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NHL Morning Papers: Are the Leafs a playoff team?

Living in Canada, the exposure to hockey is greater than any other country in the world. While more exposure to hockey is a positive for all hardcore hockey fans, the over exposure of the Toronto Maple Leafs drives many a fan crazy. This is a team that has not hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup since 1967 and, to be honest, hasn’t done anything of significance since that storied year. I won’t begin to tease Leafs nation by wondering whether the 2007/08 version of the Maple Leafs will win the cup because that would be a waste of everyone’s time. Keeping it simple (and, of course realistic), let’s evaluate whether the Leafs have become a playoff team over the off-season.

Before we examine the Leafs’ transactions over the summer, let’s examine the moves of the other eight teams that finished ahead of the Leafs in the standings.

1. Buffalo Sabres: The top team in the entire conference last season lost, arguably, its two best players in Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to the Rangers and Flyers respectively. Additionally, the team also let Dainius Zubrus walk to the Devils after trading for him at last season’s trade deadline. With all that said, the team still has lots of firepower up front and a world-class goalie in Ryan Miller. I expect the Sabres to fall off their 2006/07 production but they won’t finish below the Leafs.

2. New Jersey Devils: Losing Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski would cause most teams to nosedive in the standings; unfortunately for teams in the Eastern Conference, most teams aren’t run by Lou Lameriello. The Devils are a team that is loaded with young talent and they have done a good job of incorporating some young puck moving defenseman on their blue line. Never mind the fact that they have the best goaltender in the world in between the pipes and that they hired one of the best coaches in the world, Brent Sutter, over the summer. It is safe to say that this squad is not missing the playoffs in 2007/08.

3. Atlanta Thrashers: This is a team that is led by its duo of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. Hossa is entering a contract year, and should put up his best season yet in 2007/08. Having said that, the progression of this team most likely lies in the hands of young goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Thus far in his career, his inconsistent play has cost his team some games in the standings and has even cost him substantial playing time. Expect Lehtonen to have a much better season in 2007/08, however, expect the Thrashers to be fighting tooth and nail for one the final two playoff spots.

4. Ottawa Senators: Other than replacing Bryan Murray with John Paddock, the defending Eastern Conference champs did little to change the look of their team this off-season. With the amount of top-level talent they have up-front and one of, if not, the best one through six defenesive corps in the league, and it is safe to say this team is going to finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference once again.

5. Pittsburgh Penguins: This is my favourite to win the Eastern Conference in the upcoming season. The team has loads of young talent on the front, and back ends. Every young player on their team just continues to get better and new general manager Ray Shero did an admirable job of augmenting his young talent with the likes of Petr Sykora, Mark Recchi and Darryl Sydor, all three of whom have won Stanley Cup rings. The Leafs have zero chance of finishing ahead of this team in the standings.

6. New York Rangers: The Rangers had a tremendous off-season which saw the organization sign both Chris Drury and Scott Gomez to patrol center ice on Broadway for the next few years. While I do have some concerns about team chemistry and the team’s defence, those concerns are in regards to the the team’s Stanley Cup capabilities because this team is a synch to make the playoffs.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts can go only as far as its terrific trio of Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis take them. Goaltending always seems to be the issue with this squad and, once again, it will be the question heading into next season. Expect the Bolts to be fighting for a playoff spot up to the final days of the regular season.

8. New York Islanders: The Islanders began the off-season with the ultimate addition by subtraction transaction by buying out Alexei Yashin. Unfortunately for Isles’ fans the team then lost Ryan Smyth, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov and Jason Blake to free agency. The Isles should be finishing in the last few spots of the Eastern standings this season, and are one team the Leafs can expect to finish ahead of in the standings.

With a rundown of last season’s eight playoff teams, it becomes readily apparent that the Leafs’ chances are not especially high to even make the playoffs this season. While they have improved in net with Vesa Toskala, and on the wing with Jason Blake, these moves are not sufficient to make them anymore than a chance playoff team. We have not even taken into account the improvements made by teams behind the Leafs in the standings such as the Capitals and Flyers. It says here that Leafs’ fans should probably start looking forward to the housecleaning that will be the 2008 summer.

On to the morning papers: