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Baby Leafs Improved, But Enough?

Thursday, 14.10.2004 / 4:14 PM / Features
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Baby Leafs Improved, But Enough?

By Matt Frost
October 14, 2004

Last season: 32-36-8-4, 6th, North Division

Returnees: Nathan Barrett, Harold Druken, Brad Leeb, Ben Ondrus, Robb Palahnuk, Kyle Wellwood, Brendan Bell, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jay Harrison, Regan Kelly, Marc Moro, Mikael Tellqvist, J.F. Racine

New in 2004-05: David Ling, Jason MacDonald, Jeremy Williams, Dominic D'Amour, Ian White, Andy Wozniewski, Tyson Marsh, Scott May, Matt Hubbauer

NHL Injection: Matt Stajan, Clarke Wilm, Nathan Perrott

Say Goodbye: Aaron Gavey, Josh Holden, Jeff Daw, Pierre Hedin, Chris Chartier, Sebastien Centomo, Mike Minard

Overview

The prevailing question that always seems to come up when evaluating an NHL affiliate is if the team plays its prospects, is it possible to win? Or, if a team is winning, is it possible to develop the kids? But for St. John's Maple Leafs GM Mike Penny, winning and development do not have to be mutually exclusive.

That is why when the Baby Leafs hit the ice Friday for their season opener against the Syracuse Crunch, head coach Doug Shedden will have seven veterans and six rookies at his disposal, as the Leafs look to re-enter the post-season after a disappointing 2003-04 campaign.

But making the playoffs will be no small task. This year the AHL reduced its number of qualifying teams from 20 to 16 and with the current NHL work-stoppage, all teams, if only temporarily, have improved.

Still, the 2004-05 Baby Leafs bring a greater offence, physical quality, winning experience and, most importantly, what should be more focused goaltending. All in all, if Shedden can find the right chemistry up front and if the young defence, anchored by team captain Marc Moro, continues to improve, this team has the talent to make some noise in the AHL's North Division. 

Strengths

The most significant additions to the roster comes in the form centre Matt Stajan and a pair lesser-known veteran forwards in David Ling and Jason MacDonald. Stajan, by all accounts, had a great camp in Toronto. Having spent the summer working out with the likes of Gary Roberts and Nathan Perrott, the St. John's that will take him back to his days in Belleville.

"Stajan will definitely inject some offence into our club," said Penny. "But there are a number of other guys that were hit-and-miss with injuries last year- you could take Brad Leeb for example- who should be strong right from the get-go."

Meanwhile, Ling and MacDonald bring the elements of grit, offence and physical presence to the Leafs line-up. Ling, a former Columbus Blue Jacket and Kingston Frontenac is a feisty, win-at-all-cost player who is all but certain to produce a point-per-game at the AHL level. At 5'10", he won't be the biggest forward on the roster, but his style of play should make him a fan favorite a much as his ability to produce.

Not far behind Ling is Jason MacDonald. The product of Charlottetown, Toronto to St. John's seven times.

"Mikael is our number one go-to-guy," said Penny "He only played a total of 34 games last season (23 in St. John's, 11 in Toronto), so he'll be able to get a lot of minutes and not think about anything other than being our main guy"

Weaknesses

Critcs may point to the fact that there seems to be a definite lack of size at centre. Leeb, Wellwood and Ling are all under 6'0".  But Penny believes that's a common story amongst most teams.

 "You would always like to be bigger up front but we have a great deal of speed and skill," he said. "The fact is there aren't that many big centres with a lot of skill and the guys that fall into that category are usually in the NHL."

On defence, the Baby Leafs will have to rely on size making up for inexperience. Dominic D'Amour, Ian White, Tyson Marsh and Andy Wozneiwski are rookies. Carlo Colaiacovo and Brendan Bell are still only in their second professional seasons. However, all but White are at least 6'1". Moro, the lone veteran, will be relied on heavily, while the Leafs will also need Regan Kelly and/or Jay Harrison to step up in what could be their last shot with the organization. 

As usual, the schedule-maker was not kind to St. John's. You don't need to look too closely at the schedule to see why the team would benefit from a change in geography. For almost the entire month January, the Leafs are on the road. A 12-game trip begins January 8th and goes through to the 29th.

The club's last regular season trip representing St. John's takes them to Winnipeg to play the Moose, back to the eastern time zone to play Hamilton, Syracuse, Cleveland and Rochester, before turning around and heading west to Edmonton to finish the trip. It says here that trip will be the deciding factor in the team's playoff standing.

Prediction

Overall, the North Division should be very competitive with no one really running away with it. Every team has added a its fair share of NHL talent (Hamiton: Steve Ott, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey; Syracuse: Jamie Pushor, Alexander Svitov, Rochester: Todd Rohloff)

If the Baby Leafs can produce offensively as expected, and a resumption of NHL hockey doesn't steal Tellqvist mid-season, Shedden should have this team in the playoffs come April. Prediction: Third Place.

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