Toronto Maple Leafs season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:30 PM ET
ESPN.com

Toronto Maple Leafs

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

When the Maple Leafs failed to reach the playoffs last season, it marked the first time since 1998 the blue and white weren't part of the postseason. Coach Pat Quinn had overseen six straight trips to the playoffs, but was made the scapegoat by GM John Ferguson. The move set in motion a series of dramatic changes to the team, including the buying out of popular tough guy Tie Domi, the departures of Ed Belfour, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros and the paying off of Owen Nolan, who resurfaced this season in Phoenix. In their place, Ferguson has brought in former Carolina coach Paul Maurice to man the bench, shored up a perennially porous defense by locking up Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe to long-term deals and added Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina. There remain question marks in goal, where Andrew Raycroft will have to regain his rookie of the year form, and up front, where there's Mats Sundin and not much else in terms of proven point production. The playoffs will once again remain a stretch and missing the playoffs for a second straight year likely will mean the end for Ferguson.

Offense: Toronto finished 27th in the league in 5-on-5 scoring, but they were ninth overall in total goals scored. That tells you the Leafs had a very good power play (they were second overall in power-play efficiency and led the league with 107 goals on the man advantage), but that they lacked offensive depth. The power play shouldn't suffer any noticeable drop-off under Maurice. As for depth, that's going to be a bit of a-wing-and-a-prayer kind of thing. If Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood continue their development, they'll give the Leafs some oomph, and Maurice will take more care in their development than was the case under Quinn. Darcy Tucker is an interesting character study because he's got above-average skills, which are sometimes overshadowed by his histrionics. Michael Peca will be helpful, but more likely so if (when?) the Leafs make the playoffs. Erik Westrum was second in the AHL in scoring last season with 98 points and will make a case for a roster spot during training camp.

Defense: Toronto ranked 21st in goals-against last season and that wasn't nearly good enough to make the playoffs. It won't be again this year. But the Leafs should move up eight or nine places in the rankings if the hulking Kubina and Gill do what they're paid to do, which is log serious minutes and not make egregious errors that have plagued the team over the past half-dozen seasons. Now, Kubina and Gill, who combine for almost 13 feet of defenseman, won't set any speed records, but they are both smart and should clear lots of room in front of Raycroft. McCabe and Kaberle are both star-quality defenders who averaged 28 minutes or so of ice time, although McCabe's play tailed off late in the season in part because he was logging so much time. The Leafs also boast a handful of good, young defensive prospects, including Brendan Bell, Ian White and the injury-plagued Carlo Colaiacovo, at least one of which will earn a shot with the big club.

Goaltending: So, which Andrew Raycroft shows up this season? The one that earned rookie of the year honors in 2003-04 with a 29-18-9 record and 2.05 GAA, or the shell of that player who stumbled to a 3.71 GAA and .879 save percentage in losing his No. 1 job in Boston? The answer to that question will say much about Raycroft's career arc and the Leafs' playoff aspirations. The Leafs dealt netminding prospect Tuukka Rask to get Raycroft and don't have a proven backup. If Raycroft falters and the Leafs fall out of contention, look for former junior star Justin Pogge to get a taste of NHL life in the Toronto fishbowl.

Coaching: Paul Maurice never got a chance to play the kind of up-tempo hockey he favors while coaching in Hartford/Carolina during his first NHL coaching gig. Now, the league is a completely different place than when he left it. It will be interesting to see if he can make the transition smoothly and quickly. After coaching the Leafs' AHL team last year, he should be ready. A thoughtful, well-spoken man, Maurice migjht be the perfect fit for the pressure cooker that is Toronto.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
9th Even with Raycroft on track, the Leafs will have too much ground to make up on the teams ahead of them. Fourth in the Northeast and ninth in the conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Even
Stock even (but always sky-high). Buzz? When is there not buzz surrounding the Maple Leafs in Toronto? Imagine if they ever get good.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Defenseman Bryan McCabe is a perfect example of a fantasy standout who is less valuable to his team. While his pace slipped in the second half, McCabe is still one of the most balanced statistical performers around. Mats Sundin remains a top-25 talent, but he's surrounded by a lot of youth. Alexander Steen and Alexei Ponikarovsky look like potential breakouts. Don't overlook goalie Andrew Raycroft; you could do worse than take a No. 3 goalie only two years removed from a Calder Trophy campaign. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Maple Leafs:
1. Carlo Colaiacovo, 23, D, Toronto (AHL)
Statline: 14 GP, 5 G, 6 A, 14 PIM
2. Justin Pogge, 20, G, Calgary (WHL)
Statline: 38-10-6 record, 1.72 GAA, .926 SV%
3. Alexander Suglobov, 24, C, Toronto (AHL)
Statline: 66 GP, 33 G, 25 A, 73 PIM
4. Robbie Earl, 21, RW, Wisconsin (WCHA)
Statline: 40 GP, 21 G, 25 A, 56 PIM
5. Jeremy Williams, 22, C, Toronto (AHL)
Statline: 55 GP, 23 G, 33 A, 77 PIM
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Toronto Maple Leafs
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record41-33-8 (90 points)
DivisionFinished fourth in Northeast
ConferenceFinished ninth in East
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Kyle Wellwood
Kyle Wellwood doesn't skate all that well, but there's something about the shifty, gifted pivot that makes us believe maybe great things are possible.
Winger: Jeff O'Neill
Troubled by the death of his brother prior to the start of last season, the former sniper had an off year with just 19 goals and a ghastly minus-19 rating. Reunited with former Hurricanes coach Maurice, O'Neill could get a second chance.
Defense: Pavel Kubina
So, was Pavel Kubina worth $5 million a season? Leafs fans are about to find out.
Goalie: Take your pick!
J.F. Racine, J.S. Aubin, Mikael Tellqvist, Justin Pogge. Surely there's a backup netminder in there somewhere.

Key Moves
Michael Peca had a terrific playoffs for the Oilers and should bring a nice veteran presence to a dressing room that's long been plagued by cliques. Kubina didn't get much attention toiling in Tampa, but has the potential to be a big star in Toronto. Of the departed, Domi, Lindros, Allison, Belfour, none will be particularly missed.

SportsNation
Rating the Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Maple Leafs in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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