In the midst of yet another disappointing season for the blue and white, the question of rebuilding has resurfaced. A topic which has separated the mass of Leafs fans for quite a while – but to a lesser extent this season.
While the 07-08 regular season offered promise for the Leafs, according to Paul Maurice and John Ferguson Jr. anyway, it has proved to be nothing but a stale statement. The Leafs have showcased an inconsistent, defensively incapable team that lacks the character to fight the adversity that follows them. With acquisitions like Vesa Toskala, Jason Blake and Mark Bell, most of Leaf nation was expecting a stronger club that would contend in the NHL playoffs.
The goal of GM John Ferguson was too cut back on the goals against department while implementing a similar offensive team to last season. Well, one of those worked out, and it is the offense. The Leafs can score goals, no one is questioning that. The troubling part of the team is that they can't keep them out of their own net. While the play of Vesa Toskala has been solid, his defense has been abysmal on most nights. In fact, you can probably count on one hand how many times they've defended their goaltender for sixty minutes.
Initially, I thought this problem would be resolved by simply playing through the rust. But it appears the rust has become a permanent stain. The Leafs core has deflated after heart breaking (or humiliating) losses, and it will prove to be their demise.
To go along with a weak core, the Leafs host a thin group of talented prospects. The names Justin Pogge, Nikolai Kulemin, Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman are the best of the bunch. But even if the four of them turn out as expected, this team is still terribly short of a contending team. Aside from them, names such as Jeremy Williams, Niklas Kronwall and Robbie Earl are the second tier. Hoping for anything more than 3 rd or 4th liners, or bottom pairing defenseman, is optimistic in my opinion.
I am not bashing our system just for the sake of pointing out this club's obvious flaws, but rather how mistreated we have been as loyal fans dawning the blue and white. While we stood aside and watched the Leafs trade countless draft picks for veteran aid, it is finally coming around to haunt MLSE. What did we expect? You can't trade your future for numerous veterans and expect everything to fall back in order. The salary cap - along with poor management - has killed the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In a time long ago, the Leafs were looked upon with respect and dignity. They were a team that preached hard work and a no surrender attitude. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings of 1942. That was year that the Leafs came back to beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals after being down, 0-3, in the series.
An unforgettable moment in hockey history is best described by Hall of Famer and former Leafs captain, Syl Apps: "If you want me to be pinned down to my [biggest night in hockey but also my] biggest second, I'd say it was the last tick of the clock that sounded the final bell. It's something I shall never forget at all."
Doesn't a quote like that send chills down your spine? Greatness and character is what radiates from it. And I hope that one day the Maple Leafs can relive such a comment of that impact.
This brings me to the point of that history flashback: Mats Sundin. He is considered the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs by many. He is a Hall of Famer caught in the wrong time period to be a Maple Leaf. His determination and heart for the Leafs is noticed and appreciated by all. He is the only member left on the Leafs that resemble the greatness and leadership that Leafs players before him have reflected. And that is why he should be traded this season.
Mats Sundin can do nothing to help the hole MLSE has put themselves in. The only thing he can do that will help this team is leave. And it is extremely sad and disheartening that it has come to that. Sundin's departure would ensure a handful of youth to the Leafs system. A trade of that magnitude would bring some life to a depleted farm system.
As we all know, Sundin is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Take him out of the picture and the Leafs will crumble… and it would be spectacular. After 40 years of mediocrity, we deserve a team that can contend for the Stanley Cup. The current cycle will assure that we are nothing more than a bubble team hoping for the classic Edmonton Oilers’ prayer. It is unrealistic and foolish to think that this Leafs team can somehow compete for the Stanley Cup once they reach the playoffs in their current state. It's the kind of thinking that will land us another 40 years of mediocrity.
