The success of the Leafs in 2007-08 could be influenced by their new players. There are three notable new faces in particular- forwards Jason Blake and Mark Bell, and goaltender Vesa Toskala. But how good or bad will they be? What influence will they hold over the team? Time to look at the pros and cons of Toronto's offseason pickups.
The main advantage is obvious. The Leafs, a team that since the post-Ballard era has been spoiled with good goaltending, had a major deficiency in net. Andrew Raycroft put up sub-par numbers, and proved himself unworthy of a major starting job; what's more, Paul Maurice overplayed Raycroft, fatiguing him to the point where his play was even worse.
Enter Vesa Toskala. The Sharks 1A netminder is an upgrade in net, as Toskala has proven he has quite a strong glove hand, one of Raycroft's weakest points. Moreover, not only will the addition of Toskala provide stronger netminding, it will take a lot of pressure off the shoulders of Raycroft, which may very well lead to an improvement in his play. In other words, Toskala's acquisition could lead to some great improvements in goal.
Toskala is still a bit of a wildcard, an unkown commodity. While he has put up solid numbers with the Sharks, he is playing with a far less talented team, a team with a weaker blueline that plays in a conference that is nowhere near as defensively-oriented as the West. This means Toskala may have trouble adjusting to the nature of the Eastern Conference and the Leafs in general.
Another factor is the media pressure. While the Sharks have one of the most loyal followings of any non-traditional hockey markets, they still dwindle in comparison to the 49ers, Raiders, Giants and A's. Coming to the hockey hotbed that is in Toronto, Toskala will upgrade to a status of celebrity, and, of course, scrutiny, previously unkown to him. That in itself will be a question mark on his play this year, and how he handles it will show just what kind of goalie he is.
A final thing to look at is that Toskala has not played more than 40 games a season. While his workload won't markedly increase- my prediction is 45-50 starts this year- it is possible the Leafs could rely on Toskala to take on more and more of a starting role. As such, he will need to be able to handle a more rigorous workload.
Jason Blake adds punch to an offense that is already fairly solid. While unlikely to repeat last season's feat of 40 goals, Blake has gotten progressively better over the last few seasons, and hopefully will be able to thrive under the playmaking of either Mats Sundin or Kyle Wellwood. Blake also brings some offensive quality to the first line, something that was somewhat deficient with the twin towers last season.
In addition, Blake is a fairly solid two-way forward. His defensive skills could be beneficial on the penalty kill.
Blake's biggest problem has been his selfishness with the puck. This is something that is even apparent if you are to YouTube some of his goals. While this led to 40 goals last season, such a flaw can be detrimental to chemistry. Moreover, it's also very risk-reward, and could end up costing the Leafs more goals than scoring.
A gritty player, Bell can be the best option to attempt filling the gaping void left by Mike Peca. Younger players such as Matt Stajan and Alex Steen are in need of someone who can provide them with a leadership role, particularly in defensive play and penalty kill. Bell could be that guy, and would be a good linemate for both players.
There's one major drawback to Bell- his impending jail sentence. The fact that he will serve time in the offseason could very well have an effect on how he plays. Combine this with a poor effort last season, and it could be a troubling situation.
So, there you have it. Toskala has potential, but will he thrive or crumble under the media fishbowl in Toronto? Blake can put pucks in the net, but at what cost will it be? Bell is a gritty, physical guy, but will his brush with the law and poor numbers in 2006-07 deter him from putting forward his best effort?
Tune in to the 2007-08 hockey season to find out. Season premiere is October 3 against Ottawa.