Thursday, May 07, 2009

Pool Outlook for Toronto

Well, this is the last of the non-playoff teams in the Pool Outlook category, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are just about to go through their first summer with new GM, Brian Burke, and there are plenty of changes expected to happen. The Leafs didn't fare too badly last season, despite the rebuilding process, but they were destined to fall short from the outset of the season, thanks to key faces having left the team and new chemistry trying to be found.

It was pretty tough to find any bright spots on the Leafs during the regular season, but Jason Blake saw a little bit of his previous form return, scoring 25 goals and adding 38 assists (63 points) in 78 games was enough to lead Toronto in pool scoring. Blake slumped quite a bit in his first season in Toronto, ranking only 125th in the league from 58th, but returned up to 70th with his rebound season. His work ethic will likely keep him aboard in Toronto through this transition period and he will likely be rewarded with some new linemates, saying that management can help him out in that department.

With the changes in philosophy, the Maple Leafs did see some improvements in some of their forwards through 2009, including Alex Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak. All three forwards did boost their ranks in pool scoring, which may have given them hope that they can stay with the team for another year. Ponikarovsky had a significant jump in the rankings, thanks to a 61-point effort and having played all 82 games in the season. He moved up from 228th in 2008 to 73rd. His rankings do bounce up and down from year to year, so I wouldn't get too excited, despite the heights he reached this past season. Joining the team up front were Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell, all of which had decent seasons for points and may show some serious promise for a pool spot next season.

The Leafs' blueline did suffer through the 2009 regular season, both by inconsistency and by injuries. Pavel Kubina led all blueliners with 40 points in 82 GP, but he certainly wasn't playing his best hockey through the season. Tomas Kaberle finished second in team blueline scoring (31 points), despite missing 25 games to injury. Ian White, Jeff Finger, Luke Schenn and Mike Van Ryn all suffered through some sort of injuries through the season, which did it's part to help with the inconsistency. Schenn, however, did play admirably in his rookie season, earning a lot of key ice-time against superstars. His fantasy value does look to remain low, as he's used primarily as a shutdown defender.

In goal, things were not so rosy as well. Vesa Toskala did manage to win 22 games, including 1 shutout, to lead the team in pool points there, but that should come as no surprise. He certainly wasn't his dominant self in more games than he was in 2008, where he finished quite high, despite a poor season for the Leafs. His late-season surgery to repair his hip did suggest that he was dealing with a hampering injury, so the team hopes that the months of rehab will get him back to 100% and a top ten goalie. The team also put Martin Gerber, Curtis Joseph and Justin Pogge through the paces a bit through the year, most of which didn't help out anyone's cause for next season. Pogge could be the likely candidate for back-up next season, as both Gerber and Joseph may not be needed.

2010 Season Outlook
Much like their Eastern Conference rivals in Tampa Bay, the outlook in Toronto is dependent on what kind of changes do in fact happen with the Leafs going forward. With Brian Burke now at the helm, the team could be drastically revamped and I think it's something that we're all coming to expect. It isn't necessarily fair to give an outlook on this team right away.

Jason BlakePavel KubinaVesa Toskala
Alex PonikarovskyTomas Kaberle
Matt StajanIan White
Lee StempniakJeff Finger
Niklas HagmanLuke Schenn
Nikolai KuleminAnton Stralman
John MitchellMike Van Ryn
Jamal Mayers

Brian Burke does have the benefit of having a good number of assets signed onto deals at a reasonable cap hit at the moment. The 16 players listed above come at an approximate cap hit of $38.8 million, still below the projected cap floor. With that much space, the Leafs have ample room to dip into the free agent market and trade for better assets with what they have.

Before all the wheeling and dealing is to commence, the management will have to assess their RFA situation, as they will likely have to budget for some of them for the long-term. Mikhail Grabovski should have earned some consideration for a new deal from management, while consideration will have to be given to Jeremy Williams, Justin Pogge, among others. I begin to wonder if the Leafs will use one or all of these RFAs in their negotiations for new players or draft picks.

On the UFA side, there is plenty of doubt that Martin Gerber, Boyd Devereaux, Curtis Joseph, Olaf Kolzig, Eric Reitz, Jamie Heward and Bates Battaglia will all be Leaf property after July 1st, so that should open up plenty of spots for new blood and talent, not that some of those names even donned a Leafs jersey once last season. Look for the Leafs to tap the well and pick one or two big players from the list that came from other teams.

The Leafs were thought to have a pretty good young forward in the development system in Chris DiDomenico, but bad news struck the youngster, as he severely shattered his femur in a game on Tuesday (May 5th) night in a QMJHL playoff game. He would have been one to watch next season in camp, as he had such a good year in junior, including a spot on Team Canada's WJC team that won gold again in January. Otherwise, the Leafs will have a good draft pick this summer and we'll see if their pick is one to watch.

I am still a fan of Vesa Toskala and I don't think I would have any problem picking him for my team, especially if he gets a clean bill of health before training camp. He's been a good goalie on a poor team, but the team is turning itself around, especially defensively. Don't discount Tomas Kaberle just yet, because he should be able to keep himself healthy again, he doesn't appear to me to be such a health risk. This way you can possibly sneak him through at a reasonable pick and get a good bargain... unless you are in a pool full of Leaf fans. Finally, myself, like anyone else, is very curious to see how Brian Burke goes about his business this summer. It would be exciting to hate the Leafs for the right reasons again.

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