You people are hard to please.
You all tell me I'm too negative. Then, when I write 20 Good Things About The 2007-08 Leafs, some of you still find a way to call them "thinly veiled swipes at the team". I can't win.
So here, in a wrap-up to Optimism Week, is one last try. Here are five honest-to-goodness reasons for optimism in Leafs land.
They'll be far better at coach and GM
We don't know who they'll be. But we don't need to know their names to know that they'll be an upgrade over Maurice and Ferguson. And while the new GM will need a year or two to dig out from under JFJ's mess, coaches often have an immediate impact. If a new man behind the bench can do things Maurice never could -- like implement a defensive system, hold a veteran accountable, or call a timeout properly -- then the Leafs could get a boost right away.
Could you name an NHL team with worse coach/GM combo last year than the Leafs? Me neither. There's nowhere to go but up.
And the new coach will have one thing going for him...
They're only solid at one position in the entire organization -- but it's the most important one
Realistically, the Leafs are weak on defence and only average at forward (and that's assuming Sundin stays). But the goaltending outlook is solid. In fact, it may be excellent.
Vesa Toskala started slow last year, but in the second half he showed that he can be a top NHL goalie. He's not in the Brodeur/Luongo class, of course, but there are plenty of NHL teams that would trade their starter straight-up for Toskala in a heartbeat. With the exception of the Raycroft era, the Leafs have had excellent goaltending every year since Grant Fuhr arrived in 1991. Toskala looks like he may give that to them again.
And while the NHL club's best player is a goalie, the organization's best prospect is too. Justin Pogge's progress hasn't been as rapid as some had hoped (and Greg Gilbert seems hellbent on slowing it further), but he's still a top prospect with an excellent outlook.
If the Leafs are lucky, we could soon see Pogge playing Potvin to Toskala's Fuhr. And that worked out pretty well last time around.
And speaking of Pogge...
The Leafs have some decent young players
They don't have many decent young players (and they don't have any great young players), but the Leafs have put together a core group of reasonably talented youth. In addition to Pogge, the Leafs have prospects such as Jiri Tlustly and Nikolai Kulemin ready to play a role next year, and Jeremy Williams has shown flashes. Young NHLers such as Stajan, Steen, Colaiacovo and Stralman have shown promise. Even Kyle Wellwood could wake up from his donut coma in time to make a career for himself.
That's not a great list, but it's also not a bare cupboard. The Leafs have enough young talent to fill most of their second and third lines for years to come. And while there isn't a single sure-fire first line player on the list, the Leafs have other ways of filling those spots. Namely...
There's always free agency
It's an old joke among fans of other teams: These poor delusional Leaf fans think every free agent is desperate to go to Toronto at a discount. But the punchline is that it's often true. In the past few years, we've seen players like Gary Roberts, Curtis Joseph, Michael Peca, Eric Lindros and Joe Nieuwendyk turn down more money somewhere else to come to Toronto. And that's in addition to top FAs like Belfour and Mogilny who signed for fair value. Despite the best efforts of Richard Peddie, some players just really want to play in Toronto.
That's not a reflection on the franchise -- it has more to do with geography and history. There are more players from the Toronto area in the NHL than anywhere else, and some of those guys want to play in front of their families and/or for the team they grew up watching.
Combine that with the fact that the Leafs will always be able to spend to the upper limits of the salary cap, and you have a team that starts each free agency season a few steps ahead of most other franchises. It's not fair, but it's reality.
Of course, that doesn't mean they should spend on veteran FA's -- at least not any time soon. But when the times comes, there will be good players waiting for Toronto to call. And that time may not be as far off as everyone thinks, if only because...
We just don't know how long it takes to rebuild in today's NHL
Look, the Leafs are a mess right now. I'm the last guy to argue otherwise.
But at the same time, enough with all the talk of four- or five- or seven-year plans. The truth is we just don't know yet what the timelines look like for a rebuilding effort takes in the post-lockout NHL. But the early returns show it could be quicker than you'd think.
Since the lockout, we've seen some amazing turnarounds. Montreal finished behind the Leafs last year, then won the conference this year. The Flyers had the worst record in the league last year, and are in the final four today. The Capitals went from being Ovechkin and a bunch of stiffs to among the league's top teams almost overnight. And we're not even counting the Penguins, who are a special case thanks to the Crosby lottery.
On the other side of the coin, we've seen the Hurricanes win a Cup, then miss the playoffs in back-to-back years. The Sabres went from conference winner to afterthought in one season. It only took one year for the Canucks to go from contender to also-ran. The Senators did it in half a season.
What does all that have to do with the Leafs? Probably not much. For starters, the Habs, Caps and Flyers all had a far more talented group of young players than the Leafs do.
But the bottom line is that there's plenty of evidence to suggest that teams can go from pretenders to contenders (and back) very quickly in the era of early free agency and the salary cap. If the Leafs ever could get their act together, they could be back in contention much faster than any of the sky-is-falling crowd thinks possible.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
You people are hard to please.