of course, that’s the rough equivalent of department stores in the Bahamas refusing to budget for parkas.
This is going to be – by design – a long, difficult season for the Maple Leafs; more so for their legion of supporters, who won’t have much to cheer about unless they keep one eye focused on the future. The process followed by the club in recent years couldn’t have been more damaging. The Leafs had neither the capacity to qualify for the playoffs, nor the foresight to understand that wallowing on the fringe of contention was the worst possible strategy. As such, we get the actions of this past summer, when the GM runs off almost all of the club’s best [yet overpaid, underachieving] players, and replaces them with younger, bargain-priced commodities, mostly devoid of pedigree.
What it amounts to is a club that will score among the least number of goals in the NHL, and will easily threaten Philadelphia’s post-lockout standard of fewest points in a season if Vesa Toskala spends any length of time on the injury list. Off the ice, the Leafs’ biggest challenge will be tolerating another brutal season in one of the NHL’s most intense markets. And, undoubtedly, dealing with mixed signals from a disillusioned public. I’m still amazed by the number of Leaf fans that write and tell me they’ll be pleased if the club “overachieves” this season and contends for a playoff spot; as if the folly of the past three seasons hasn’t even registered.
The only way up for the hockey club right now is down.
That’s why you can be sure that less is more for the Maple Leafs in 2008-09.
It will be the polar opposite for the Leafs’ legendary rival, the Montreal Canadiens. Though it’s difficult to pick against the loaded Red Wings, my sense is Detroit will lose just a slight edge in the playoff marathon next spring, being the defending champion. That’s all it will take for the Habs – led by Bob Gainey, the best GM in the Eastern Conference – to commemorate their 100th season in the NHL with their first Stanley Cup triumph since 1993.
So, having the benefit of exhibition play now behind us, and with injuries factored in, this is undoubtedly, unequivocally and with scientific certainty the way the standings will shape up in the coming season:
1. MONTREAL 107 points
2. WASHINGTON 102 points
3. NEW YORK RANGERS 100 points
4. PITTSBURGH 98 points
5. PHILADELPHIA 97 points
6. BOSTON 94 points
7. NEW JERSEY 92 points
8. OTTAWA 90 points
9. TAMPA BAY 89 points
10. CAROLINA 88 points
11. BUFFALO 87 points
12. FLORIDA 84 points
13. ATLANTA 76 points
14 NEW YORK ISLANDERS 71 points
15. TORONTO 67 points
NOTES: Defenseman Sergei Gonchar is an incalculable loss for the Penguins, as he orchestrates so much of the attack from the defensive zone, and quarterbacks the powerplay. His absence will enable the New York Rangers to grab their first division title since 1993-94, the year they last won the Stanley Cup… The Penguins won’t make it past the opening round of the playoffs, as Philadelphia will avenge last year’s defeat in the Conference final… The Rangers, with the brilliant Henrik Lundqvist in goal, will knock off the Bruins and Capitals before being edged by Montreal for a berth in the Stanley Cup… On the final Saturday of the regular season, Tampa Bay will suffer a dreadful loss in Atlanta, while Ottawa will hand the Maple Leafs yet another defeat. That will give the Senators the final playoff berth over the resurgent Lightning.
1. DETROIT 111 points
2. SAN JOSE 107 points
3. CALGARY 100 points
4. ANAHEIM 103 points
5. DALLAS 99 points
6. CHICAGO 96 points
7. MINNESOTA 93 points
8. EDMONTON 91 points
9. PHOENIX 90 points
10. VANCOUVER 88 points
11. COLORADO 87 points
12. NASHVILLE 83 points
13. ST. LOUIS 81 points
14. COLUMBUS 78 points
15. LOS ANGELES 70 points
NOTES: With Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back in the fold from the outset, the Ducks will give Toronto-bound Brian Burke a wonderful parting gift by reaching the Conference championship and taking Detroit to the brink. Ultimately, the Red Wings will survive to re-appear in the Stanley Cup final against Montreal – the first such match-up since 1966… Hearts will be broken in Phoenix on the final Saturday of the regular season when the Oilers knock off Calgary and the Coyotes lose to Anaheim. That combination will give Edmonton the final playoff spot in the West by a single point over Wayne Gretzky’s crew. But, the Coyotes won’t miss the post-season in any of the next three years… San Jose will again underachieve in the spring – struggling to shade Minnesota in the first round before losing to Anaheim… The Blackhawks will continue their rise and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Then they’ll surprise Calgary in the opening round before losing a pre-expansion match-up with Detroit… Nashville will finally tumble out of playoff contention.
MONTREAL vs. Ottawa [Canadiens in 5]
WASHINGTON vs. New Jersey [Capitals in 6]
NEW YORK RANGERS vs. Boston [Rangers in 6]
PITTSBURGH vs. Philadelphia [Flyers in 7]
MONTREAL vs. Philadelphia [Canadiens in 6]
WASHINGTON vs. New York Rangers [Rangers in 7]
MONTREAL vs. New York Rangers [Canadiens in 6]
DETROIT vs. Edmonton [Red Wings in 6]
SAN JOSE vs. Minnesota [Sharks in 7]
CALGARY vs. Chicago [Blackhawks in 7]
ANAHEIM vs. Dallas [Ducks in 6]
DETROIT vs. Chicago [Red Wings in 6]
SAN JOSE vs. Anaheim [Ducks in 6]
DETROIT vs. Anaheim [Red Wings in 7]
STANLEY CUP FINAL
DETROIT vs. Montreal [Canadiens in 6]
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