The departure of Sundin can mark the beginning of the rebuilding phase. Once he is gone, the youth will be depended on to move forward, and they will fail. This is a good thing. We will become basement dwellers and feed off of high draft picks for a few years. This is a tactic that can bring nothing but better fortune for the storied franchise. Players the Leafs can look into moving can be Pavel Kubina, Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe or even Nikolai Antropov. While Antropov has been impressive for the Leafs this season, as well as injury free, the Leafs could get a nice return while his stock is high – and not on the injured reserve. Trading Antropov might also be logical if trading the others proves to be too difficult.
With the current club, here is a breakdown of the players we should be developing through a youth movement:
A 1st round pick from the Leafs, he began his career with a solid rookie campaign (45 points, 19 goals) and shows signs of becoming a solid top 6 winger in the future. In his second NHL season, he encountered a sophomore slump and fell short to the expectations placed upon him. However, in the second half of the 06-07 season, he accumulated 27 points. This season, Steen has shown terrific strides in working on consistency. His hustle and work ethic are noticed almost every night. He has also learned to shoot the puck more compared to past years. However, because his role with the team is a 3 rd liner -- on account of other players ahead of him on the depth chart -- he is held back from the top 6 position he needs to produce points and reach his potential.
The crafty and smart playmaker erupted for the Leafs in the 05-06 season. He was expected to stay with the Marlies, but his pre-season was too impressive to pass up. He ended his rookie campaign with 45 points. In his sophomore season -- a season where he has always had success in each level of play throughout his career – injuries held him back, but Wellwood was on a 70-point pace with 42 points in 46 games. This season, Wellwood laced up the skates later than expected when a groin injury set him back. When he returned, he was not the player of old, and he has struggled considerably. If the injury continues to affect him throughout his career -- or just this season -- is still a question about which many are wondering. We will find out soon enough.
I hesitated to put him on this list. He has potential to be a top 2 defender with upside in both ends of the rink, but his injury riddled career, which continues once again this season, is troublesome for his future in the NHL. If he can shake the injury bug, he will be a wonderful addition to the Leafs future D core. Time will tell.
The young center-man has gotten progressively better throughout his young NHL career and is developing a shut-down role – something the Leafs have lacked – who can chip in offensively. He is nothing more than a 3 rd liner, but like the Ducks proved in the playoffs, 3rd and 4th liners are an integral part to any successful team.
The young Swede seems to be Tomas Kaberle version 2.0. His stick handling abilities are exceptional and his on-ice awareness allows him to create plays quite efficiently. Like Kaberle, his outlet passes from our zone looks like something he will thrive on - a skill underrated by many. While he is not a physical defenseman by any means, he makes up for it with strong positioning and using his stick to break up plays. He is a definite keeper.
The Czech native is a sniper who knows how to use his body to his advantage. In his first game in the NHL, he recorded 2 goals for Maple Leafs. At 19, Tlusty's potential is a top line winger for the Maple Leafs, making room for someone of his calibur is extremly important. However, the Leafs can't give him 3rd line minutes if they want him to develop. His skills are best suited for top 6 ice-time.
The Russian native is said to possess a strong work ethic, good hockey sense, the ability to play in traffic, dig in the boards, and finally drive towards the net. I have never seen him play, on account of playing for the Magnitogorsk Metallurg in Russia, but his stats are certainly impressive. In 06-07, he accumulated 27 goals and 39 points in 54 games. This season, he has an impressive 17 goals and 25 points in 41 games so far. The kid looks to be a good power forward for the Leafs in the very near future.
The young goaltender has high expectations to perform. In his rookie season with the Toronto Marlies, he came out of the gate struggling. However, the second half of the season was much friendlier to Pogge, who looked like the goalie many are hoping for. This season, Pogge has been rock solid for the Marlies. He has posted an impressive .911 SV%, a 2.18 GAA, 2 SO and a 13-2-4 record to go along with that. He will be working harder than ever to crack the line-up next season as a back-up to Vesa Toskala… a scenario which may happen.
Now add in a handful of quality draft picks and prospects garnered through trades and bottoming the Eastern Conference suddenly the Leafs have a much brighter future ahead of them.