The Toronto Maple Leafs will gather for the start of the 2002-03 NHL season on Thursday after having gone to the final four last year with a depleted lineup and all but being written off by the local media.
This Toronto squad which won 43 games last year and totaled 100 points has very few changes made to its roster. Yes, Curtis Joseph has left for Detroit, but the Leafs played 34 games without him last year and had a winning record in them. Enter veteran Ed Belfour, along with his Vezina Trophies and Stanley Cup ring, to play goal for the Leafs this year. Along with Trevor Kidd as the backup the Leaf goalkeeping will not miss a beat.
| The Leafs have several options to fill Gary Roberts' space on the roster until his return from shoulder surgeries. |
(Credit: Graig Abel Photography)
The other change is on defence where popular Dmitry Yushkevich is replaced by hard-nosed veteran Robert Svehla from the Florida Panthers. Svehla has better offensive numbers and has been among the league leaders in hits for the past few years.
The other problem that will be addressed is how to replace Gary Roberts in the interim as he recovers from surgeries on both shoulders this offseason. Youngsters Alexei Ponikarovsky and Paul Healey, who played so well in the postseason, will get opportunities and young Brad Boyes may make the jump all the way that Tomas Kaberle did a few years ago. Nik Antropov will also get an opportunity after another knee operation.
There are plenty of veterans up front led by Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny. Mikael Renberg is back for his second season in Blue and White and along with Darcy Tucker, Shayne Corson, Jonas Hogland and Tie Domi will provide plenty of offence to counter the absence of Roberts.
Center Alyn McCauley had a breakout season last year, first playing in all 82 games and then bursting out in an offensive role in the playoffs when injuries dictated he had to. Travis Green and Robert Reichel added veteran depth but will be pushed by Boyes and Antropov.
The Leafs defence, much maligned by some circles, may in fact be preparing to boast a couple of Norris Trophy candidates. Kaberle and Bryan McCabe have come that far this fast. Kaberle played in last year's All-Star Game and the Olympics and McCabe has a good shot to be in the next ones. Aki Berg continues to develop as a solid stay-at-home rearguard and Karel Pilar was playing terrific hockey in the playoffs before he broke his thumb.
The Leafs have plenty of depth and experience on the blueline and should continue to cut back on the number of shots on goal again this year.
In short, Pat Quinn has some significant tools with which to work with again this year. This club is certainly capable of another 100-point season, the third in Quinn's tenure behind the Leaf bench. But there is yet another hurdle to cross and that is a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.