The Maple Leafs are on the move. They're shifting from the
Western Conference to the Eastern Conference, which will enable
them to play the Canadiens, their fiercest rivals, more often.
Then, in February, Toronto will ditch Maple Leaf Gardens, its
home since 1931, for the Air Canada Centre, a spiffy new $174
million arena. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, their team won't
move in the most important place, the standings.
If the Leafs (30-43-9 last season) are to improve, they must
upgrade an inept offense that in '97-98 scored only 194 goals,
the fourth fewest in the league. To make matters worse,
Toronto's anemic power play produced on only 11.4% of its
opportunities (25th in the NHL). Center Mats Sundin is the
Leafs' prime scoring threat, but he's unlikely to surpass his 33
goals of last season without help. Derek King is the only other
Maple Leaf to score more than 20 goals. Toronto is counting on
injury-plagued free-agent signee Steve Thomas to bolster its
attack, but he scored a scant 29 goals over the last two years
with the Devils.
Behind the bench Pat Quinn, 55, replaces Mike Murphy, who was
fired after failing to guide the Maple Leafs to the playoffs in
his two seasons in Toronto. Quinn hopes to punch up the Leafs'
offense with an aggressive attack that features a quick
transition game. He'll also work to improve Toronto's mental
state, something he feels held the Leafs back last season. "If
you're not sure you can win, that's a bigger obstacle than a
lack of skill," he says.
Goaltending is one area in which Toronto is skillful. In July
the Maple Leafs signed star free agent Curtis Joseph to a
four-year, $24 million deal. The plan was to trade last year's
starter, Felix Potvin, for a scoring forward, but at week's end
Toronto hadn't been able to work a deal for him.
Quinn hopes the new arena and the conference switch might help
reverse Toronto's fortunes, but he says the most important
change would be the Leafs' figuring out how to win. "A team can
get so defense-oriented that it views breaking up the other
team's attack as success," he says. "We have to alter the
mind-set of the team. Instead of sitting back, we have to get in
someone's face and make him beat us."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Since Dave Keon got the Conn Smythe in 1967, no Maple Leafs
player has won a major NHL award (Hart, Norris, Ross or Vezina),
the longest such streak by any team in the league.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--New goalie Curtis Joseph must be as stingy in the regular
season as he has been during the postseason for Toronto even to
think about qualifying for the playoffs.
--The Leafs have to get tougher now that they've moved to the
more physical Eastern Conference.