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Offseason Questions For The Aging Maple Leafs

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
Rounding out his second season as an analyst for Leafs TV, freelance sports writer Scott Burnside gives you some of the best Leafs insight. You can watch Scott on numerous Leafs TV programs including Leafs Today and The Reporters.

by Scott Burnside
-- Leafs TV

Toronto - Perhaps Toronto Maple Leafs coach and GM Pat Quinn put it best.

While admitting his heart was "somewhere down around my shoes" after the Maple Leafs' disheartening 6-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7, he acknowledged the beauty of the unexpected in hockey, the notion that you can plan and forecast and predict and sometimes it all amounts to a hill of beans.

Ask Detroit and Colorado this year or Boston and Philadelphia a year ago and so on.

It's shockingly exciting until it happens to you and then it just plain sucks.

For four straight years the Toronto Maple Leafs marched through the first round minefield unscathed.

Only the Colorado Avalanche can boast a similar achievement.

Both find themselves facing tough questions having been sidelined before the end of April.

In theory (where lots of Stanley Cups are wished for but rarely awarded) this was a more talented, experienced Maple Leafs squad than the one that shocked observers by marching to the Eastern Conference final a year ago.

The Leafs would like to have Glen Wesley back on the blueline come training camp.
Graig Abel Photography
Quinn and his players admit their first-round ouster at the hands of a Philadelphia team that outworked them at every stage, in every facet of the game, is a setback for the organization.

The setback is magnified by changes made by the team down the stretch that saw expectations rise perhaps beyond what was reasonable.

In the wake of the sudden end to the Leaf season, an unseemly barrage of innuendo and backbiting concerning the dressing room dynamics.

There were loud headlines about parties missed and players insulting each other.

Boo Hoo.

A year ago these same players engaged in this same love/hate relationship and engineered a march to within two wins of the Stanley Cup final.

It titillates but matters not.

More interesting will be the changes that truly make a difference, not whether Shayne Corson insulted Tom Fitzgerald (he did not, Fitzgerald insists) or whether Mikael Renberg was mad enough at his ice time to play next year in Sweden (Renberg is a true gentleman but his shoddy play in Games 2 through 7 beg the question whether anyone would notice).

The one real off-season change that will have a ripple effect throughout the organization is what becomes of coach and general manager Pat Quinn.

With one year left before the end of the current collective bargaining agreement and what both sides are warning could be a protracted work stoppage, the front office picture remains murky.

New chairman of the board Larry Tanenbaum is thought to want Quinn to relinquish one of his posts.

This is not news.

Quinn has long said he that in spite of the fact he believes one man can do both jobs, he doesn't want to.

But Quinn, who would rather coach than manage, must be comfortable with whomever is brought in to manage Leaf affairs.

It is this point that has scuttled attempts in the past to separate Quinn from the GM's job and replace him either with Steve Tambellini or Bob Gainey.

It will continue to be a potentially divisive issue in the off-season.

Would management risk losing Quinn altogether by trying to either force him into a management job he does not relish or foist an unpopular management choice on him?

It is a risky move.

Twenty-eight NHL teams have failed to match Quinn's ability to get his team through the first round yet he has never delivered the grand prize.

This team, essentially assembled by Quinn, has a small window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup.

Ed Belfour turned 38 the night the Leafs won Game 6 in double overtime.

Gary Roberts will be 37 when training camp opens.

Alexander Mogilny, 34.

Tom Fitzgerald, 35 and so on through the lineup.

It is a veteran, talented lineup that saw that window of opportunity close dramatically this week.

Do you bring in a new coach and hope that in one year he can somehow achieve what Quinn could not?

We suggest that will not happen but Quinn faces his most serious challenge in moving the team forward after backsliding this year.

So, now what?

With Quinn once again behind the bench and perhaps sharing his managerial duties, look for much the same team on the ice.

Glen Wesley proved to be more than capable, playing well in spite of a recently broken foot, helping to stabilize young defensive partner Bryan McCabe who seemed to have lost his way much of this season.

Look for the Leafs to make a strong push to sign the unrestricted free agent.

What the back end looks like will depend on what kind of financial latitude Quinn is given to pursue free agents like Derian Hatcher, Eric Desjardins, Bryan Marchment or perhaps Brian Leetch.

The reality is that most of the top free agent defencemen will remain with their current clubs.
Will Lumme be back for 2003-04?
Graig Abel Photography

If that's the case then Phil Housley may get the chance to show he's not at the end of the line.

A non-factor after being acquired by the Leafs, Housley was unfairly criticized for his brief playoff appearance (he played adequately in Game 1, horrifically in Game 2 and one nervous shift in Game 3).

Over the course of a regular season he will be more serviceable than Jyrki Lumme who showed his age late in the Philly series, producing mind-numbing gaffs on a nightly basis.

Look for the team to buy the likable veteran out of the remaining year on his contract unless they can find another team looking for a veteran presence on the blue line.

Aki Berg remains an enigma.

A plodding defenceman who punctuates long periods of perplexingly slothful play with short bursts of physical domination, Berg will never rise beyond the sixth man level.

If he could be dealt for a draft pick it would open up a roster spot for either a free agent or homegrown talent, perhaps Jay Harrison or Karel Pilar pending his recovery from a viral infection that scuttled his season.

Up front, this remains a deep, gritty, talented group that failed to act like it for too much of the Philly series.

Owen Nolan, the jewel of the Leafs' trade deadline acquisitions should put behind him an abysmal playoff performance that saw him add only two assists while being hampered by a host of injuries including a shoulder that may require off-season surgery.

Expect Jonas Hoglund to have played his last game as a Maple Leaf and after four playoff years of playing with one hand on his stick, it is time.

The question that looms is whether Quinn can get this group to jibe with the defensive corps to prevent the often ugly turnovers and broken plays that allowed the Flyers to dominate much of the series.

"It's easy to point at the defencemen," Quinn said. But "it's a team problem, not just the individuals back there."
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