What Realignment Means for the Leafs

Tomas Vokoun Nikolai Kulemin #41 of the Toronto Maple Leafs shoots on Tomas Vokoun #29 of the Florida Panthers during game action January 5, 2010 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

When I first heard about the potential for the NHL to move to the 4-conference format, my initial thought was that this would be a win for the Maple Leafs.  After all, now the Leafs will only have to best three teams to make the playoffs.  Currently, the Leafs would be sitting in 3rd place in their Conference though, which is a little more tenuous than a Leaf fan might have hoped for.  Long term, there are some issues that could dramatically effect the Leafs and their new Conference.

First of all, one needs to look at the young cores that these conference rivals are currently establishing.  The current rosters don’t tell us much, and perhaps give Leaf fans a false sense of hope that making the post-season each year will be easy from here on out.  It would be a little more prudent to look 2-3 year down the road at what kind of teams we might be running into then.  Keep in mind though, it’s impossible to take into account the draft selections these clubs might make this year or next.  While we can assume that those players will take a long 3-5 year road to the NHL, like 95% of all prospects, the potential to pick up a Jeff Skinner could dramatically alter the playing field.  As it stands though, these are the young cores the Leafs and their competition are moving forward with:

Toronto

Forwards: Kessel (24), Kulemin (25), Kadri (21), Colborne (21)
Defense: Phaneuf (26), Schenn (22), Gardiner (21), Aulie (22), Franson (24)
Goaltending: Reimer (23), Scrivens (25)

The Leafs themselves are in good shape.  The first thing you’ll notice is that I did not include a lot of the current supporting group as part of the core.  While players like Grabovski, Liles, Armstrong and Lupul are all young enough to stick around for a long time, their ages, and Burke’s M.O. to date, seems to suggest that at least a couple of them could be moved.  The Leafs still need to add some more significant forward pieces to their core.  It’s quite possible Kadri and Colborne make that untrue if they figure out how to dominate the NHL like they do the AHL, but for now, they need to improve – particularly in terms of size and nastiness.  The back-end however, is completely set for the next decade.  This list does not even include the likes of Jesse Blacker (one of the OHL’s top drafted defenders last year), Stuart Percy (1st round selection in 2011), or depth options like Korbinian Holzer.  The Leafs are the youngest team in the league, so they are naturally going to fare well in any current projections.

Montreal:

Forwards: Plekanec (29), Pacioretty (23), Leblanc (20), Eller (22)
Defense: Subban (22), Gorges (27), Tinordi (19), Weber (23)
Goaltending: Price (24)

The Canadiens are trending in the wrong direction right now.  Cammalleri is having a hard time finding the magic he used to display on a regular basis.  In fact, he’s having a hard time staying healthy.  Gomez is done in this league, and while Cole has actually turned it around this season, I wouldn’t count on him being a long term threat to opposing clubs.    The Canadiens do have depth on the blue line though, and once they move out some of their albatross contracts and dinosaur players, they should have cap space to fill the roster in nicely.  However, that could take a few years with the number of bad deals they have right now.  In the mean time, the team remains a threat to Toronto’s playoff viability if only because of one man; Carey Price.  The Leafs can never take this opponent lightly, even when their chips appear to be dwindling.

Boston:

Forwards: Krejci (24), Seguin (19), Lucic (23), Bergeron (26)
Defense: Chara (35), Hamilton (18), Boychuk (27)
Goaltending: Rask  (24)

The Bruins really have to hope that Dougie Hamilton is a realistic replacement for Chara in the near future.  While the Bruins are most certainly the league’s power-house right now, it’s easy to imagine that 2-3 years from now, Chara will be dealing with much the same issues that Chris Pronger is currently plagued with.  Namely, a long string of injuries due in large part to either fluke, or the enormous wear and tear on a body that is a constant target.  At 35 and 37, the two biggest pieces of the Bruins are getting up there.  Thomas, while absolutely amazing, probably only has so much left in the tank.  If Rask and Hamilton aren’t going to be able to fill the shoes of their predecessors, the Bruins could be taking a step backward at some point.   They are enjoying enormous success right now, but that success will make them a target in the weeks and months to come.  I suspect in the coming years, they will fall off their throne as kings of the division, and the battle for top spot will really heat up.  The Bruins and Leafs have all the makings of a Canucks and Blackhawks style rivalry in the making.

