Know Your Enemy – Off Season Moves in the Northeast Division


The two greatest military tacticians of the past 5000 years – Sun Tzu and Sgt. Slaughter – both spoke on the value of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies in the field.  To effectively assess the situational realities of the Toronto Maple Leafs it pays to look at the status of their direct competition within the Northeast division.  Playing 24 games against teams from their own division, pride, points and position are all on the line.  While by no means comprehensive (as yet), take a gander at the past 3 weeks of moves.

The Canadians, Senators, Bruins and Sabres all earned playoff positions last season.  A successful, playoff calibre Leafs squad must commit themselves to dominating these frequent opponents as more than a quarter of the season will be played against them.

The 2009 – 2010 season saw the Leafs perform surprisingly well against the local competition.  They went 10 – 7 – 7, collecting 27 of a possible 48 points.  These wins represent a third of all wins garnered last season by the club.  However promising that may be, Ron Wilson’s squad cannot rest on their laurels as each of the opposing teams have revamped their line ups to ensure greater success.  Let’s take a look and see what forces have been marshalled against the blue and white.

The Montreal Canadiens
Leafs 2009 – 2010 Record: 3 – 0 – 3

The oldest and greatest rivalry in hockey saw the Leafs come out the clear victor, as the buds stole 9 of 12 possible points from the Habs.  So close and so heated were these affairs that extra time was needed in 5 of 6 games.

Key acquisitions: Lars Eller (LW), Dustin Boyd (C/W), Alex Auld (G).

Brought in for Jaroslav Halak, Lars Eller adds another offensive option for Les Glorieux.  At 6’1”, he brings height and surprising physicality to go along with good foot speed and fine playmaking ability.  Still developing, he managed a mere 2 goals in 7 games for the Blues last season.  However, his AHL numbers (57pts in 70 games) suggest that he’s well on his way to becoming a useful second line contributor with a little grit.

Dustin Boyd plays a grinding, heart and soul kind of game that will endear him to fans.  To go along with some grit and height (at 6’0” he and Eller will be giants if lined up next to Gionta or Gomez), he still managed to put up 11 goals and 24 points in 78 games with third line ice time this past season.  He’ll likely combine with Travis Moen to harass on the fore check.

Alex Auld is a career back up, and he will undoubtedly serve the same role in Montreal…if he can beat out Curtis Sanford for the job.  With a career GAA of 2.78 and a SV% of .904, he’s a cheap, competent if unspectacular option to play behind incumbent Carey Price.

Key Departures: Jaroslav Halak

This is a blessing for the buds, as Halak was the hottest thing since sliced fire for the second half of the season.  The Canadiens have placed the burden of goaltending on Price and can’t look back.  He has a pedigree and past that suggests he’ll bounce back and be considered a top ten NHL goalie.  But he is 2 years removed from a stellar rookie season that saw him put up a stingy .920 SV% along with 24 wins in 41 games.

The Ottawa Senators
Leafs 2009 – 2010 Record: 4 – 2 – 0

Registering 8 points in 6 heated affairs, the Ottawa Senators often fell flat against an energized Leafs team that was led by Kessel’s 7 goals and Colton Orr’s 4 heavy-weight bouts with Matt Carkner.  After the Flyers, this is my most hated team.  Led by the grating Daniel “Only contemptible Swede ever” Alfredsson, these are grudge matches for the ages.

Key Acquisition: Sergei Gonchar (D)

Gonchar has been – quite simply – one of the best offensive defensemen since the lock out.  Registering almost 700 points in 1000 games, he is a premier offensive weapon from the point whose on ice vision helped the Pittsburgh Penguins hoist the Stanley cup in 2008 – 2009.  A 4 time all star, he has scored 30 or more points on the power play 6 of the last 7 seasons.  He’s been brought in to help the Ottawa Senators and their 22nd ranked power play.  Expect him to eat 25 minutes a night and quarterback a PP that will feature passing wizards Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.

Key Departure: Anton Volchenkov (D)

These two Cossacks are as different as night and day.  Anton Volchenkov is a shot blocker, tough as nails and hits like a truck.  Just ask ex-Leaf Viktor Stalberg…once the ringing stops.  Sergei Gonchar plays a far more cerebral game, using positioning and stick skills to break up plays while shying away from contact.  Though the Senators have exchanged brawn for brains (and offensive acuity), the Leafs still cannot take too many liberties.  Matt Carkner (1 – 3 against Orr), Jarko Ruutu and Chris Neil are always spoiling for a fight and aren’t afraid to step up and step into anybody.

