Toronto Maple Leafs Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
The Maple Leafs' captain is rolling out his welcome Mats in his home country.
Normally, Mats Sundin would be packing up his bags at this time of year and heading to Toronto for the start of training camp. But this year his teammates are coming to him.
The Maple Leafs leave for Europe on Sept. 10 to take part in NHL Challenge 2003, a series of three exhibition games against teams in Finland and Sweden. Sundin will be playing in his home country for the first time as a Maple Leaf. Sundin is the leading Swedish-born scorer in NHL history with 1,014 points, so his playing in his homeland will be a huge deal.
"I'm excited about having the team over," Sundin said. "I know there are a lot of Leafs fans in Sweden and in Europe, so this is a great chance for the European audience to watch the Toronto Maple Leafs. I think that's the most fun thing about this whole thing. We are going to focus on practicing and preparing for the season, just the same way we would if we were somewhere around Toronto. I'm sure we are going to have some chances at night to have some dinners and take a look around Stockholm, but most of the focus is going to be on practicing and getting ready."
The Leafs will train for five days in Stockholm before heading to Helsinki to play Jokerit on Sept. 16. The team will then return to Stockholm, where Sundin and Mikael Renberg will face their former club, Djurgarden, on Sept. 18 before wrapping up the tour against 2001 Swedish League champion Farjestad on Sept. 19.
The European teams are well into their training camps and will start their regular seasons within a week of these exhibition games. So Sundin knows that the three teams will be fired up to play a Leafs team that will still be getting used to one another in camp.
"We are going to play three really, really good hockey teams that are going to skate [on the bigger ice surface]," Sundin said. "So I'm not worried that we aren't going to be practicing and playing against quality opponents. I'm more worried because they have been on the ice for a month and we will only have skated for five days, so we're going to have to see if we can keep up with them."
One of the questions surrounding the Leafs heading into the 2003-04 regular season will be the chemistry in a locker room that was torn apart last season by Shayne Corson's abrupt decision to quit the team in the middle of the playoffs.
"Players need to take it upon themselves to have a good room this year," Gary Roberts told the Toronto Sun. "Once we get to Sweden, we'll sit down with Mats Sundin, Bryan McCabe and the other leaders and we'll make sure there won't be any [troubles]. We have to make sure we believe in each other."
The Leafs need to believe in one another more than the notoriously prickly Toronto media believed in the organization's new GM hire. After a two-month search, which proceeded at a snail's pace, the team settled on former Blues assistant GM John Ferguson Jr., who had gained a reputation as an up-and-comer in the business for his work alongside Larry Pleau in St. Louis. Many pundits believe the 36-year-old Ferguson is entering a difficult situation, where he will be just a figurehead for head coach Pat Quinn, who finally relinquished his GM job after a great deal of prodding.
"Sure, there was some bulletin board material [in the local papers], but I get to write my story beginning now," Ferguson said. "It's invigorating [to try to prove them wrong]. It's exciting and motivating. I can't think of a better place to win than Toronto, and that is an exciting challenge ahead."
The Leafs were relatively quiet again in the offseason after making a lot of noise around the trade deadline. The deal with San Jose for Owen Nolan was Toronto's big deadline deal, but the Leafs also acquired Doug Gilmour, Phil Housley and Glen Wesley, three veterans who won't return this season. But the team paid a high price to acquire those veterans, especially in the Nolan deal. The Leafs dealt Brad Boyes, Alyn McCauley and a 2003 first-rounder to the Sharks for Nolan. And the other three deals cost them their 2003 fourth-, sixth- and ninth-round picks, plus their second-round pick in 2004. Considering that Nolan is all that is left from this flurry of deals, Toronto paid a high price to rent Gilmour, Housley and Wesley for six weeks.
In addition to the excitement of training overseas, the Leafs should have a pretty exciting training camp on the ice with many battles for ice time and roster spots. The team is going to take only 34 players to Europe, so the front office obviously has a fair idea of who it thinks will break camp with the big club. But injuries to defensemen McCabe and Karel Pilar will open up some ice time for young blueliners Brendan Bell, Carlo Colaiacovo, Pierre Hedin and Ric Jackman to compete for in camp.
Up front, Sundin will again be joined by Roberts, Renberg, Nolan, Alexander Mogilny, Nik Antropov and Darcy Tucker as the core of the forward units. Robert Reichel, Tom Fitzgerald, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Travis Green and Tie Domi are likely to fill the other third- and fourth-line positions, while Harold Druken, Aaron Gavey, Josh Holden, Brad Leeb, Nathan Perrott and Matthew Stajan will vie for roster spots and could be shuttle guys between AHL St. John's and Toronto.
Mats Sundin, C -- The big Swede is entering his 10th season with the Maple Leafs and his seventh as team captain. That puts him in the company of Leafs legends Hap Day (1927-73), Ted Kennedy (1948-55), George Armstrong (1958-69), Darryl Sittler (1975-81) and Rick Vaive (1981-86) for longest tenures wearing the "C" in Canada's largest city. Sundin has scored 434 goals in his 13-year career, and 299 of those have come during his nine seasons in Toronto.
