What, We Worry?
Mike Ulmer gives his take on the upcoming conference changes
Wednesday, 12.7.2011 / 4:43 PM ET / Mike Ulmer's Blog
By Mike Ulmer - Mapleleafs.com commentator
I am a glass not just half full but a glass spilling out over the top soaking the feet of the ludicrously attractive, scandalously-attired female barkeep who has just won the 649 and is an instant away from announcing free drinks for everyone kind of guy.
I just don’t see how the Leafs aren’t going to make the playoff this year. Not only that, their odds increase substantially when the league re-aligns next season.
And I have some numbers to back it up in Ulmerstandings IX.
To better gauge the strengths of the six teams with whom the Leafs will share their division, I listed the clubs based on five criteria: goals for, goals against, power play, penalty kill and organizational strength according to the good people at Hockey’sfuture. The teams were tiered based on where they stood against each other, not against the rest of the league. That means the rankings range from one to seven.
|7. Tampa Bay||24||7||7||6||4||7|
When you add the columns you get a look at where the teams stand. The lower the score the better. Interestingly, the seven teams have the same rank when all the categories are factored in.
Start with this year. The Leafs have survived a catastrophic wave of injuries with no ill effects. Going into Wednesday’s night’s action the club sits sixth in the Eastern Conference, five points out of ninth but only three behind first-place Pittsburgh.
Phil Kessel is tied for the league lead in goals and sits first in the points parade as well, four spots ahead of linemate Joffrey Lupul. Rookie Jake Gardiner has been spellbinding and has settled into the role of 25-minute a night defenceman.
The head injury to James Reimer has faded into the background, at least for now, and while the penalty kill remains poor at 27th in the league, the power play stands at second overall.
Young blood in the form of Gardiner, Matt Frattin, Joe Colborne and Ben Scrivens have filled in nicely when needed and the team has floated along despite long term injuries to regulars Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Mike Brown and Matt Lombardi.
The Marlies supply burgeoning young talent at the American League level in the form of Nazem Kadri and when Lombardi returns, Colborne. Defenceman Keith Aulie is NHL. Rearguard Korbinian Holzer isn’t far off and club officials feel Jesse Blacker will mature into a good NHL defenceman.
Longtime NHL overseers Ron Wilson and Brian Burke head the hockey side and every executive who has as much as driven by an NHL rink now seems to be under the Leafs’ employ. The organizational depth reaches down to the Marlies bench where coach Dallas Eakins is ringing up a formidable record to go with a steadily growing standing among the brotherhood of coaches.
As for the future, well it helps that with a new format that will see the top four teams advance to the post-season, the Leafs play in a seven, not an eight-team circuit.
So what the Leafs need, bare minimum, is three teams they know they are superior to.
The Stanley Cup champion Bruins are clearly miles ahead in their talent and development level. Scratch them from the list at the get-go.
But who else scares you in this division? Florida, Buffalo, Ottawa, Montreal, Tampa?
I didn’t think so.
The Canadiens have superb goaltending and a returning defensive kingpin in Andrei Markov. But they have sunk nearly $20 million in three players, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec who have netted them a combined 12 goals. Gomez has two years and 14.6 million after this season. It’s tough not to notice that number when you haven’t scored yet.
The Sabres are short on front-line scoring and remain difficult to define other than being known as the team that plays in front of Ryan Miller.
The Lightning look to be running out of gas. The marvelous career of 36-year old Martin St. Louis is winding down. At 31, Vincent Lecavalier has settled into a player who will get you 20-30 goals and 60-70 points. He will give you good numbers but not great.
Steve Stamkos is a franchise player. Victor Hedman should evolve into a dominant defenceman but the Lightning are thin across the roster and on the farm. They have not developed a successor for 42-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. This is not a team with a shining future.
The Ottawa Senators are an interesting study. They looked to be heading into the same kind of trough the Leafs are just now coming out of but inspired work from Jason Spezza and the superb play of 21-year-old defenceman Erik Karlsson has lifted the Senators to unexpected heights. Milan Michalek is only 26 and has emerged as a top sniper. That said, the Senators need Robin Lehner to become a go-to goalie or their longstanding weakness in net will continue. I would put them a couple of beats behind the Leafs but not far from gaining ground.
If you are looking for a team to rival the Leafs keep an eye on the Florida Panthers. Years of hapless play has created a glut of young talent headed by QJMHL star Jonathan Huberdeau. Twenty-one-year-old goalie Jacob Markstrom and defenceman Dmitry Kulikov have the ability to become cornerstone players and the Panthers have a nice blend of vets such as Steven Weiss and Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell and a terrific young coach in Kevin Dineen.
There. That’s one team clearly superior to the Leafs in Boston. Tampa and Montreal look to be on the way down. If that holds true, the Leafs only need to need to beat out Buffalo, Florida or Ottawa to reach the post-season…again.