Leafs In Tough in Powerful Eastern Conference
by Paul Johnson
September 12, 2005
(TORONTO) -- Prior to puck drop in the 98-99 season, the NHL was forced to move a number of teams around thanks to the addition of the Nashville Predators and the anticipation of reaching the 30-team mark by the start of the 2000-01 season.
The Maple Leafs left the Western Conference and joined the newly formed Northeast Division along with
Suffice to say the Leafs were thrilled with the move. Not only were they moving back to the right time zone, but their final two seasons in the West were quite frankly ' horrible. They finished dead last in the Central Division and missed the playoffs both years.
However, since the shift they've put together a run of six consecutive playoff appearances. They've won 40 or more games four times, won the division once, finished second four times, and never finished any lower than third. Plus, three of those six seasons saw the Leafs hit the century mark in points, including a record 103 points in the '03-'04 season.
As good as this Leaf team has been over the last six seasons, they're going to have their work cut out for them to keep that streak going in 2005-06. No, not because the Leafs ''haven't done anything in the offseason'' because I believe they did as much as they could given the circumstances.
No, not because ''half their roster is one hit away from being out for the year'' because every team has to deal with significant injuries to key players. And finally; no, not because ''Ed Belfour is too old and injury prone to help this team win'' because any contender that loses their No. 1 goalie is going to be in big trouble.
The reason the Leafs could be in tough to make the postseason dance this year has less to do with their roster and more to do with the rosters of the rest of the Eastern Conference ' more specifically ' the ones that didn't make the playoffs last year. Let me explain.
It's been a while, so here's a look at the Eastern Conference standings from the last time they played. The eight playoff teams were led by
Of the seven teams on the outside looking in last time around, some of them still have no chance of cracking the top-eight this season.
While the Sabres do have upside on their roster, they still aren't a playoff team. Neither are the Carolina Hurricanes who, despite a number of moves, failed to significantly improve their chances.
The Rangers ridiculous spending sprees have finally been halted and it will cost them big time this season. The Blue Shirts will be younger than they've been in years and Jaromir Jagr is going to be unhappy early'and often.
As for the other three teams that missed out, that's where it gets interesting and somewhat troublesome for the Maple Leafs.
Despite a tenth place finish in the East last time out, Atlanta looks like they are about to bust out. With the tragic loss of Dan Snyder behind them (but never forgotten) the Thrashers will hopefully be able to focus more on hockey, and less on the devastating loss of a close friend and teammate.
Once thought of as the future of the franchise, Dany Heatley was sent to
The Florida Panthers have rather enjoyed the 'new' NHL and took advantage of it by plucking veterans Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts out of Toronto, Jozef Stumpel from Los Angeles and Martin Gelinas out of Calgary. Roberto Luongo is one of the best young goalies in the NHL and he's got a chip on his shoulder after losing his arbitration hearing, so he'll be out to prove that $3.2 million is $3 million less than he deserves.
Those questionable moves along with the acquisition of a talented, but troubled Dany Healtey at the expense of fan-favourite Marian Hossa have the Senator faithful in
So what does it all mean for the Leafs? Well, if we assume that Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Boston and Ottawa are shoe-ins and that Atlanta and Pittsburgh have improved enough to make it too, along with New Jersey being'well'New Jersey'then seven of the eight playoff spots are spoken for. That leaves only one spot left and at least four very good teams to battle it out including a much improved Florida squad, two teams that made it last year in the Islanders and Habs and of course the Leafs.
But they do have Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff O'Neill, Mariusz Czerkawski and Alexander Khavanov. Depending on who you talk to they're either a lot worse or a lot better than they were the last time hockey was played.
Personally I think they're somewhere in between. Nieuwendyk, Roberts and Leetch are great players, but they're also another year older. Mogilny and Nolan are big question marks considering their recent injury history and neither Reichel nor Renberg had a significant impact in 2003-04.
Let's face it, if
However, if Lindros and Allison play 16 to 17 games each, or the Eagle is grounded for any length of time, a playoff spot will be far from a guarantee because of how much the rest of the Eastern Conference has improved themselves.
There is a reason they play the games though Leafs Nation. On paper, everybody's got a chance. On the ice, well ' that's a very different story and this year, especially for the Maple Leafs, will be no exception.