Posted: Friday October 14, 2005 12:03PM; Updated: Tuesday October 25, 2005 5:32PM
Allan Muir's five best NHL defensemen under 23 years old
1. Jay Bouwmeester
2. Joni Pitkanen
3. Dion Phaneuf
4. Zbynek Michalek
5. Brent Seabrook
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STEP 3: Give The Kids A Chance, Part 1
Alexander Steen and Matt Stajan earned a spot on this year's roster in training camp. So did center Kyle Wellwood, yet he inexplicably was cut before the season opener. The rookie received a second chance when Mats Sundin went down with an eye injury in the opener; Wellwood has made his detractors look silly ever since. Given time, he could mature into an above-average second line pivot. Considering how quickly he's gelled with Stajan, he should be given that time now.
STEP 4: Buttress The Blueline
In Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, the Leafs have a credible one-two punch that can eat up 30 minutes each per game. When they're not on the ice, however, things get dicey. Ken Klee and Alexander Khavanov currently are miscast -- both are savvy veterans, but they're better suited for limited minutes on the third pairing. And remember that coach Pat Quinn's hair didn't turn white until after he began relying on Wade Belak and Aki Berg, two guys who'd be riding the buses in any other organization, for upwards of 15 minutes each night. Re-signing McCabe and Kaberle is job 1 this summer. Acquiring a legitimate number three is job 2.
STEP 5: Give The Kids A Chance, Part 2
The Bruins are breaking in Andrew Alberts and Kevin Dallman. The Sens are utilizing Anton Volchenkov and Andrej Meszaros. If bona fide contenders are willing to work through the inevitable hiccups of a rookie blueliner, why aren't the Leafs taking this opportunity to get Carlo Colaiacovo and Staffan Kronwall the experience they'll need to contribute next season?
Remember, only one member of the current six-man unit (the game but marginal Belak) is under contract for 2006-07. Prepping Colaiacovo and Kronwall now puts Ferguson in a better position to make critical personnel decisions come next summer.
STEP 6. Improve the Quality of the Ice at the ACC
A slushy surface is understandable in Dallas or Phoenix. In Toronto? It's about as acceptable as an incursion by Krispy Kreme into Tim Hortons territory.
The ice was fine for the grinding style previously employed by the Leafs, but today's game is dependent on speed and crisp passing. A lousy sheet handicaps both teams equally on any given night, but you can count on it to hurt the Leafs on 41 given nights.
Contrary to the widely accepted belief, the Leafs do possess adequate team speed (outside of the sub-glacial Jason Allison). Better ice will allow them to take advantage of it.
STEP 7: Clip The Eagle's Wings
Even without a realistic shot at the Cup this season, there's no good reason for turning Ed Belfour into the best-paid spectator in hockey. Barring injury, he's still the best option on a nightly basis. But while you can't rip the No. 1 job from his talons just yet, you can reduce his workload significantly to keep him fresh and give valuable experience to the next generation.
Belfour has averaged 62 games in the past seven seasons. That needs to be dropped to no more than 50 in order to groom Mikael Tellqvist for a larger role next year.
Eddie has one more year on his deal (and another at the team's option), but prepping Tellqvist (or Marlies' stopper J-F Racine, who outplayed Tellqvist in the preseason) has to be a priority. The sooner the Leafs can get Belfour's $4.5 million off the books, the sooner they can repurpose those funds.
STEP 8: A Little Patience
Their unwavering faith in the Leafs notwithstanding, Toronto fans may be the most knowledgeable in the league. That's why it's surprising to witness their animosity towards Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nikolai Antropov. Sure, both have been plagued by inconsistency, but entering their fifth season, each also has shown enough to suggest a breakout year could be around the corner. You remember what happened after you booed Freddie Modin out of town, don't you?
STEP 9: Stay The Course
After years of drafting debacles (Jeff Ware and Luca Cereda anybody?) and talent-clearing trades, there's finally some potential in the pipeline. Robbie Earl, a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, has glass-melting speed and a knack for the big goal. Center John Mitchell (Plymouth, OHL) is a big body with quick feet, and defenders Ian White and Phil Oreskovic could mature into Nos. 3/4 types. The Leafs also have two interesting young goaltending prospects in Tuukka Rask (21st overall, 2005) and Justin Pogge (90th, 2004), either of whom could develop into a No. 1.
Grooming your own talent takes time, but it's the only way to go in the new NHL.
STEP 10: Identify Maurice's Replacement
Pat Quinn has performed admirably throughout his six-year tenure, but he's lost to inferior teams in the playoffs on three occasions. His run should end soon, whether he wants it to or not, and Maurice, a gifted mentor for young talent, is the ideal choice to step up. Replacing him with an equally well-suited skipper for the Marlies will ensure the Maple Leafs machine produces serviceable parts for years to come.