The Maple Leafs will make the playoffs this season.
There. You heard it here first.
I know what you’re thinking.
“You work for them. Of course you think they’ll make the playoffs.”
Well, I do work for them, but I think if you check my career path, you will find more than enough self-destructive behaviour to provide ample credibility for my pick.
If I didn’t think they were going to make it, I would say so, or at the very least, say nothing at all which, I am told, can work wonderfully.
Instead I am telling you now, loud and proud: they’re going to make it. Easy.
Tell me where I’m wrong.
The Leafs missed the playoffs by a point last season. They have said goodbye to Mike Peca, an effective player who lost his season to a shattered leg. Also not returning is Jeff O’Neill, who scored 20 goals, only six after January 1, but whose consistent productivity was lacking.
That’s pretty well it. They had a better off-season than pretty well any Eastern Conference rival but the New York Rangers who added Chris Drury and Scott Gomez and re-signed Brendan Shanahan.
The Leafs had three needs. They needed help in goal after Andrew Raycroft showed signs of being overworked. Only three Eastern Conference teams surrendered more goals and guess what, they didn’t make the playoffs either.
They needed more goalscoring and physical play from their forwards.
Okay, what about now?
Vesa Toskala, acquired from the San Jose Sharks will dramatically improve the Maple Leafs goaltending, likely on his own but perhaps in tandem with Raycroft. Toskala has a career save percentage of .914 and a 2.35 goals against average. At 30, Toskala represents a serious improvement to the most important position on the team.
Free agent Jason Blake brings ample speed, a surly on-ice demeanour and a proven ability to score 30 to 40 goals. He also substantially boosts the penalty kill.
Newly acquired six-foot-three forward Mark Bell has assured the public that he has turned his life around after pleading guilty to impaired driving in California. He scored just 11 last season which won’t sell you. He has twice scored 20 goals, which might.
Twenty-one-year old defenceman Anton Stralman has drawn comparisons to Nicklas Lidstrom from hockey officials and journalists in his native Sweden. That sounds like a reach but he could make the big team this spring.
Kubina played markedly better late in the season. Carlo Colaiacovo and Ian White were blended into the lineup last year and seem likely to continue their progress. The big pairing of Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle combined for 115 points.
The Leafs missed the post-season because they posted the third highest games lost to injury total.
Darcy Tucker went missing for 26 games and never really hit his stride. Kyle Wellwood missed 34. Nik Antropov missed 28 while Kubina was lost for 21. Colaiacovo played 48 games. That’s five significant players off the roster and shorter-term injuries to Mats Sundin, Kaberle, and Alexei Ponikarovsky only made things worse.
Will the Leafs be hit to the same degree this year? Probably not, but you never know. Clearly, there are more NHL-tested players ready to step in when the injuries come raining down.
I think the Leafs are a lock. They are markedly better in goal and deeper and more productive at forward. Another wave of catastrophic injuries or the sudden withering of Sundin’s game could leave the Leafs knackered, but I don’t think so.
They’re headed to the post-season. You can count on it.