Uphill Battle Starts Tonight

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    In the ultimate act of callousness by league schedulers, the Maple Leafs will open their regular season account inside the Joe Louis Arena, where they will endure the pre-game banner raising ceremony for the Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings.

    It won’t get any easier once the puck drops, as the transitioning Maple Leafs face a finely tuned, opulently talented Red Wings team that only got scarier over the off-season with the addition of an offensive juggernaut in Marian Hossa.

    The Maple Leafs first stretch of schedule includes face-offs with the likes of New York (Rangers), Pittsburgh, Detroit, Montreal, Anaheim, Ottawa and New Jersey. It’ll undoubtedly be a baptism by fire for a crew that is just beginning its feeling-out stage of Ron Wilson’s defensive philosophy and regimen.

    One of few things we know for sure as we embark on the 2008-09 campaign is that we don’t know. Well, we do know that this team isn’t about to challenge for the Eastern Conference or division titles. But to delimit the possible outcomes of the season to that of the league basement is a bit one-dimensional, even if appropriate on paper. Far too often in a post-lockout landscape have we seen teams with a systematic approach, strong net-minding and a genuine belief in themselves succeed despite an unremarkable roster talent-wise. We’ll just have to see if that description will in any way apply to this Leafs team.

    A 2-5-2 pre-season record left something to be desired, but in hindsight was a bit unfair. Transitory leads and poor goaltending were the glaring downfalls of this team during its primers. Poor goaltending isn’t likely to be a problem with Vesa Toskala now minding the posts on a regular basis, but coughed-up leads appear to be a problem that won’t desist for this team. It comes down to the basics that the Leafs fail to perform consistently throughout the course of a game and stems from a lack of concentration and confidence. This is definitely an area in which the head coach plays a major role and it will provide a telling touchstone as to the quality of job Ron Wilson is doing behind the scenes throughout the season. If the Leafs are to experience any degree of success, the ability to close out games will obviously be vital, particularly for a club expected to be short on offense.

    The Leafs’ defense group appears to be better-balanced than last season. Fletcher has done, in my opinion, an exquisite job of striking a harmonious balance between veteran and youth, offense and defense within his blue-line core. Frogren and Finger (as well as Luke Schenn, at least for now) will be leaned on for their own-zone aptitude, Tomas Kaberle, Anton Stralman and Mike Van Ryn more for their offensive production and Pavel Kubina and Carlo Colaiacovo for their all-around games.

    Penalty killing, a weak suit for this team last year, is expected to improve considerably. The Leafs have ushered in PK specialists in Jeff Finger, Jonas Frogren and Jamal Mayers over the off-season in order to fortify the shortcoming.

    Offensively, a by-committee approach seems to be the line of attack. Without its long-time captain and chief offensive contributor, it’s tough to know what to expect out of this group of forwards. Alex Steen and Jason Blake must have their best seasons in a Leaf jersey while Nik Hagman and Mikhail Grabovski are two new faces expected to produce. Hagman had some promising moments in the pre-season, while Grabovski’s eight points in eight pre-season games provides reason to be carefully optimistic about his potential to emerge this season at center-ice. The fact remains that there is only one, unarguable top six forward present up front, Nik Antropov. If the Leafs are to surprise this year, it will require production from some surprising sources.

    Free from expectations and major underdogs to challenge for a playoff seed, the Leafs have an opportunity to disprove some naysayers in a low-pressure situation, but face a steep uphill battle. It starts tonight.

    Sportsnet projects the following line-up for tonight:

    Alex Ponikarovsky – Nik Antropov – Jason Blake
    Jiri Tlusty – Mikhail Grabovski – Niklas Hagman
    Alex Steen – Dominic Moore – Nikolai Kulemin
    Jamal Mayers – Matt Stajan – John Mitchell

    Tomas Kaberle – Luke Schenn
    Pavel Kubina – Jonas Frogren
    Mike Van Ryn – Carlo Colaiacovo

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