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Leafs In Tough in Powerful Eastern Conference

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

by Paul Johnson

September 12, 2005

(TORONTO) -- Prior to puck drop in the 98-99 season, the NHL was forced to move a number of teams around thanks to the addition of the Nashville Predators and the anticipation of reaching the 30-team mark by the start of the 2000-01 season. 


The Maple Leafs left the Western Conference and joined the newly formed Northeast Division along with Ottawa, Buffalo, Boston and Montreal. 


Suffice to say the Leafs were thrilled with the move.  Not only were they moving back to the right time zone, but their final two seasons in the West were quite frankly ' horrible.  They finished dead last in the Central Division and missed the playoffs both years. 


However, since the shift they've put together a run of six consecutive playoff appearances.  They've won 40 or more games four times, won the division once, finished second four times, and never finished any lower than third.  Plus, three of those six seasons saw the Leafs hit the century mark in points,  including a record 103 points in the '03-'04 season.


As good as this Leaf team has been over the last six seasons, they're going to have their work cut out for them to keep that streak going in 2005-06.  No, not because the Leafs ''haven't done anything in the offseason'' because I believe they did as much as they could given the circumstances. 


No, not because ''half their roster is one hit away from being out for the year'' because every team has to deal with significant injuries to key players.  And finally; no, not because ''Ed Belfour is too old and injury prone to help this team win'' because any contender that loses their No. 1 goalie is going to be in big trouble. 


The reason the Leafs could be in tough to make the postseason dance this year has less to do with their roster and more to do with the rosters of the rest of the Eastern Conference ' more specifically ' the ones that didn't make the playoffs last year.  Let me explain.


It's been a while, so here's a look at the Eastern Conference standings from the last time they played.  The eight playoff teams were led by Tampa Bay who finished first with 106 points.  The Bolts were followed closely by Boston (104), Philadelphia (101), Toronto (103), Ottawa (102) and New Jersey (100).  Montreal (93) and the New York Islanders (91) rounded out the top eight.  The seven teams that missed out were Buffalo, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida, the Rangers, Washington and Pittsburgh.

Of the seven teams on the outside looking in last time around, some of them still have no chance of cracking the top-eight this season.  Buffalo finished ninth, but they were a full six points back of eighth place Montreal. 


While the Sabres do have upside on their roster, they still aren't a playoff team.  Neither are the Carolina Hurricanes who, despite a number of moves, failed to significantly improve their chances. 


The Rangers ridiculous spending sprees have finally been halted and it will cost them big time this season.  The Blue Shirts will be younger than they've been in years and Jaromir Jagr is going to be unhappy early'and often. 


Then there's Washington.  The Caps are bad ' really bad.  In fact, they'll be lucky to win more than the 23 games they won in 2003-04 and Alexander Ovechkin will spend a long, cold winter in the U.S. capital.


As for the other three teams that missed out, that's where it gets interesting and somewhat troublesome for the Maple Leafs. 


Despite a tenth place finish in the East last time out, Atlanta looks like they are about to bust out.  With the tragic loss of Dan Snyder behind them (but never forgotten) the Thrashers will hopefully be able to focus more on hockey, and less on the devastating loss of a close friend and teammate. 


Once thought of as the future of the franchise, Dany Heatley was sent to Ottawa for Marian Hossa.  Heatley needed to get out of Atlanta, and Hossa is a terrific player who has scored 30 or more goals in four straight seasons.  Throw in Bobby Holik at a reasonable price, Kari Lehtonen who has yet to lose an NHL game, a Rocket Richard Trophy winner in Ilya Kovalchuk and a division heavy schedule and Atlanta is a team that will challenge for first place in the weak Southeast.


The Florida Panthers have rather enjoyed the 'new' NHL and took advantage of it by plucking veterans Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts out of Toronto, Jozef Stumpel from Los Angeles and Martin Gelinas out of Calgary.  Roberto Luongo is one of the best young goalies in the NHL and he's got a chip on his shoulder after losing his arbitration hearing, so he'll be out to prove that $3.2 million is $3 million less than he deserves.  Florida is good.  In fact on paper, plenty good enough to be a playoff team - more on 'paper vs. playing' later.


