Well, the emptiness that accompanied the abrupt end to a dream season for the Leafs is finally fading and it is just under 3 months from training camp. Hopefully, the Leafs will have had some time to heal, to work on their conditioning and their skills headed into the 99-00 season. Expectations will be much higher for this final four team coming into next season, so they had better be ready. The Leafs will not “sneak up” on anyone in 99-00 as they attempt to take the next step.
The playoff experience had to be invaluable for the young Leafs. Mats Sundin himself said that he learned more about hockey in the 17 playoff games than he did in his previous 8 years in the league.
The expansion draft comes up next Friday and the NHL entry draft is on Saturday. Pat Quinn has stated that the Leafs need to add some physical play to the forward positions without sacrificing skill. Mike Smith, who is still in limbo as to his status, stated that the Leafs probably wouldn’t be too active in the free agent sweepstakes this off-season (which begins July 1st) because the Leafs do not want to take away too much icetime from young, promising players such as Adam Mair and Tomas Kaberle. I don’t believe that they have come this far to part with much, if any, of the young core of the Leafs’ players. Young players who should continue to get better as the next few seasons wear on. President and current Leafs’ GM, Ken Dryden has stated the goal for the Toronto team is to consistently be among the top 5 teams in the NHL.
The main needs:
1) A skilled forward for the #1 line. Is this Freddie Modin? Lonny Bohonos? Sergei Berezin? Alyn McCauley with Mats Sundin moving to the wing? Or will the Leafs go outside their organization to acquire such a player in a free agent signing or in a trade? I feel that the Leafs will initially concentrate their efforts to sign one main free agent: Theo Fleury. At 31 he is still within his prime and even though he is small in stature, he is big in heart and skill and guts. Even though it is not very likely, Theo would look awfully good on that #1 line. Valeri Kamensky, who the Leafs reportedly almost acquired in a trade involving Jason Smith, is another possibility. A sleeper forward as an UFA might be Pat Verbeek of Dallas. At 35 yrs. of age, though, he might be a bit too old for the Leafs’ plans.
2) It is felt that the Leafs need to improve their powerplay in two ways. First, they need a forward who has the strength, will, courage and skills to get some traffic in front of the net. Secondly, they need a defenseman who has an accurate, hard and low shot from the point. Bryan Berard, Tomas Kaberle and Daniil Markov have shown they can really carry the puck, but those three do not fire shots at 100 mph from the point. All three are amongst the core of young blueliners who will be going nowhere unless an overwhelming trade offer is made. In the Leafs’ system, Marek Posmyk has a terrific shot from the point, but he has been injury prone and has only played one season at the AHL level. He may be a long-term answer to help fill this need, but don’t count on him to be in Toronto for another couple of seasons.
3) A physical forward who has some offensive skill as well. Pat Verbeek is such a player and available as an UFA. If Fleury or Kamensky is not signed, he is a possiblity despite his age. Players such as Darren McCarty at age 27, Martin Lapointe at 25 or Brad May at 28 are other possiblities via the trade route. Adam Mair most certainly, if he stays healthy, will most likely make the team at the age of 20 this season. He can skate, he can hit, and he hustles every shift. The question will be regarding his offensive potential. He could find himself anywhere from the 2nd line to the 4th line at any of the forward positions. Nikolai Antropov, Frank Mrazek, Michal Travnicek and Jonathon Hedstrom are the only other prospects in the Leafs’ system with the size and potential skills to become power forwards. It is doubtful that any of these four players will be ready for the NHL in the 99-00 season.
4) A tough, good-sized defenseman, who is strong in his own zone may be needed as well. To fit the Leafs’ system, this defenseman must also be able to move the puck out of the defensive zone as a puckhandler or good passer. A Sylvain Lefebvre or Mark Tinordi might be a possibility. The development of giant defenseman, Chris McCallister will go a long way in determining whether the Leafs need to move in the direction of acquiring another defenseman. The development of Posmyk, D.J. Smith, Chris Bogas, Dimitri Yakushin and Petr Svoboda will also influence any decisions on acquiring another blueliner. Of these players, D.J. Smith is the closest to NHL readiness. Svoboda is highly regarded, but may spend another year in Europe. Bogas and Yakushin have some decent promise, but are probably a year away. Posmyk must stay healthy.
Look for a few changes, but certainly not wholesale ones. The expectations for the team will be higher in 99-00, but the Leafs will not abandon their plan to continue to build with youth. They also now have a little time to develop their prospects like Antropov and Svoboda without rushing them.
The team’s deep playoff run certainly helped the financial fortunes of the team and some of that should be used to make one big plunge into the free agent market this year. Much will be needed to sign the numerous restricted free agents on the Leafs, such as Mike Johnson, Steve Sullivan, Dimitri Yushkevich, etc.
What might the plans be? Despite the high-ticket price-tag of Theo Fleury, look for the Leafs to make a serious effort, until the bidding gets utterly ridiculous. They may give Valeri Kamensky or Pat Verbeek a serious look if Fleury is not signed. A trade for a power-forward type player, again if Fleury is not signed, like McCarty or Lapointe or May is possible. Another possibility via the trade route would be a Kevin Hatcher of Pittsburgh, particularly if that team’s financial woes continue.
I expect one or two major signings or trades involving the Leafs in this off-season followed by 1-3 minor transactions. The team will not sacrifice much youth and the plans will remain intact. As stated before, the Leafs, if they stay in the 24th spot in the first round of the draft, will take the best player available, regardless of position despite the team’s needs amongst their prospects.
So let’s say that the Leafs sign Kamensky (A Leafs’ advantage may be the strong Russian contingent on the team), trade for Brad May and Kevin Hatcher and promote Adam Mair. The lines might look like:
#1 Mats Sundin – Valeri Kamensky – Steve Thomas
#2 Alyn McCauley – Fredrik Modin – Mike Johnson
#3 Igor Korolev – Sergei Berezin – Brad May
#4 Steve Sullivan – Adam Mair – Tie Domi
Extra forwards: Todd Warriner, Kevyn Adams, Lonny Bohonos, Ladislav Kohn and Kris King
#1 Dimitri Yushkevich – Daniil Markov
#2 Tomas Kaberle – Sylvain Cote
#3 Bryan Berard – Kevin Hatcher
Extra defensemen: Chris McCallister, Dallas Eakins and D.J. Smith
Goaltenders: Curtis Joseph and Glenn Healy
Summarizing the look into the possible Leafs’ crystal ball:
Forecast: 1)The Leafs sign an UFA forward, like Valeri Kamensky. 2)The Leafs trade players such as Yannick Tremblay and Yanic Perreault to someone like Pittsburgh for a big, offensive-minded defenseman like Kevin Hatcher. 3)The Leafs trade someone like Alexander Karpovstev for someone like Vancouver power-forward Brad May. 4)The Leafs debate whether to resign Garry Valk. 5)The Leafs lose someone like forward, Derek King in the expansion draft to the Atlanta Thrashers.
Sources: Article in CANOE sports by George Gross, June 6th, 1999 Article in The Toronto Sun by Tim Wharnsby, June 16th, 1999