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Leafs Look For Ray of Sunshine

Friday, 12.09.2008 / 3:44 PM / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer  - Mapleleafs.com commentator
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Leafs Look For Ray of Sunshine
Under-promise and over-deliver.

It won’t get you a marketing award, but it will be the way of life for the Toronto Maple Leafs for today and the foreseeable future.

GM Cliff Fletcher, in a candid meeting with the media, spared no feelings Thursday. The club is woefully thin at forward outside of Nik Antropov. It’s very unlikely that Luke Schenn will be around to help the Leafs this season.

There will be lots of long days and losing nights.

John Tavares is not the golden draft plum Steve Stamkos was, so dismiss any thoughts of a sunny 30th place finish and some luck at the draft.

This winter’s forecast: plenty of storms with maybe some scattered sunshine at the end.

I guarantee you, Fletcher is the only GM downplaying his club’s fortunes in the media. Toronto may be the only market in North America where talent assessors need to remind the customers that the team isn’t as good as fans think.

Coming as it did, a year after Paul Maurice predicted the team would compete for the Stanley Cup, the warnings seem absolutely dour.

Haven’t we heard how radically things can change in the NHL, how an injury or an absentminded goalie can pull a team down several rungs in the standings?

Didn’t the Leafs sign a 27-goal, hard-skating Finn in Niklas Hagman. Aren’t the nicely maturing Matt Stajan and Alex Steen ready to assume a leadership position? Isn’t Jeff Finger the shutdown defenceman the club has needed since Danny Markov and Dmitry Yushkevich left town? Isn’t Nikolai Kulemin a ready for prime time player?

Don’t the Leafs have one of the best goalies in the league in Vesa Toskala?

Wasn’t Pavel Kubina a go-to defender? What about the skillful Tomas Kaberle and his heir apparent, Anton Stralman?

And most importantly, doesn’t Ron Wilson body of work all but assure a speedy return to the post-season.

It turns out no.

The Leafs are laden with ifs

If Finger is the player the Leafs think he is, if Toskala’s pesky groin muscles don’t ground him, if Mikhail Grabovski can score at the big league level, if Jonas Frogren can transport his game from the Swedish league to the NHL, if Hagman’s 27 goals weren’t the product of the Stars’ offensive depth, if Carlo Colaiacovo can deliver his first full season in four tries, then they have a chance.

The possibility of all these things happening simultaneously? Zero.

Based just on experience, it seems far more likely Colaiacovo will be hurt, that Hagman’s goal output will have been goosed by constant incentive of a contract year, that there is solid cause for Frogren not to have brought his game here until now.

History shows that very few risky player moves work out. If they did, you would be clutching your Simon Gamache rookie card right now.

There isn’t an inch of pretense about the Maple Leafs. They are a prizefighter looking to tie up stronger, faster opponents and rely on Wilson’s guile and teaching ability to eke out points

They will start the season with the same chances of everybody else but that won’t last long.

That is what Cliff Fletcher is preaching and it’s a nice sell.

Under-promise and over-deliver.

It’s a no-lose situation, despite all the losing.

If Grabovski is an undiscovered genius, if Frogren just slipped through the cracks, if Finger is the player the Leafs scouts insist he is, the Leafs will compete.

Every point will be a glorious surprise, every loss a grim reminder of the long pull ahead.

That, as well as an enviable head of hair, is why they call Fletcher the Silver Fox.
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