Some fans with satisfied with the progress made this season in rebuilding while others found the experience utterly frustrating. Callers on sports radio shows were rather subdued and small in number by the end of the season. There isn't much to say.
There were a few surprises this season. For one, I and others had suggested that without Mats Sundin there would be no offense. But both Nik Antropov (until he was traded) and Alexei Ponikarovsky both had career years playing with various centres. Who would have figured. Matt Stajan, Domenic Moore, Ian White and Pavel Kubina also had career offensive years. In other words these players were able to step it up when given additional ice time. But the additional ice time sometimes is a reflection on the lack of depth rather than the quality of these players. Afterall would you rather have Eric Staal at centre or Matt Stajan?
The Leafs have scored 15 more goals than last season but given up 30 more. They were the worst defensive team in the NHL by a sizable margin. I think fans expected this team to be better defensively with the addition of a defensive-minded coach as well as defensive defensemen like Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren. So what happened? Well the addition of so many new players does not created a cohesive defensive unit. There were 39 different players in a Maple Leaf jersey this season. Most nights the Leafs played 5 or 6 rookies who are all learning the game and making mistakes. The defensive core experienced a lot of injuries (Finger, Frogren, Kaberle, Van Ryn). And the goaltending was awful.
So what can we expect next season? Likely more of the same as more young players get seasoning and players not part of the future core are moved out. Here is a run down on who might be back with the Leafs next season.
Jason Blake - At the start of the season Blake had already been written off as Ferguson's worst free agent signing. But Blake was the best forward for most of the season. Most people may not realize it but he had a career high 38 assists and still led the team in shots on net. It would be an ideal time to trade him but the remaining $12 million on his contract makes that impossible. As long as he continues to contribute like he has, he does not need to worry about being bought out or banished to the AHL.
Alexei Ponikarovsky - He had a very streaky year but had a career year for goals, assists and points. He also leads the team in plus/minus. His physical play has always been lacking for a big man. He has one year left on his current contract so I expect he will be returning next season. He is a decent 2nd or 3rd line winger but will continue to play on the top line until the Leafs find better players.
Niklas Hagman - Until his two concussions he might have been the best forward for the Leafs. When he returned he lack the fiestiness that he had earlier in the season. I see him starting the season with the Leafs but could be a player that a contender might be interested in later in the season.
Matt Stajan - Scored 20 points more than the previous season but increased his physical play. Still he is not skilled enough to be a top 6 forward and not physical enough for the bottom 6. His days as a Leaf have to be numbered.
Lee Stempniak - Fletcher's last mistake that will disappear very soon.
Mikhail Grabovski - I wasn't sold on this guy and felt sure he might have a short tenure as a Maple Leaf. Now I'm not so sure. Yes, he is the first Leaf rookie in 12 years to score 20 goals. But that was Sergei Berezin and I'm not so sure that's a good comparison. But as the season wore on he played with enough nastiness to prove that he could stick in this league. He leads the Leafs in penalty minutes and has transformed himself into a Darcy Tucker-type irritant with more offensive skills. Nothing wrong with that. I'm not sure how long he can play like that at his size but while he does, he will remain a Leaf. One of Cliff's successes.
Nikolai Kulemin - I always thought he belonged in the AHL. He was a speedy winger yet having trouble adapting to the speed of the NHL game. By the end of the season he seemed to have adapted anyway and finished with 15 goals. Not bad for a rookie. Lets keep playing him and see what he can do.
John Mitchell - Like Moore, he made the most of the ice time given to him. As a rookie he scored 12 goals yet played most of the season on the 4th line. He is one of those cheap, versatile role players that you need to have on a team if you want to develop some depth.
Jamal Mayers - Mayers seems to have lost his offensive here but then he received little ice time. I think he can easily be replaced by someone younger in the organization with some toughness.
Brad May - I was also puzzled by this trade. But I have to admit I really like this guy. With very little ice time he often led the team in hits. He plays hard every shift. But he is also taking the potential spot from a young player. I think he may retire.
Jir Tlusty - Did nothing for the Leafs last season or this one. But he found his game with the Marlies and will more than likely start the season with the Leafs.
Jeremy Williams - Yes he is a sniper. But I'm not convinced he is a NHL sniper. He is small but unlike Grabovski, not very physical. He is weak in the defensive zone so I doubt Ron Wilson will have him in his starting lineup next season.
Tim Stapleton - See comments on Williams.
Ryan Hollweg- See comments on Stempniak.
Andre Deveaux - Has a decent shot as a 4th liner. Physical and eager to fight. He can also chip in with an occassional goal.
Ben Ondrus - Penalty killing skills could earn him a spot on the 4th line. Also not adverse to dropping his gloves.
Jeff Hamilton - May have earned a job in the NHL next season. But at age 31, not going to be with the Leafs.
Boyd Devereaux - Will be looking for employment elsewhere next season too. He has great speed but is fighting a youth movement in Toronto.
Christian Hanson - Starts next season with the Toronto Marlies.
Luke Schenn - Not deserving of the accolades he received but this is Toronto. He is physical and block shots. Made lots of rookie mistakes but never got flustered. He was very effective at making good short outlet passes when under pressure. Whats not to like? Captain next year?
Tomas Kaverle - He is not a Burke/Wilson player but they recognize a valuable asset when the see one. He will be traded but only for a decent return.
Ian White - The surprise of the season but then White has been winning over coaches his entire career. He is very smart with the puck and surprisingly physical for a small defenseman. He will take over on the powerplay when Kaberle is traded.
Pavel Kubina - Big and strong means Burke may keep him around. He is an awkward skater but seems to get by. On the powerplay he provides that big shot after McCabe was run out of town but without coughing up the puck. He has 14 goals which ranks him 9th among NHL defensemen.
Jeff Finger - Last summer he was Jeff Who (?) and he began the season with an injury but Finger is the type of defenseman the Leafs have been lacking. He is a defensive defenseman who blocks shots and uses his body. He will be a fixture on the Leaf defense for the next few years.
Mike Van Ryn - Too fragile. Another Cliff experiment gone bad.
Anton Stralman - The prospect did not develop this year and will start the next season with the Marlies working his way back to the NHL.
Jonas Frogren - I saw nothing that would have warranted that much attention or hassle. Though he had a lot of injuries and not given much chance to adopt to the NHL. His physical ability means he will be given a shot again next year.
Jay Harrison - The previous Leaf management had this guy so low in their depth chart than he had fled to Switzerland. But he has a legitimate shot as a 6th defenseman next season. He is a physical, stay at home defenseman that will likely beat Frogren out for the last spot on the roster.
Phil Oreskovic - Another physical defenseman who will be given a shot next season. Even he doesn't make it, he will see time with the Leafs during next season.
Jaime Sifers - Not ready for the NHL. Another physical defenseman that will have some appeal to current management.
Vesa Toskala - Ron Wilson knows what this guy can do from his days in San Jose. If healthy next year he will see the bulk of games. The decision for the Leafs is what to do with him in 2010-11 considering the lack of goalie depth in the organization.
Curtis Joseph - The fans were far too kind to the fading star. In fact he embarrassed himself this season. Next season he will not be at the end of the Leaf bench - more likely on a dock off Lake Simcoe.
Justin Pogge - It's time to hit the panic button on the future franchise goalie. Burke may not be dumping him just yet but he will be bringing in at least one new prospect to compete with Pogge next season.
Martin Gerber - Played some decent hockey in his run with the Leafs but he remains inconsistent. I bet he is interested in the Leaf's backup job. Burke might find better out there in the free agent pool.