Tampa Bay:

Forwards: Stamkos (22), Connolly (20), Ashton (20)
Defense: Hedman (21)
Goaltending: Tokarski (22)

The Lightning, for all their media fanfare, are not moving forward at an alarming rate.  In fact, I would argue they’re moving backwards.  While Stamkos has been lighting it up again this season, it’s becoming clear that Martin St.Louis and Vincent Lecavalier will not be able to carry the brunt of the offensive workload much longer.  St.Louis looks especially tired this season after a long playoff run last year.  The back-end is old, slow and built around just one talent.  Roloson is all but finished now, and the system looks devoid of any legitimate goalie depth.  Tokarski has not developed as expected.  This is a team the Leafs should be able to stay well ahead of moving forward.

Buffalo:

Forwards: Vanek (27), Pominville (29), Adam (21), Kassian (20)
Defense: Myers (22), Ehrhoff (29), Gragnani (24)
Goaltending: Miller (31), Enroth (23)

The Sabres are a strong group, but they’ve already discovered the downside of having money to play with.  Christian Ehrhoff’s 10 year deal is going to look really silly once he’s earned the bulk of his 40 million – which is on July 1st, 2012.  He and Leino have not panned out as expected and both will be stuck in the fold for a long while.  Still, the core group is solid, goaltending is lights out, and the Sabres do have great coaching and a great supporting cast.  I would expect that no matter what happens, Buffalo will remain a formidable opponent in the new system.  Leaf fans will have to hope that if Jhonas Enroth does manage to usurp Ryan Miller’s spot permanently, that he does not also become a Leaf-killer like his predecessor.

Ottawa:

Forwards: Spezza (28), Michalek (27), Foligno (24), Smith (23), Zibanejad (18)
Defense: Karlsson (21), Cowen (21), Rundblad (20)
Goaltending: Lehner (20)

Plain and simple, this team is being built to play special teams magnificently.  With Spezza and Karlsson, the Senators will be a massive threat on the powerplay.  Who knows if Michalek’s current goal-scoring prowess and healthy play will last, but for the time being, he looks like he’s going to help in that goal as well.  Defensively, Zack Smith is becoming the perfect bottom-six forward – pesky, responsible, and chips in offensively.  On the back end, things are coming along nicely.  Overall though, the Senators look like the Leafs did 2-3 years ago, with lots of promise, but lots of development to go as well.  Making the playoffs this year could give them a huge boost in terms of experience.  Still, this is a team the Leafs should be able to keep one step ahead of in the near future.

Florida:

Forwards: Versteeg (25), Fleischmann (27), Huberdeau (18), McFarland (19), Bjugstad (19)
Defense: Campbell (32), Kulikov (21), Gudbranson (19)
Goaltending: Markstrom (21)

This team has been a real dark horse this year.  I suspect their play will fizzle a little bit and Washington will eventually find a way to reclaim the division from them, but they look like a legitimately good team.  In the coming years, they are only going to add cheap, and very high end talent to their roster in the form of Huberdeau, McFarland, Bjugstad, and even Quinten Howden.  While Campbell and Jovanovski will likely fade as we move along in the new 4-Conference format, their leadership has already proved vital in pushing the franchise forward.  Oh, and they have a stud goalie coming up too.  Florida is going to be a powerful opponent, and likely challenge for the playoffs on a regular basis from here on out – especially if their ownership group gives them permission to spend some more money.  That could be a no-brainer with the added income from the snowbirds they’ll attract in this new system.  Some of the Panthers best attended games are against the North East opponents, who they’ll now see 6 times per year each.  This realignment is a homerun for the Cats.

So what does all of this mean for the Maple Leafs?  Well….CONTINUE READING

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