Another year, another disappointment for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It's been three straight seasons out of the playoffs and the Leafs are in need of dramatic changes if they are going to avoid running the streak to four.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what figures to be a challenging summer in Toronto.
"For us to become a better hockey team, we need at least a half dozen changes, if not more," general manager Cliff Fletcher told the Toronto Sun. "Whether or not you can accomplish that in one off-season, I don't know."
Fletcher deserves some credit for at least noticing that dramatic changes need to be made -- and he tried to make significant swaps before the trade deadline, only to be rebuffed by players with no-trade clauses -- but it's going to take every ounce of creativity for the Maple Leafs to undo their current problems.
The first objective for the Maple Leafs should be to find a general manager to take over from Fletcher, who was brought in as a stop-gap solution after the firing of John Ferguson Jr.
The rumour mill initially churned out names like Brian Burke, Jim Rutherford and Ken Holland, but none of those currently employed general managers appears to be the solution right now and it's up to the decision-makers at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to find a qualified candidate that they can leave to manage the hockey club for the next four to five seasons.
Whether it's Fletcher or a new GM calling the shots this summer, the Leafs are going to have to re-model the roster.
There was endless debate, leading up to the trade deadline, about Mats Sundin's value to the franchise and, now that he's an unrestricted free agent, that debate will heat up again.
If the Leafs are successful in shedding some salaries, either via trade or buyouts, then perhaps some significant additions can give Toronto a fighting chance at the postseason. But, make no mistake, it's going to take a lot of work.
As Fletcher told the Toronto Star, "Where our hockey team is now, we have to get a helluva lot better so we'd better explore everything."
Knowing that major changes are needed is only half the battle. The Leafs knew that major changes were needed before the trade deadline and couldn't swing any major deals, so there has to be some concern about whether they will be able to address all their needs with major off-season moves.
Top Prospects: Nikolai Kulemin, Robbie Earl
After years of frustration, injuries and lack of productivity, Nik Antropov finally rewarded the Leafs for their patience by putting up a career-high 56 points. Now 28, Antropov figures to be a mainstay on one of the Leafs' scoring units.
Last summer's prized free agent signing, Jason Blake, was a total bust. Despite being far-and-away the team leader with 332 shots on goal (good enough for fifth in the league), Blake managed just 15 goals; the first time since 2001-2002 that he finished under 22.
While the Leafs might want to shop Blake, it could be tough to find a taker for the four years and $15-million left on his contract. That being the case, Toronto should hope that Blake will be able to rack up another 300 shots on goal, but perhaps he'll finish at closer to the 10.3% rate that he has since 2002-2003.
Alexei Ponikarovsky gets miscast in a first-line role when plunked on Mats Sundin's wing, but he's a good second or third line option, who has a nice combination of size and speed and is good for 20 goals or so.
A strong finish to the season should provide hope for Alexander Steen. There's been no shortage of optimism for Steen in his career, but he's now 24 years-old and it's time for him to show that he can produce consistently in at least a secondary scoring role.
While Darcy Tucker's overall numbers (including 34 points in 74 games) indicated a down season, he had a much better second half of the year once he was healthy. He seems to be overvalued in Toronto but, when he wants to be, Tucker can still be effective as an agitator with a little bit of a scoring touch.
Mark Bell beat the oddsmakers and was even worse with Toronto in 2007-2008 than he was with San Jose in 2006-2007. It's too bad, because he has enough skills that he would be able to help, but that seems less and less likely, particularly with a summer of jail time awaiting him. Depending on the plan of attack for next season, Bell could be a buyout candidate or merely a wildcard that could play anywhere from line two through four.
He's not going to score a ton, but Boyd Devereaux does enough in a limited role, using his speed and smarts on the penalty kill.
Thrust into the NHL lineup before he was ready, 20-year-old Jiri Tlusty showed some flashes of ability, but he shouldn't be pushed to a prominent role yet and could very well spend some more time developing his game in the AHL.
24-year-old Matt Stajan had a career-best 16 goals, but that was offset by his career-worst minus-11 rating. He has the skills to be a solid third-line centre, but he didn't produce enough last year (33 points) for a guy getting nearly 19 minutes per game.
Kyle Wellwood endured a terrible season in which he scored 21 points and was minus-12, leaving his future very much in doubt. The Leafs could deal him, and likely find a taker that sees his puck skills as a boost for the second line and the power play, but after such a poor season, he wouldn't figure to command much on the trade market.
