NEW PLAYERS 10
NEW RULES HURT
BETTER THAN '03-04? NO
Talk about timing. In the year the NHL has vowed to create a fast and free-flowing game, the Maple Leafs are trying to win the championship that has so long eluded them by putting on the ice a big and relatively plodding team. If the league fails to pick up the dawdling pace of the Dead Puck era, the Leafs, with a lineup that includes nine players older than 30, will be their usual dangerous, ornery selves. Otherwise Toronto--with no Cups in 38 years, no Hart Trophy winners in the past 50, no Norris Trophy defensemen ever--could have yet another depressing winter.
Rebuilding since 1967, the Maple Leafs have added three notable, native Torontonians in Eric Lindros, 32, Jason Allison, 30, and Jeff O'Neill, 29, all wildly productive forwards at their zeniths but now all on the wane, mostly because of injuries. The double-barreled whammy of the salary cap and the NHL's proposed rule changes dinged the Leafs more than any other team, yet general manager John Ferguson Jr. remains optimistic. "These guys are proven commodities," Ferguson said of his newcomers. "We know, being local guys, they'll take pride in the club."
The Leafs, who lost five of their eight leading scorers from a team that had the fifth-best record in the last NHL season, have grown accustomed to getting scoring from the back line, a bonus that will probably diminish with the departure of Brian Leetch. Bryan McCabe becomes the de facto No. 1 defenseman, but with the coming crackdown he may as well take a time-share in the penalty box unless he can tap some unknown reservoir of speed. Estimable goalie Ed Belfour will whitewash many of the Leafs' deficiencies, but the 40-year-old has a chronically bad back--he had a ruptured disk repaired 14 months ago--and the Leafs face 38 back-to-back games, a schedule that can age anyone.
Still, looking at the roster, Toronto does look like a favorite to win the Stanley Cup: the 1996 Cup. --M.F.
Goalie Ed Belfour will struggle with the new puckhandling limitations ... Mats Sundin remains very underappreciated.
• ALL CAPS denotes new player