It’s Early But…

October 28, 2013

Taking a look back at the start of this season there are some very good trends; mainly the bars in Leafs nations will be making killer sales and the cardiology departments in area hospitals will have no shortage of patients as all fans will require a visit to one or the other.

Being a Leafs fan right now is that strange mixture of pain and pleasure usually reserved to some exclusive clubs in the heart of Amsterdam. Some games you can’t help but scream in adulation while others will have you begging for a safe when things go more than a little too far. This weekend for instance was not one anyone could have predicted.

Game 1: An undisciplined, special teams failure allowing 5 goals against a team whose offensive ceiling is so low Mike Holmes is being called in prop it up.

Game 2: A near perfect 1st and 3rd period2, solid defensive effort shutting down the best player in the world who is likely to outscore the entire Rangers lineup all on his own.

Flip those around and you have a far more grim assessment of the season, Leafs beat the middling teams, and struggle against the real talented groups. Instead they seemed to pick up right where they left off in game 6 against the Bruins. (I still find it strange that they never played game 7 in that series last year) The Leafs, seemingly outclassed, bring their best hockey to the table, pulling out a big win even without some key players. Now Imagine them with a healthy lineup containing 4 players capable of 30 goals or more (Kessel, JVR, Lupul, Kadri), 2 players previously hitting 30 (Clarkson, Kulemin) and 2 depth guys playing the best hockey of their careers (Bolland, Raymond) and it you really get a sense this team can compete on the scoreboard with any team.

If offense was all that mattered then this lineup would be set, unfortunately, as has been the case for my entire life, the Leafs have an okay, but gaffable defense corps that can be dangerous in both ends of the rink. Captain Phaneuf seems to have settled down nicely this season, but his lack of speed and poor decision making under pressure have cost the Leafs a few times already and as much as I like Gunnarsson there is no way he should be a top pairing shutdown defenseman. However with a severe shortage of defense first blueliners and the likely hood of terrible play from Paul Ranger there isn’t anyone else to take on that role. Sure the likes of Rielly and Gardiner give us hope for the second coming of Niedermayer but they are not players I would trust to face the big guns on a nightly basis.

In the end it comes down to goaltending, and there has been some tremendous and terrible moments from them both so far. With Reimer there is always the heart stopping rebound that he somehow manages to dive in front of or the seemingly harmless wrister that finds a way in. Overall however he seems to be an NHL starter capable of winning it all, though it is yet to be seen if he can carry a team on his own. With Bernier you have a much simpler, controlled game. He seems like a godsend with the way he can… avoid rebounds. But that control comes at a cost as he has a much harder time recovering to make the second save when needed. The biggest issue with Bernier though has to be his focus;  with Reimer you have pure intensity while Bernier’s attention (as we’ll be reminded in top10 lists for years to come) tends to drift but this is something that can be improved upon.

In the end this is a team that reminds me of the early Potvin era, a talented feisty team with the potential to surprise any opponent and with Kerry Fraser out of the way who knows what may be possible.


Seven and Out

May 14, 2013

The world did not end, hell has not frozen over (although it is pretty chilly here in Ottawa today) and both are clear indicators that Toronto will not win the cup this year.

Right now it is hard to measure the… soul crushing disappointment felt around Leafs Nation today. It’s as though the Boston Bruins grabbed hold of the collective heart of Toronto and tried to squeeze the spirit from hockey’s Mecca. It’s that feeling within every Leaf fan today, deep in the pit of our stomachs; a mixture of rage, sadness and bewilderment. Surely a day marked on the calendar of every antacid and antidepressant manufacture around the world.

There is something else though, if we look deeper. Something bigger. Right now it sits buried beneath all the bitterness stirred up last night but is slowly taking root. In time it will overgrow the melancholy aura that will surely be enveloping Leafs Nation until the playoffs are through. Once it does our fandom will transcend into something bigger, louder and prouder than the NHL has ever known: The overwhelming potential of the future.

For 9 years “the future” has been used to either mock the Maple Leafs and their fans or help maintain their sanity while rocking gently in the corner of a dark room.

It’s truly different now. As the youngest team in the NHL, Toronto exceeded all expectation this year. All major networks called them to miss the playoffs, some even to be out of the running before the real push came at season’s end. Instead this team defied the odds and, with an exception of a few days here and there, remained in playoff position all season, even challenging for the division title in the final weeks. They followed that up with passionate, hard nosed hockey for 7 games vs Boston, a series even their faithful said would be short and only lost by a goal. Phil “The Thrill” yet again finished top 10 in league scoring and has finally slayed his Boston demons, netting some beautiful goals. Nazem Kadri blew all competition out of the water for significant stretches even placing in weekly “three stars” alongside Alex Ovechkin. James Reimer has settled the long standing argument over who will play goal. Combine these three stars with the amazing upsides of Joffrey Lupul, JVR and high ceiling of Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and you have an incredibly talented core, all under the age of 30.

The list of depth players is equally impressive: Jay McClement, Nik Kulemin, and Leo Komarov look to be a shutdown line to rival Randy Carlyle’s trio of Pahlsson, Moen and Niedermayer that anchored the only cup team in Ducks history.

As a team that boasts a roster heavily stacked with elite scoring potential, heavy hitters and unwavering dedication to blocking shots the future is incredibly bright.