"He is the leader here," Ferguson said. "I think his size, his sense, his ability to finish and his strength is quite a combination. He's a top player in the game, and we are going to rely upon him to lead us. He's going to get help obviously, but he has to lead this organization and we have great faith that he will lead us to where we want to be."
Sundin's point total slipped to 72 last season, the lowest in a full season since he tallied 59 in his rookie season of 1990-91 in Quebec. His 35 assists were also a career low in a full season (he had 24 in 47 games in the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95), but he managed a career-best 16 power-play goals and remained active offensively by firing 223 shots.
Sundin and Mogilny have developed an impressive chemistry, but the Leafs' struggled last season once the experiment of playing Darcy Tucker on the top line with that tandem failed. Sundin should boost his scoring totals if he gets to play a full season with Roberts and Mogilny, as this versatile trio would provide an impressive size and speed combination that opposing teams would have a tough time matching.
The Leafs need Sundin to maintain his high level of two-way play to remain competitive with Ottawa in the Northeast Division. Boston and Montreal will be looking to bounce back from disappointing years, so the Leafs may be hard-pressed to reach 98 points without another splendid year from Sundin. But a sensational 10th season in the blue and white by the captain would go a long way toward helping Toronto get past the first round of the playoffs.
Depth in goal -- Ed Belfour proved last year that he can still play at a high level, but he probably has only another one or two seasons in him. With mediocre journeyman Trevor Kidd as the backup and unproven Mikael Tellqvist behind him on the organization's depth chart, another injury-free season by the 38-year-old Belfour is imperative if Toronto has any hope of competing with New Jersey, Ottawa and Philadelphia, which are clearly the three most talented teams in the East.
Most people thought Belfour could never again approach his form of the late 1990s, especially after struggling in his final season in Dallas. But the Eagle bounced back in his first year in Toronto with an amazing 37-20-5 record and a 2.26 goals-against average.
"Eddie set quite a high standard for himself in Dallas," Ferguson said. "To drop back a bit from winning the Cup and getting to the finals in back to back years, you can drop back a shade from that level and still be well ahead of the pack. He proved that he's still very capable last season, and we'll rely on him to do great for us again this year."
But Kidd went just 6-10-2 with a 3.10 GAA and is just 20-49-13 in the past three seasons. Tellqvist went 17-25-3 with a 3.35 GAA at AHL St. John's in 2002-03 and is just 25-36-9 in 75 games over two seasons in the A. The Leafs expect the 23-year-old Swede to eventually emerge into a No. 1 netminder, but his struggles adapting to the North American game show he isn't ready just yet.
So if Belfour goes down with an injury, the Leafs' playoffs chances may go with him.
Can the Leafs win the Cup for the first time since 1967?
Toronto fans are starting to get into New York Rangers territory with their Cup drought. OK, OK, so 54 years is still a few years off, but it will be 37 years since the last Maple Leafs Cup by the time the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs roll around. It's not quite to the point of the Curse of the Bambino or the Chicago Cubs' streak of ignominy, but Toronto fans are getting desperate for a title.
You can argue all you want about whether Edmonton, Montreal or Toronto has the best fans in Canada, but the fact is that Edmonton and Montreal have hosted plenty of Cup parades since Toronto last did, so they hold bragging rights over T.O.
The Leafs had a great shot last spring in the wide-open Eastern Conference but bowed out to the Flyers with a 6-1 loss in Game 7 in the first round. Getting stuck in the 4 vs. 5 series against an evenly matched Philly squad ended up hurting Toronto.
"I want to win the Stanley Cup," Sundin said. "If we're going to bring in some older guys, they better be good, and if we are going to have some younger guys, we want them to be good, too, and become even better. I think it's a time and it's a franchise and a town where I don't think we can really sit back and rebuild. We have to go for it this year again, just the way we've been trying the last few years, and keep having good runs in the playoffs and hopefully get some more experience."
With an aging roster full of veterans, the window is closing in Toronto and the pressure is on to produce now before the team needs to turn the roster over and go with a full-fledged youth movement.
Carlo Colaiacovo, D, 6-1, 188 pounds
After a sensational training camp and exhibition season last fall, Colaiacovo spent two games with the Leafs in the regular season before returning to OHL Erie to play a ton of ice time rather than riding the bench in Toronto. Colaiacovo finished with 35 points in 35 games last year, with his season getting cut short by shoulder surgery. Now fully healed, the Leafs are expecting him to make a bid for the final roster -- and possibly even for the top four on the blueline -- during training camp.
"He's a mobile, puck-moving, transition-type defenseman with the potential to prove that he can do things offensively," Ferguson said. "Carlo needs to prove that he can be reliable enough two ways first, and then earn the ice time and prove that he handle the defensive game and augment it with some offensive capability."
Colaiacovo is a good all-around blueliner who plays excellent positional defense, but he may lack the size and strength as a 20-year-old to compete with the big power forwards of the NHL. He has the skills to develop into a top-pair rearguard, and he eventually will play on both the power play and penalty kill. Colaiacovo starred on Canada's silver-medal team at the 2003 World Junior Championships with 10 points in six games, and his dominance while playing against guys in his age group bodes well for a solid future in the NHL.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.