Commentary, opinion and news on the world of hockey.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Disecting the Northeast Division

I've got some friends who share a curious fondness for a certain Eastern team. They cheer for the Leafs, which in itself isn't unforgivable, but it's teetering on the edge. It's not that I mind the Maple Leafs - quite the contrary, it's just that the initiation into Leaf fandom (it is a word, dammit) seems to require ingesting long-term psychosis inducing drugs that de-evolve their brains to a level only slightly above that of a caveman. On second thought, even a caveman wouldn't predict a cup win for the Leafs this year.

Hallucinations amongst the Leaf fans I know are not only common, they're encouraged. Take for example some of the comments that I have been forced to endure over the last several weeks:

"If Allison and Lindros don't get injured the Leafs might be the best team in the league. "

"Talent wise Lindros may be the best player to ever put on the Maple Leaf. "

"The Leaf's depth is unreal with those signings (offseason Lindros, Allison, O'Neil). I don't see how they cannot make the cup final. Who's going to beat them?"

"With Belfour in net, and an all-star lineup the rest of the way, I feel that this is their year. At the very least they'll beat up on the Sens again..."
I will only provide a small sampling, because honestly, as I type these comments out, I cannot help but be struck with fits of laughter. Sometimes my pals make me forget that they are college graduates.

In all fairness, hockey fans are passionate, and Leaf fans are just as intense as any around. There's a sense of homerism (yes, that too is a word --- dammit) in most of the fans I know. And because I don't see a Cup Parade being planned for the centre of the unvierse, my friends have challenged me to disect the great Maple Leaf team, and predict their finish in the Northeast Division.

I will predict their finish, but they won't be happy with me. I see the Northeast shaping up like this:

1 & 2. Ottawa/Boston - I haven't decided in which order as of yet.
3. Toronto
4. Montreal
5. Buffalo

I'll explain my reasoning about the other teams in a later post, as well as the other divisions in the NHL over the next week or two. But as far as the Maple Leafs go, here's the Red Line take:

The Forwards:

Signing Jeff O'Neill was a no brainer, and what a great price. What he showed during the last season in Carolina is not indicative of what he brings to the table. At 29 years of age, he's hardly washed up and I expect him to rebound nicely and find the back of the net at least 30 times this year.

Jason Allison, while a minor gamble because of his strange injury situation (can anyone actually explain what it is he had?), is still a bargain at the base salary of $1.5 million. This guy is a supremely talented offensive guy. He's easily close to a point-per-game player when healthy. Heck, even last season he put up more than a ppg pace when his health was in question. If he can remain healthy, he will put up some solid numbers.

Now we come to Eric Lindros, my least favorite of the new forwards. I've had to endure countless bouts of "Lindros could score 50 goals and win the scoring title" or "Lindros is a better signing than Forsberg". First off, there's no doubting the raw talent he has. But get real, this guy's one stiff shoulder check away from steady speech therapy. While still able to post decent numbers, he's nothing more than a big perimeter player now, and while he may contribute in some situations when he's in the line-up, how often will that be?

However, it's not the centres that fail to impress me. The depth at wing is actually rather striking. I keep hearing that Darcy Tucker or Nik Antropov will slide into the top line along side Sundin and O'Neill. Not exactly prime time on that left side.

Let's look at the other forwards aside from the signed free agents - Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Tie Domi, Chad Kilger, Clarke Wilm, possibly Alexander Steen, and Wade Belak. They don't really blow me away, to be honest. Assuming that Allison, Sundin and Lindros will not be on the same forward line together, who's going to score (other than O'Neill)? The centres will have to log mega-minutesto make up for the lack of depth on the wing. Someone will have to have a breakout season, in my opinion.

The defense

The defensive line-up as I type this looks something like this:

McCabe, Klee, Kaberle, Khavanov, Berg, Pilar/Colaiacovo.

I admit, taking a gander around the league, the Leaf's defense is not half bad, especially considering that Eddie Belfour, as ancient as he is, will continue to be an upper-end goaltender. McCabe was nominated for the Norris last year, Kaberle is steady, and Klee is underrated. The defense and goaltending are not the problem on this team.

The conclusion

So what does all this mean? Well, I think that my Leaf pals who have Stanley Cup on their minds will have to settle for the nocturnal emissions brought on by the routine dreams of a Leaf Cup celebration. The forward group does just not have enough depth to be considered a serious contender this year. They will be competitive, and they likely will make the playoffs. But aside from that, unless some moves are made, it could be a longer year than most expect.

I predict the Maple Leafs to finish 3rd in the division, behind Boston and Ottawa.

36 Comments:

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  • At 1:31 AM, Blogger CMcMurtry said…

    I think the Leafs will probably finish fourth in the division, but still get one of the last playoff spots.

    That defence is just too poor past the first two for me to put them among the East's top tier teams. Khavanov might shock me and do well, but I can't see him being able to do what JFJ and Leafs Nation seems to think is his destiny. I'd take him as my #6 but in the top two pairs? Seems like it might be a headache.

    Plus, Belfour's back has to be a question mark. I know he had surgery on it, but at 40, I'm not sure he can heal the same way a 25 year old can. Not as if they have a decent backup either. Tellqvist is a joke, and Aubin's not much better.

    Of course, my team has a 40-year-old who's played less than 20 games in almost 40 months, so I probably should keep my mouth shut.

     
  • At 1:20 PM, Anonymous pete said…

    I think your analysis is pretty bang on, Brett.

    For once, defence is not going to be this team's Achilles heel. A top 4 of Kaberle, McCabe, Klee and Khavanov is above-average by any stretch of the imagination, I say. Not the best in the league, but certainly among the 5-10 best.

    I like the big three signings my leafs made, but you're right - besides that the cupboard is bare. I think there's no way Quinn won't convert one of his centres to the wing (my vote is Allison) but he seems fairly determined not to. If it was me, I'd have Tucker, O'Neill and Sundin on the top line, and try Stajan, Lindros and Allison after that. Fill out the last two lines with whichever combinations work, and play the hot hands. And yes, obviously, if injuries destory the team, we're screwed, but JFJ did the best he could this year, I think.

    All in all? The absolute worst I see the Leafs doing is getting 80 points, putting them about 10th in the conference. The absolute best? Maybe 95 points, and a low seed playoff team. After that, who knows what could happen. Was anybody calling a Tampa vs. Calgary final in 2004?

     
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