With training camp underway and the Leafs media
circus cycle back in full swing, I thought it was a good time to step back from 9 pages of coverage about Cola leaving practice early and Gilmour getting JFJ's coffee in order to have a look at just what the Leafs are up against in the Northeast this year.
The Leafs play 32 of their 82 games against the Canadiens, Sens, Bruins and Sabres. These match-ups will go a long way in determining who's going to the post-season dance and who's moving to Bomont (the town where there is no dancing).
The first friendly of the Leafs pre-season is tonight at the ACC against Buffalo so the timing seems ideal to get an insider's look at the team from across the lake...Tom from Sabre Rattling was kind enough to offer his insight on all things Buffalo. I'd like to thank Tom for putting this preview together and extend an extra special thanks to Tom for not mentioning the Leafs all-time road record in Buffalo.
The 2006-2007 Sabres
Hey all, Michael was kind enough to ask me to inform y'all (yes, a former-New Yorker and converted southerner covers the Buffalo Sabres) of what I thought of the Sabres for the upcoming season, so here it goes.
Frankly, I think the Sabres are the deepest, strongest team in the Eastern Conference. This opinion may change with the play of some of the newcomers to the league as my grasp of other teams' prospects is not that strong, but with most of the team from 2005-06 returning and the defense strenghtened by the addition of Jaro Spacek, the Sabres from top to bottom should be the team to beat in the Northeast. I say that knowing that Boston has improved, as have the Leafs (if only in attitude), Ottawa has regressed (if only slightly) and the Habs are the Habs, neither better nor worse.
Looking at the team from the goal-line out we see that the goalies haven't changed, much to the surprise of some (namely anyone who thought we could afford to keep Marty Biron) and chagrin of others (Biron himself). There's nothing to suggest that Ryan Miller will regress this year. His progression has been steady and positive from Michigan State to Buffalo. Biron remains a strong presence in the locker room and the ultimate safety net in case of a catastrophic injury.
While the collection of blueliners in Toronto and Boston are both much improved, if a little top-heavy in Boston's case, the Sabres have a collection of 6 defensmen that are an example of depth and consistency. With the arrival of Jaro (Spock) Spacek I predict great tihngs from Dmitri (Tri) Kalinin, who struggled last season with a litany of small injuries that found him only geting his groove during the stretch run coming into the playoffs.
Lewdman/Tallinder, Kalinin/Spock, Numinnen/Soupcan is as good a, if not, the best group of defensemen in the Conference. It is their collective ability to efficiently retrieve and move the puck that makes them so good within Lindy Ruff's system, while being strong enough to spread the minutes out across all 3 pairs.
The Rochester Americans play the exact same system as the Sabres, making the transition for those players coming up in the case of injury that much easier.
The key to Buffalo's success last year started with these guys. Trading McKee for Spacek makes that group that much better at all the things it needs to do well. I'm sure my counterpart covering the Senators will quibble with my assessment, which is something I won't begrudge him. I happen to like our group of guys better than theirs, if only a little.
If there are questions for this team it is in the forward corps. While there is a good depth up front, there is a lack of sand with the departure of Mike Griere and The Chin (Dumont).
Losing Taylor Pyatt's man-purse doesn't hurt that much, as he can be replaced by either Chris Thorburn or Danny Paille (1st round 2002). While we have an intriguing mix of RW'ers on this club, Big Al Kotalik, Mad Max, Adam (Scud) Mair and Jason Pominville, we have neither Griere's boardwork and hitting or The Chin's nose for the puck and agitation. So, the early Camp reports that Drew Stafford (1st round 2004) may be ready for the show put me at ease, as he's a guy who can do much of what both departed RW's could do together.
Also, Thomas Vanek must take the next step in becoming an elite player in this league. Our offense depends on it. [ED's NOTE: I couldn't agree more, I have Vanek in my keeper hockey pool and I'm looking for him to light it up this year.]
Lastly, while we've all been assured that Tim Connolly's concussion problems are temporary... the question is for what sized values of the word 'temporary' are we talking about here? 1 month? 2? 4? 12? Timmah! is the key to our offensive depth, giving us 3 centermen who can generate stupid amounts of offensive pressure, while also playing reasonably strong defense.
At times last year Tim reminded me of Mike Modano in his approach to the game, and even the dumbest hockey fan knows that when you have a guy like Mike Modano holding down your 3rd line centerman duties, you have a wealth of depth down the middle.
With Connolly sidelined for the early part of the season either Derek Roy or Jiri Novotny will fill his role. If it's Roy, the emphasis will be on strong two-way play and if it's Novotny, then it will be more defenseive-minded. I'd prefer Roy on Drury's LW, but, we'll see how things shake out at training camp.
This is most certainly a playoff team, and in some ways, right now, the most complete team in the Eastern conference. The Sens look solid, as do the Flyers, Canes, Rangers and, possibly, Devils (they are the first team I'd pick to slip badly).
I think the Sens, Flyers, Canes, Rangers and the Sabres are a lock for a playoff spot. The others are up in the air, with my gut telling me that Montreal, Atlanta, either the Devils or Boston vying for the last spots.
I hope to see some of you stop by and give me and Matt what for over at www.sabrerattling.com as the season goes along. Take care and 'keep yer stick on the ice.'
Monday, September 18, 2006
With training camp underway and the Leafs media