April 13, 2004 (ST. JOHN'S)
-- While Ed Belfour, Mats Sundin and the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs look to be in fine form for the playoffs, the farm club is again on the outside looking in at the American Hockey League's post-season dance.
And it seems only fitting that the season in which suspect goaltending plagued the St. John's club ended on a weak shot from 30 feet out, wiping out Calder Cup playoff aspirations.
The Baby Leafs closed out their 2003-04 AHL campaign Saturday night with a 4-3 loss to the Toronto Roadrunners to finish the year 32-36-8-4. It marks the second consecutive spring without playoff hockey at Mile One Stadium and the third time in five years St. John's has missed the playoffs.
| Could Telly be of the rare breed that plays better in NHL competition? |
The Leafs' season, for all intents and purposes, ended last Wednesday with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Syracuse Crunch that officially eliminated them from playoff contention. It was a game that saw St. John's surrender a two-goal lead with five minutes left in regulation and the winning goal just 25 seconds into the extra session when Sebastien Centomo let in a soft Derrick Walser shot from the top of the faceoff circle.
It terminated a last-gasp run by a team that looked out of North Division playoff contention before April Fool's Day.
St. John's opened its final regular season road swing with a 5-3 loss in Syracuse on March 24, falling 13 points out of a playoff spot with 10 games to go. But a 3-1-1 showing to close out the trip meant the Leafs still had a shot - albeit a long one - with four games left at home.
The scenario was simple - St. John's had to win its remaining games, while the Roadrunners, losers of four in a row, had to drop their remaining games. Adding to the drama was that both teams closed out their schedules with a two-game series in St. John's.
Alas, the games proved meaningless with the Leafs' loss to the Crunch.
So what happened?
In no particular order, let's start with goaltending and then take a glance at the disabled list.
Centomo made an impact as a rookie two years ago following a callup from Memphis of the Central league, even seeing his first taste of NHL action in Detroit. But he's since struggled, evident his 13-17-4 record and .904 save percentage this season.
Mikael Tellqvist had his moments in St. John's, going 10-11-1 with a 2.64 GAA. Tellqvist may be one of those rare breed who perform better in the NHL than the American league. And Tellqvist saw considerable time in Toronto, filling in for Trevor Kidd to start the season while the latter recovered from shoulder surgery and later for Belfour when back troubles knocked him from the lineup.
"Telly was only here for 23 games," points out St. John's coach Doug Shedden. "We thought he'd be here for at least 50."
Injuries and callups to key personnel - namely Josh Holden, Harold Druken, Clarke Wilm and Nathan Barrett, four of the Leafs' top seven scorers - totaled 102 lost games. Holden sat out 28 games through the first half with an ankle injury, while Barrett, a former Western Hockey League scoring champ who enjoyed a breakthrough year in his second pro season with 38 points in 49 games, missed 30 starts with a broken cheekbone and groin pull.
Druken was on the disabled list for the first eight games of the season recuperating from off-season shoulder surgery.
Both Druken (14 games) and Wilm (21) missed considerable time while on recall in Toronto. And Brad Leeb, the Leafs' leading scorer from two years ago, saw his production dip from 35 goals in 2002-03 to 24 this season.
| Carlo Colaiacovo could be with the big club come October. |
The good news is St. John's helped out the parent club with a number of pinch-hitters. Wilm led the way with 10 starts for the NHL Leafs, while Druken appeared in nine games for the big club. Other St. John's players who saw NHL action were rookies Pierre Hedin (three games), Carlo Colaiacovo (two) and Holden, Leeb and Kyle Wellwood, another first-year pro, with a game each.
Colaiacovo, a promising 21-year-old rearguard, enjoyed a fine rookie campaign, though his play tailed in the second half. The Toronto native finished the season with six goals and 31 points.
The crafty Wellwood led all AHL rookies in scoring with 20 goals and 55 points. The Oldcastle, Ont., native, who stands 5-10 and weighs 175 pounds, will have to add some weight in the off-season if he hopes to contend for a spot in Toronto next fall.
The Leafs allowed an AHL-high 265 goals this season, a stat that can be partly attributed to the goaltending and a young defence that included three rookies (Colaiacovo, Hedin and Brendan Bell) and two second-year players (Jay Harrison and Regan Kelly).
Marc Moro, at 26, was the leader on the blueline. But while shaky goaltending, inexperience and injuries can be blamed for the Leafs' downfall, Shedden believes the Leafs' lost season can be fingered just prior to and after the all-star break when the team went 1-8 following a lengthy nine-day layoff.
"We came home (from a mini three-game road trip in late January) four points out of first place, with a bunch of days off, and we win one game in eight," said Shedden. "That, in a nutshell, was our season."
"When you look at it now," said Moro, "it's a difference of a win or two wins and we're in the playoffs. Looking back on the whole season, that was make or break it time for us and we didn't do it."
There are rookies to keep an eye on next year though. Defenceman Ian White picked up four assists during an eight-game stay in St. John's this season. White, a smallish, offensive defenceman, missed a number of games this year for the Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos after suffering a broken ankle. The injury also cost him a spot on Canada's world junior team.
White's Swift Current teammate Jeremy Williams should also play next year. Williams, who had two assists in a four-game audition with St. John's, netted 52 goals for the Broncos this season.
The following are the winners of the St. John's Maple Leafs 2003-04 year-end awards:
Pepsi Most Valuable Player - Aaron Gavey
Molson Canadian Plus-Minus Award - Pierre Hedin
The Telegram Best Defenceman - Marc Moro
Grub Club Hardest-Working Player - Marc Moro
Atlantic Lotto Players' Choice Award - Josh Holden
Molson Cup (three-star selections) - Harold Druken
Molson Cup Runner-Up - Kyle Wellwood
Aliant Fans' Choice - Harold Druken
NTV/OZ-FM Leading Scorer - Aaron Gavey
Brookfield Dairy Group Community Service - Regan Kelly
Booster Club Player of the Year - Ben Ondrus
Rogers Cable Rookie of the Year - Kyle Wellwood
Aliant Sportsmanship and Dedication Award - Clarke Wilm