As for Pittsburgh, the NHL's doormats haven't won 30 games since the 2000-2001 season.  That WILL change this year.  Mario Lemieux, Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Zigmund Palffy are up front.  Sergei Gonchar, Lyle Odelein and Dick Tarnstrom on the point.  Jocelyn Thibault and Marc-Andre Fleury in net.  Oh, and some kid named Sidney Crosby who finished his junior career with 303 points in 121 games.  'Nuf said ' they'll sellout every game and make the playoffs.


So if Florida, Pittsburgh and Atlanta WILL get in, three teams that made it last time won't.


Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup, and despite the fact that Nikolai Khabibulin flew off to Chicago, they did re-sign Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.  They won't necessarily repeat, but they will make the playoffs.


Boston re-signed all of their key guys including Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Sergei Samsonov.  Alexei Zhamnov and Brian Leetch have signed on and the B's will also be playing in the summer of 2006.


Philadelphia meanwhile, single-handedly blew the doors off the rest of the league in the free-agency wars.  Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Mike Rathje and Chris Therien will make this team better, perhaps good enough to take the Conference.

Ottawa made a couple of significant moves before the lockout by jettisoning their No. 1 goalie and their head coach.  Out are Patrick Lalime and Jacques Martin, in are Dominik Hasek and Bryan Murray. 


Those questionable moves along with the acquisition of a talented, but troubled Dany Healtey at the expense of fan-favourite Marian Hossa have the Senator faithful in Ottawa hoping GM John Muckler knows something they don't.  Despite the concern, Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Havlat and Jason Spezza will score plenty of goals, and the Sens still have one of the best defence corps in the NHL anchored by Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara.  Ottawa is still a top-five team in the East.


New Jersey is dealing with a number of significant losses including Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens, but Alex Mogilny is back in the swamp and they do have Martin Brodeur in net.  Don't pile dirt on the Devils just yet.


Montreal is basically the same team that won 41 games last time out, and with Jose Theodore signed long-term, they too will have a very good shot at making the playoffs again.  The Islanders will rely heavily on a moody, but talented Alexei Yashin, and while they did add some scoring punch, Rick Dipietro will still have to carry this team.


So what does it all mean for the Leafs?  Well, if we assume that Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Boston and Ottawa are shoe-ins and that Atlanta and Pittsburgh have improved enough to make it too, along with New Jersey being'well'New Jersey'then seven of the eight playoff spots are spoken for.  That leaves only one spot left and at least four very good teams to battle it out including a much improved Florida squad, two teams that made it last year in the Islanders and Habs and of course the Leafs.


No, Toronto will not have Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny, Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch, Robert Reichel or Mikael Renberg. 

But they do have Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff O'Neill, Mariusz Czerkawski and Alexander Khavanov.  Depending on who you talk to they're either a lot worse or a lot better than they were the last time hockey was played. 


Personally I think they're somewhere in between.  Nieuwendyk, Roberts and Leetch are great players, but they're also another year older.  Mogilny and Nolan are big question marks considering their recent injury history and neither Reichel nor Renberg had a significant impact in 2003-04.


Let's face it, if Toronto gets 60 to 70 games each from Eric Lindros and Jason Allison, along with 50 to 60 starts from a healthy Ed Belfour, and a bounce-back season from Jeff O'Neill (all of which are quite possible) this is definitely a playoff team. 


However, if Lindros and Allison play 16 to 17 games each, or the Eagle is grounded for any length of time, a playoff spot will be far from a guarantee because of how much the rest of the Eastern Conference has improved themselves.


There is a reason they play the games though Leafs Nation.  On paper, everybody's got a chance.  On the ice, well ' that's a very different story and this year, especially for the Maple Leafs, will be no exception.

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