Leave it to the Toronto Maple Leafs to turn an NHL offseason into a zoo. Always a circus, the Leafs’ summer this time around was marked by the running away of the team’s top dog, Curtis Joseph. In his place swooped (stop us when the animal references grow tiresome) Ed Belfour, the Eagle. Truth be told, the zoo has been in session for some time.
When last we left the Leafs, they were snuffed out in six games by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern finals, more victims of attrition than anything else. In their first-round series against the Islanders, seven games that included as many bitchy retorts as The View (though we don’t see Meredith Vieira booing O Canada), Toronto was without captain Mats Sundin (broken wrist) and Shayne Corson (suspension) in the series finale. Even coach Pat Quinn, who has since shed 45 pounds and kicked cigars, was in and out of the lineup with an irregular heartbeat. But the Leafs pushed past Ottawa in yet another Battle of Ontario before running out of gas against the Hurricanes. Appropriately, Sundin, who returned to score four points in his final five games, provided the last gasp with a game-tying goal in the final minute of Game 6. Said Quinn, afterward: "I've never figured out a way to deal with losing, yet. So it doesn't sit well."
Apparently not. As it became only slightly less than ridiculous to throw a big-money extension at Joseph, who only appeared in 51 games in 2001-02, one has to wonder if Belfour was on the radar screen. Now he’s in the crosshairs of a city that hasn’t won a Cup since their 37-year-old goaltender was 2 years old.
Mats Sundin, C -- Sundin, recently bumped to No. 9 overall by The Hockey News in their annual list of the 50 best players, might have the broadest shoulders in Toronto; few players have endured the harshest of Toronto’s wintry criticism for as long as the big Swede.
In 2001-02, he sprinted out of the gate with 13 points in October (11 games) and hardly looked back, only once going more than two consecutive games without a point. Without Sundin, the Leafs don’t challenge for a division title, let alone the conference. Unfortunately, Sundin’s left wrist was broken on a seemingly harmless play in Game 1 of the Islanders series. Trainers froze the wrist and Sundin played Games 2 and 3 before succumbing to the injury.
The Maple Leafs rode valiantly in their captain’s absence, but here’s the kind of void we’re talking about: Four centers remained on Toronto’s roster at the time -- Corson, Alyn McCauley, Robert Reichel and Travis Green -- but during the regular season, that quartet outscored Sundin, who had his best season since 1996-97, by only eight goals.
Scoring to count on -- While Sundin can do more to change an entire game, Alexander Mogilny can do more to change a shift, but Mogilny’s a tacking ship. Before his jackpot 43-goal season in New Jersey, he’d scored 55 in 1995-96, followed by 31, 18, 14 and 24. In his final swamp season, Mogilny scored only five goals in 25 playoff games. In Toronto he scored only 24 regular-season goals, but in 20 playoff games this past spring scored eight, saving some of his biggest for late in a series. Go figure.
Perhaps Darcy Tucker, who doesn’t seem all that fazed by Michael Peca’s vowed revenge, can improve on his career-high 24 goals. Maybe Jonas Hoglund will push 30 goals as he did in 1999-2000, but after a baker’s dozen in 2001-02, would you count on it? Otherwise, you’re looking at a corps of veteran forwards, good dressing room guys (add recent acquisition Tom Fitzgerald) for whom tossing a dart at a dartboard might be more accurate than any guess we’d be willing to make. In other words, it sure would have been nice to have landed any free agent with some goal-scoring experience.
Trevor Kidd doesn't exactly arrive in the mold of Glenn Healy. "I'm still holding on to the hope I can be a No. 1 guy again, but to do that I'd better start playing some games." We’re not trying to forecast a fissure here, but would you have signed up to play behind the famously prickly Belfour unless you thought he was on the decline?
This is the kind of thing that tends to ruffle feathers. Of course, all parties are enjoying the honeymoon for now and saying the right things, but there’s a chance this blows up in Toronto, unless, ironically, Kidd is the long-term answer. If, say, Belfour ends this October with 3-5-2 record and 27 goals allowed in those 10 games, as he did in 2001-02, or his recent goals-against average arc (1.88, 1.99, 2.10, 2.34, 2.65) keeps pushing toward 3.00, at least the question may be asked.
On the heels of becoming only the second player to win OHL player of the year honors in consecutive seasons, Boyes is entering his third Leafs camp. He was referred to as a "superstar" in a local paper’s autograph session advertisement, and while this is clearly optimistic (or one of those honest editing mistakes), there are high hopes for the former Erie Otter. According to reports, Boyes is up to 190 pounds and had been practicing with Tucker, Steve Thomas, and Steve Sullivan.
Boyes tallied 77 points in 47 games last season to follow up on his 90-point campaign in 59 games in 2000-01. More impressive than his regular-season numbers, however, are his postseason totals: 22 goals in 21 playoffs games last year and 10 goals in 15 games the previous year.
The Leafs are in desperate need of finishers on the wing, so Boyes may eventually get moved outside when he reaches Toronto. He will likely spend this season with the St. John's Maple Leafs on the Rock in Newfoundland, but he could make his NHL debut in an injury situation. With the potential to become an NHL All Star, it doesn't help Toronto to rush Boyes and stunt his development as it did with Nik Antropov.
Jamie MacDonald is a CNNSI.com producer based in New York.