It wasnâ€™t more than a year ago that head coach Paul Maurice announced his team would make the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup. Players such as Simon Gamache and Tony Salmelainen were recruited from Europe by general manager John Ferguson Jr. and provided solid try outs. Colaiacovo was announced to not be in full form for the season opener, which we later discovered he would not be ready until late December, after arthroscopic knee surgery and an awkward fall in a pre-season practice after attempting a slap shot. Mark Bell, acquired in a trade with newcomer Vesa Toskala, was suspended for 15 games on behalf of the leagueâ€™s substance abuse policy. Eklund had predicted Bell would â€œnet 35 goalsâ€, despite the fact that Bellâ€™s highest production year topped out at 25 goals. He finished the rollercoaster year with ten points in a limited 35 affairs due to an orbital bone fracture during a fight with Ryan Malone and finding himself to be floating between second and fourth line routinely. Several predictions had the Leafs placing 5th in the East, while the team had actually finished 12th, but the predictions never took into account the productivity and motivation on behalf of a coaching staffâ€™s personality and talent. Jason Blake was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). Kyle Wellwood underwent a second sports hernia surgery and did not return to action until November 6th against the Senators in which the Leafs lost 5 to 1. Not a fantastic start, but neither was the Leafs season.
A year later, Gamache and Salmelainen returned to Europe to continue their careers, Tony describing his sudden absence from the farm league as â€œpersonal reasons.â€ Kyle Wellwood was acquired by the Vancouver Canucks off waivers, Mark Bellâ€™s legal problems are now behind him, Colaiacovo is injury free, Paul Maurice was replaced by Ron Wilson, and John Ferguson Jr. now reads Cliff Fletcher on the name tag for the general managerâ€™s office.
There are not two, but three European players brought over to give the big league a shot this year. Nikolai Kulemin, the Leafs 2006 second rounder, had tallied 27 goals in his 06-07 RSL campaign beating the second highest scorer on his team by 10 goals as a 20 year old. Now at 22, the young gun is ready to mature his game in a North American atmosphere and become a Leaf regular for years to come. Hard-nosed defenseman Jonas Frogren has also come aboard the plane to Leaf land, as the 28 year old is ready to provide the physical presence that has lacked since Bryan Marchment. The third European presence is Mikhail Grabovski, who Fletcher had acquired from the Canadiens for Greg Pateryn, a 2nd and a 5th round pick. The speedy left winger will be providing an aspect of the game the Leafs have lacked in the last four years, a winger.
(In a nut shell for the trade on behalf of the Canadiens, they acquired Robert Lang, Greg Pateryn and a 5th round pick for the young Belarusian. Thatâ€™s a decent price for a player who has not yet been provided an opportunity at full time play in the NHL. Not bad for another Canadian team.)
The direction the Leafs have taken is to do what is necessary to land the right prospects while introducing some identity in hopes to not sacrifice interest in a team that may not perform at playoff potential. Notable replacements are Mikhail Grabovski for Kyle Wellwood, Mike Van Ryn for Bryan McCabe, Jonas Frogren for Hal Gill, Jamal Mayers for Darcy Tucker, Nicklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin for Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph for Andrew Raycroft, and Ryan Hollweg for Wade Belak. And that doesnâ€™t fully include Torontoâ€™s extensive defensive lineup including Jeff Finger and potentially Luke Schenn.
The Leafs have sacrificed a few draft picks, but as was stated by Fletcher during an interview on the Fan590, other than Jamal Mayers who was acquired in a trade and Curtis Joseph for obvious reasons, the Leafs â€œrefused to look at anyone whose age began with a 3 or higherâ€. It is clear they are rebuilding, as everyone expected they would, but theyâ€™ve completely retooled the look of the franchise. Theyâ€™ve even made management changes and it has been said that soon Richard Peddie as President of MLSE, who has been eerily quiet since Fletcher was hired, will also be joining the above mentioned on the way out.
Shortly after Fletcher was brought in as the interim general manager, which the â€œinterimâ€ seemingly fell off the sign somewhere after the first month of his return, he claimed the Leafs would have at least 6 new faces in the upcoming season. He did not disappoint. The Leafs currently have 9 with as many as 11 pending any possible surprises coming from the preseason games. A third of the team has been replaced, and the retooled and rebuilding Leafs are on the lookout for â€œthree new young playersâ€ each season. This yearâ€™s trio was Luke Schenn, Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski. Iâ€™m sure weâ€™re all looking forward to seeing the trio Fletcher has already begun planning for in the coming year.
A year later, a different look, a new attitude, and a prediction that has the Leafs wandering around aimlessly at bottom 3 in the East. With little to no pressure on them, will the Leafs rebound from a low prediction to playoff contention, or will the rebuilding continue another year with all eyes on the productivity of the younger club?
This will be the year the Leafs organization will be tested. It is up to them to keep the game plan in place while the fans react and overreact to the streaky and emotional game that hockey is all about. The support to rebuild is there for now, but for how long?
Micheal A. Aldred