The Boston Bruins
Leafs 2009 – 2010 Record: 2 – 2 – 2

Bean town engagements are growing into matters of pride more and more every year.  They have Tuuka Rask and Tyler Seguin, we have Phil Kessel and a bad taste in our mouths.  The season split shows how bloody inconsistent the Leafs can be, as they dropped 4 decisions to the lowest scoring team in the League.  Low lights include the pop gun offense of the Boston Bruins lighting the Leafs up; the two regulation losses saw the Leafs get drubbed 7 – 2 and 5 – 2.  High lights include the December 2009 Leaf win that saw Jonas Gustavsson record his first NHL shutout.

Key Acquisitions: Nathan Horton (C/W), Tyler Seguin (C)

Nathan Horton comes to Boston with baggage.  As talented as he is frustrating, Horton has the size (6’2”, 230 Lbs) and tissue soft hands to be as good a power forward as any in the league.  Once tagged as the future of the Florida Panthers, he finds himself 4 disappointing years removed from his 31 goal, 31 assist 2005/06 season.  He’s been brought into the Bruins line up to add a dimension of scoring to a team that went from one of the best offensive systems in 2008 – 09 to the very worst in 2009 – 10.  The hope is that within a new system and with more playmaking talent, he’ll return to form as a 30 goal scorer.  He’s got to be penciled into a top line role on the power play, as the Bruins have a bevy of centre men and a dearth of scoring wingers.  At 25, he’s still young enough to escape the underachiever tag.

Tyler Seguin.  Do I really need to give you the low down? Oh, you say you’ve been stuck under a rock until 20 minutes ago? He was picked 2nd overall last week with the pick Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli received from the Maple Leafs in exchange for Phil Kessel.  He scored 48 goals and 58 assists for the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL and was part of the most 90s sounding drama (Taylor versus Tyler…bitchin’, yo) in NHL history.  While not a lock to make a Bruins team deep at centre, he’s considered to be the most NHL ready prospect from the 2010 draft.  An adept playmaker and finisher, he might find himself on the second power play unit in Boston.  Great things are expected of him, but he’ll have to earn every opportunity.  He’s likely to be booed in the ACC, since ye know…it’s his fault he was drafted to the Bruins.

Key Departure: Dennis Wideman (D)

Exchanged for Horton, Dennis Wideman was terribly inconsistent last year and therefore terribly expendable.  He’ll be missed in Boston, as he can play in any situation and he can just eat minutes up.  He’s registered at least 30 points from the back end in 3 straight seasons.  The Bruins are decidedly weaker defensively now, and may rely even more on an aging Chara and an inexperienced Tuuka Rask.

The Buffalo Sabres
Leafs 2009 – 2010 Record: 1 – 3 – 2

The bad news is that yet again, the Sabres had our number in the season match up.  The bad news is that much of the team is still the same as last year.  The bad news is that Ryan Miller just won a Vezina and Tyler Myers a Calder.  The bad news is that no matter how small or soft Buffalo appears they seem to get the best of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The Sabres always bring out their A game for the Leafs, as if to punish the Toronto fans that spend their money to fill 90% of the seats in the HSBC Arena.

Key Acquisition: Jordan Leopold (D)

Leopold, 29, has just come off a decent season putting up 26 points split between the Panthers and Penguins.  A second pairing defenseman capable of 20+ minutes a night, he’s been brought in to play some reliable hockey, work the PK and provide some offense.  With Craig Rivet possibly on the shelf to start the season, GM Darcy Regier is hoping that Leopold can find some chemistry with sophomore Tyler Myers.  Leopold is a Regier-type defenseman: prudent, reliable, good but not great at everything and virtually unheralded.

Key Departures: Henrik Tallinder (D) and Toni Lydman (D)

Regier is making a gamble, or the closest thing to a gamble he’s capable of making.  Tallinder and Lydman both put up 20 points season, both played second line minutes (18 – 20 minutes per night) and both are competent if not overly brilliant defenders.  Leopold made at least one of them expendable, and Regier and coach Lindy Ruff hope that Andrej Sekera and Chris Butler are ready for more ice-time.  AHL d-men Marc-Andre Gragnani and TJ Brennan will also challenge for a spot on the blue line.  Of much concern to Leafs fans, the Sabres offensive core that eviscerated the buds remains unchanged, so these moves will likely end up being inconsequential.