Although rebuilding is something Maple Leafs management has repeatedly refused to do, three years of missing the playoffs has forced the Leafs to be ‘brave’ and start from scratch. The team that charges $200 for average regular season seats will ice a team that is expected to finish low in this year’s standings. As a public relations gesture, the Leafs added an extra pre-season game to their schedule and will be giving away all of the tickets for free. The Sept. 22nd game is also the first exhibition game to appear on local cable TV.
The departures of Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft, Kyle Wellwood, John Pohl and Mats Sundin will make for an interesting training camp because many new players and as many as six prospects will contend for jobs with the big club. Leafs exhibition games will help determine the roster, so they too will offer some meaningful plot lines and will be more interesting than usual.
Leafs Exhibition Schedule:
Monday, Sept. 22: vs Buffalo, 7:30 p.m
Wednesday, Sept. 24: at Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Sept. 26: vs Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 27: at Buffalo, 7 p.m.
Monday, Sept. 29: vs St. Louis, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 1: at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 3: at Detroit, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 4: vs Detroit, 7 p.m.
Sunday, Oct. 5: vs Columbus, 5 p.m.
The Leafs signed fan favorite Curtis Joseph in the off-season to back up/mentor Vesa Toskala. Although only 22, expect to see prospect Justin Pogge in a Leafs uniform if either Joseph or Toskala gets injured. The Leafs want to bring Pogge along slowly, but they won’t be afraid to use him if the need arises. This team has little pressure on it to succeed and the weight of the world won’t be on the young goalie.
University of New Brunswick standout Michael Ouzas, 23, and 20-year-old former Red Deer Rebel behemoth James Reimer will battle with Pogge for AHL ice time. Unless he has a terrible camp, expect Pogge to be given the reins this season as veteran Scott Clemmensen has moved back to the New Jersey system.
After Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina, there are five jobs available including spots on the top four and on the power play. One of Carlo Colaiacovo, Jonas Frogren, Ian White, and Mike Van Ryn will lose a job to prospect Anton Stralman, who showed flashes of brilliance at the end of last season. Stralman has a reasonable chance to make the top four and is almost certain to see second duty power play time throughout the season. Having a one-way contract offers no guarantees this season as General Manager Cliff Fletcher has shown no hesitation to trade players who don’t fit into his plans.
The Leafs are serious about their rebuilding efforts and won’t rush blue-chipper Luke Schenn — not in a place that has run all-star defensemen Larry Murphy and Bryan McCabe out of town. Expect Schenn to go back to junior where he’ll anchor Canada’s blue line at the 2009 World Junior tournament.
Four prospects have a real shot at the 12 available Leaf forward positions. Thanks to this year’s rebuilding effort, Jiri Tlusty, 20, Nikolai Kulemin, 22, Robbie Earl, 23, and Mikhail Grabovski, 24, will all receive serious consideration to make the top 12.
Kulemin is by far the most accomplished forward, having played three seasons for Magnitogorsk in Russia. In 2006-07, Kulemin scored an Evgeni Malkin-aided, 27 goals and followed it up with 21 goals last year. He can score, but he’s also an excellent all-around player and should be penciled into the top six before camp starts.
Tlusty is an excellent finisher and a potential star, although his inexperience will likely put him on the third line to start the season behind veterans Jason Blake and Niklas Hagman. As the season wears on, Tlusty’s offensive skills could easily put him in the top six, as both Blake and Hagman are far from consistent producers.
Earl has developed slowly and consistently but is probably not ready to make an NHL contribution this year. A good camp could earn him a spot on the energy line and should be considered a success if it happens. If not and there are injuries, he will be up and down between the Leafs and Marlies.
The real wild-card among this year’s prospects is Grabovski. The swift-skating waterbug could play anywhere from fourth line right wing to second line center. Grabovski will likely make the team out of camp but where he plays the bulk of the season will be up to him. Last year his temperament got him shipped out of Montreal after he left the team when he was made a healthy scratch.