Hopes are high for Russian prospect Nikolai Kulemin, who scored 21 goals and 33 points in 57 games with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He's a solid prospect who could be a nice addition on the second line if he makes a smooth transition to the North American game.
Bates Battaglia may be under contract for another season, but there seems little to no chance that he'll be anything but a Marlie next season.
Of course the big question in Leafland will revolve around the future of Mats Sundin, who is set to hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. Do the Leafs continue down the same path, tweaking the existing core in the hopes of squeezing into a playoff spot, or is it time to start fresh?
No matter what their decision, the Leafs still need to fill out the forward ranks and will undoubtedly dip into the free agent market to do it. How much money they have to spend will obviously depend on the Sundin situation and whatever other moves (read: buyouts) are made to clear room under the cap.
When the Leafs do dip into free agency, they can look at Jaromir Jagr or Marian Hossa if they are looking to make the big splash signing, but might also consider either or both of the Flames pair of Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius in an attept to upgrade their scoring.
Top Prospects: Dmitri Vorobiev
Maligned by the hefty free agent contract he signed in the summer of 2006, Pavel Kubina actually had a strong season in 2007-2008, scoring a career-high 40 points. He still may be trade bait at some point in the summer, when he's not covered by a no-trade clause, but Kubina should now bring some value in return if he is moved.
Tomas Kaberle's production slipped slightly from where he'd been in previous seasons, but his 53 points was still good enough for ninth among NHL blueliners. He plays small for his size, which can be frustrating at times, but his outstanding passing skills make him valuable and it's to the Leafs' good fortune that Kaberle insisted on staying in Toronto and not waiving his no-trade clause.
The 2007-2008 season was a long one for Bryan McCabe, who played in only 54 games because of a couple of injuries and that contributed to his finishing with only 24 points -- his lowest total since 1998-1999.
McCabe falls under heavy scrutiny because of his massive contract, and there's little likelihood of him living up to that pay rate, but he can be effective as a power play point man. He's another that the Leafs might like to deal, but he has a no-trade clause so McCabe will have the final say.
Ian White took a step back in his second full season, turning the puck over a little too frequently, but the 24-year-old is a decent puck-moving defenceman and could move into a more significant role if one of the high-priced blueliners is dealt.
Few players in the league can match the injury history of Carlo Colaiacovo, who hasn't played more than 64 games in any of his five pro seasons. When he is healthy, Colaiacovo gives indications that he could handle being a top four defenceman, but only the hopelessly optimistic would go into the season counting on Colaiacovo handling a prominent role on the blueline.
A late-season audition for Anton Stralman showed some nice puck skills while also revealing holes in his defensive work. Only 21, Stralman can play on the third pairing and grow into a bigger role as he matures.
Staffan Kronwall has played a very limited role in two seasons shuttling back-and-forth between the Leafs and the Marlies, but hasn't proven to be any better (or any worse) than a number seven at the NHL level.
If the Leafs go to bolster their defence corps (perhaps after trading one or two of their high-priced incumbents), they could definitely use a tougher, more physical presence at the back end. On the free agent market, players like Brooks Orpik, Kurt Sauer, Dmitri Kalinin and Jim Vandermeer would be among the younger options while Jason Smith, Adam Foote and Aaron Ward would be among the more veteran choices.
Top Prospect: Justin Pogge
In his first season as a full-fledged number on starter, Vesa Toskala generally fared pretty well, but it was an up-and-down ride. The fluctuations could certainly be minimized if the Leafs were to add a stabilizing presence on the blueline, but Toskala is more than adequate as the starting goaltender.
The backup spot, however, is a much more contentious issue. Andrew Raycroft lost the starting job to Toskala and couldn't get on track all season, posting a 2-9 record with a 3.92 goals against average and .876 save percentage. With one more season, at $2.2-million, left on his deal, Raycroft is a prime candidate to be bought out or waived.
Justin Pogge improved significantly in his second pro season and appears to be on his way to the NHL, perhaps as soon as next season, where he could ease into the NHL game with 20-25 starts as Toskala's backup.
Otherwise, the Leafs will have to seek out a new veteran backup because it seems unreasonable to expect Raycroft to handle that position any longer.
7th - Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Filatov, Luke Schenn, Cody Hodgson
The Maple Leafs have approximately $42-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Three top nine forwards, one defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Maple Leafs needed last year: Three top nine forwards, backup goaltender
Who did they add? Jason Blake, Mark Bell, Jiri Tlusty, Vesa Toskala
Kubina, McCabe, Blake, Tucker, Wellwood, Stajan
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org