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The Official Site of the Toronto Maple Leafs

Improving "D" the Key for Leafs

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

John Iaboni has been covering the Maple Leafs and hockey for over 30 years. He now is the editor of Leafs Game Day, the official program of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

October 2, 2006

(TORONTO) - When we last left you, the Toronto Maple Leafs were putting together a late-season drive that ultimately fell short. There's a lot to get off my chest, so let's get at it.

On more than one occasion during the offseason, the word "horrendous" was used to describe the 2005-06 Leafs season. Let's see, the Edmonton Oilers had 41 wins, finished 14th overall and got to the Stanley Cup final in what was an overwhelmingly successful season.

Andrew Raycroft is looking to be the next in a long line of great Leafs goaltenders.
(Getty Images/NHLI)

The Leafs had 41 wins, finished 18th overall and the season was an out-and-out disaster.

Look, no one on the Leafs' scene was happy with a 90-point performance because, in the end, it just fell short of postseason qualification.

But the facts are this: Better defensive play, improved five-on-five play, steadier goaltending, upgraded shootout performances, faring better on the road and a healthy lineup would easily have provided three points necessary to at least tie the Montreal Canadiens for seventh in the conference and the two points to equal the Tampa Bay Lightning for eighth spot. Remember, the Leafs did without Mats Sundin for the first month last season and during the nosedive in January, Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker were on the sidelines.

With 2006-07 now upon us, much has been made about who will be producers for the Leafs. Well, while the Leafs didn't score with the frequency last season of the Ottawa Senators (314) or the Detroit Red Wings (305), their 257 goals scored were more than the No. 3 overall Dallas Stars (265), the No. 7 Calgary Flames (218), the No. 8 New Jersey Devils (242), the No. 12 Anaheim Mighty Ducks (254), No. 14 Edmonton (256), No. 15 Montreal (243) and No. 16 Tampa Bay (252). And Toronto's goals total equaled the No. 10 New York Rangers.

What really sank the Leafs was their 270 goals allowed. All 17 teams ahead of them in the standings surrendered fewer goals than the Leafs with only Montreal (243-247) and Tampa (252-260) giving up more than they scored. The Leafs' differential (257-270 for a minus 13) was too much for them to overcome.

As legendary coach Scotty Bowman used to say when he supervised all those high-scoring powerhouses, the goals were nice but he was proudest of his teams always being at, or near, the top in fewest goals allowed.

So here's one of the major challenges before the Leafs this season: Will they score more goals than they allow? Will they make the commitment to advance their even-strength play to the stage where they'll turn a negative into a positive?

The offseason moves by GM John Ferguson strived to address this situation. Michael Peca, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill and Andrew Raycroft arrive with an emphasis on defence.

Hal Gill should help bolster the blueline.
(Getty Images/NHLI)

"It's made us a lot tougher to play against," says Darcy Tucker. "Not only are they good skilled guys that can play on the offensive side of the puck, but they give us that aspect where we're going to be a harder team to play against. With the new system that we're trying to forge here they fit in very well with that. Goaltending is a big part of that and Andrew is going to be a big part of our hockey club."

Tucker doesn't duck the matter of how Toronto's even-strength play needs a turnaround.\

"Our five-on-five play has to be better," he says. "The system that Paul Maurice has brought along to our hockey club is going to make us that much better five-on-five. But the players have to take the onus on themselves to be better players and find ways to score goals five-on-five. I just look at our exhibition games this year. I don't think there were too many times last year where we outshot our opponents and I think we did it more often (four of eight games) in this preseason."

Until Jean-Sebastien Aubin came along late last season, goaltending just didn't "steal" enough wins as in previous campaigns. Raycroft has been endorsed as the No. 1 guy and he knows he'll be constantly under the microscope because it's not a one or two-game test but a long journey.

"Exactly," Raycroft says. "And one season isn't going to do it, either. My plan is to have a career here and I've got three more years here and so to look at one year and say is that me? Or another year and say is that me? The fact is you get judged over a career and you just want to do better and keep getting better. That's the plan.

"You just play and do the best you can. Work hard and try to focus day to day. I think we all have something to prove. I had a lot to prove coming off my rookie year. I have a lot to prove this year but that's the case every year whether you win the Vezina or you finish last in the league you have to come to the rink and prepare. It's what you do for me today; that's the nature of the business. No one really cares what you've done in the past. They want you to have results today."

The offseason is over. The preseason is over. That "today" Raycroft talks about has finally arrived.

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