I’m approaching the upcoming campaign with a win-win mentality.
Should the Maple Leafs dwell in the bottom five as virtually assured by Toronto media types, the opportunity to import a premier prospect to join Luke Schenn atop the prospect ranks will obviously be a major boost to a re-tooling club in the midst of its youth movement.
But should the Blue and White compete for a playoff spot with their current, written-off line-up – even if they wind up with the “dreaded” ninth place finish – it will mean this organization is much further along the road to respectability in terms of both its management and player personnel than any pundit has anticipated.
This is why – as much as I adulate #13 – I don’t want to see Mats Sundin in a Leaf uniform next season. It’ll delay the opportunity to test the mettle of the likes of Alex Steen, Matt Stajan and Jiri Tlusty when given more weighty roles in the wake of the Big Swede’s departure. The signs have been promising for both Stajan and Steen when Sundin’s been out of the line-up due to injury in the past, but can they maintain their improved play over the length of the schedule while under increased pressure and scrutiny? These are questions we won’t be able to answer if Sundin is back next season, as enjoyable as it would be to see the long-time captain’s valediction occur while in a Leaf uniform. Judging by Cliff Fletcher’s seemingly indifferent take on the Sundin situation, I think he too would like to see how certain players would fare post-Sundin.
The idea that the Maple Leafs must “tank” the upcoming season is understandable in its logic, but fails to consider some obvious faults. Fletcher worked diligently over the past half-year to pare the club of its losing culture, sacrificing draft picks in the process. It would be a foolhardy case of backwards thinking to – for instance, trade Vesa Toskala – and re-establish the acquiescence of losing. It simply sends the wrong message to a young club and its the formula for the unfortunate situation that is unfolding in Florida, who’s well-developed, premier talent is opting elsewhere (Olli Jokinen, Jay Bouwmeester) because they’ve grown tired of the losing environment. Not to mention the interminable re-build that’s going on in Columbus. To outsiders, its easy to infer that tanking is the most assured, logical way of reversing the fortunes of a hockey club that’s in the dumps, but the crippling effect it has on the psyche of the franchise cannot be ignored. It’s simply not how you run a professional sports franchise.
Tanking advocates would see Toskala as perhaps the Leafs’ most valuable asset that could garner picks, prospects and other goodies in the trade market. The logic goes: if we aren’t going to win this year, why not finish last, and Toskala will simply provide the veneer to a hockey club that should otherwise be in lottery pick territory. My take: Goaltending is an issue unto itself. Even ultra-talented clubs will dwindle as a result of spotty goaltending (see: Ottawa). A bona fide number one is a requisite to competitive teams. So, if this franchise is going to go anywhere, a legitimate number one goaltender is going to be an essential part of the puzzle… that’s a given, unless you’re Detroit. How, then, can we get an accurate measure of the current state of the team without one in net?
It doesn’t make sense at any point to trade a bona fide number one goaltender when there isn’t another one ready to step in. Pogge must prove himself in a full-fledged starting position with the Marlies before the Leafs can even consider graduating him into NHL duty.
Following a roster turnover and an about-face in the direction of the franchise, I think it would be foolish to delimit the possible outcomes for the 08/09 season. This may be a less talented group, but is certainly a more motivated, better coached and deeper squad. With any luck, Stajan, Steen and Tlusty all take steps forward. Should Nik Kulemin live up to the billing, should Hagman chip in and should Frogren and Finger add a stabilizing defensive presence, who knows?
Either way, I don’t think the Leafs can really lose.
Forgive me, but with expectations for this hockey team as low as in recent memory, I actually anticipate a surprise season from a more competitive and consistent Maple Leafs 08/09 outfit.