Better yet, this time the future is only one off-season away.

Go Leafs Go

One Down

January 21, 2013

Now that felt good. Just as good as I remember and there was very little to complain about after the first 60 minutes of leaf hockey this year.

Kadri showed patience and hands gathering the puck, firing it over a sprawled Carey Price to net the team’s first of the season. Mike Kostka looked at home playing alongside Dion Phaneuf and made some terrific plays, stealing the puck from Canadiens players in scoring position. Bozak, Kessel and Lupul seemed to find the odd spark in the defensive Carlyle game plan.  Grabbo, Kule and C-Mac are still to be determined; they had moments but didn’t really bring the electricity seen 2 seasons ago. Finally, Scrivens didn’t let in any stinkers, which of course instantly vaults him to the status of Goaltending God in Leafs Nation.

There was only one let down: Montreal is not a measuring stick.

All the positives that came out of that game are worth noting, but you may as well forget them by the home opener later tonight. To say this edition of the fabled Habs is destined to disappoint is an understatement. It’s a good thing they passed that torch around, they will need it to light their way down to the basement.

Saturdays game would have been painful to watch if you were a Habs fan. They were emotionless, played without an edge and were very sloppy. So while Toronto did manage a good win that included some sound defensive hockey, they did not have to contend with much and only won 2-1. Let that sink in for a minute, now try not to think what the outcome would have been if Crosby and Malkin replaced Plekanec and Desharnais.

But for right now the Boys in Blue are undefeated, and things are good in leafland at the moment.

The less said about the embarrassment revolving around the Ballard-esk Burke firing the better.

A Dead Horse

December 10, 2012

With this damn lockout continuing to drag on it is clear that neither side is truly interested in saving the season. The blame lies equally with both sides in this moronic dispute. The NHL with its greedy attempts to strip players of nearly everything they gained in the last CBA and the NHLPA with their complete unwillingness to negotiate in any significant way. (Don’t buy the rhetoric; Fehr is yet to move towards the owners side in any meaningful way)

It doesn’t really matter what side we choose to support, the fans opinions come last so the decision is moot. So don’t be taken in when both Bettman and Fehr talk about the fans, they are just pandering to what they consider to be ignorant, annoying fleas.

Still, there is a problem with the game and it has to be addressed. Right now in the NHL there is a large amount of struggling teams. The embarrassment in Phoenix, ineptitude in Columbus, disinterest in Dallas as well as both Florida and California are all part of the problem (among others of course). The League seems to think simply taking money away from the players will make up for these financial short fall. They refuse to recognize that many of these are failed markets that will never truly embrace their franchises.

The League is losing money (or not making enough) because of these dead markets. They have been dead for years yet there is an insistence to keep force feeding the sport where interest is lowest. There is no reason to keep these franchises in place; there is no shame in moving a franchise.

If you relocate a team, even if it is unsuccessful in the long run, you will have short term gains that follow when a new franchise is formed. You get big money from fans willing to dish out for brand new jerseys, hats, sweaters and trinkets. There will be scores of businesses lining up to attach themselves to newest attraction in town. But even more, there is potential that hockey will flourish in the new markets, where it has slowly bled to death over a decade in current locals.

Kansas City has an NHL rink sitting empty and the market is begging for a team, yet they get ignored. Quebec City is just a few years away from renaming themselves Montreal just to steal a franchise. These are two markets absolutely itching to rejoin the NHL. In the Salary Cap era they are a thousand times more appealing than the majority those franchises that scrape more snow off their ice surfaces than their roads.

The NHL is locked out to shore up the business side of the game. Business 101 is cutting you losses and looking for new opportunities. Regardless what they are fighting about right now the League is shut down because of poor management, dead markets and refusal to exploit new ones. This falls squarely on the shoulders of the Leagues head office, or in other words: Gary Bettman.

The outcome doesn’t matter, if the dead weight continues to be dragged along the financial state of the game will never improve.

All Star Shame

November 24, 2012

At least some good has come out of the lockout. It may be a small victory, but at least we won’t be forced to suffer through then embarrassing display the league refers to as the All Star Game. (Though I am sure that single Columbus Fan will be thoroughly disappointed)

I have nothing against the game or the weekend festivities. Hell, I even make it a point to watch the skills competition each and every year. The event has great potential, but the NHL’s execution of it is nearly as bad as the 1-hour tape delayed NHL Awards.

It is mind boggling how those in charge can be so inept when it comes to showcasing the stars of their league. Take this stupid modern rendition of the relay for example. This event almost always comes to a screeching halt as we watch stationary players feather a puck into a miniature net. Anyone else remember how exciting it was the watch a Sedin (not sure which one, they all look alike to me) fire the puck cross ice for what felt like an eternity? No? Oh well that’s likely because we were all daydreaming about how much more exciting it would be to watch Josh Beckett take to the mound at Fenway.

What was wrong with the old relay? Players stick handling around pylons in at full speed, weaving through as best they could. It was a showcase of speed, control and talent. It was a race. Players remained behind the goal lines until their teammate came racing across the line. Now the stars are simply loitering around their stations and all urgency has been stripped from the event.

That event is only slightly better than the ridiculous Slam Dunk Contest… sorry, “Breakaway Challenge.” The idea is a good one, you send super talented players down the ice to preform amazing feats of dexterity and creativity. You see amazing feats like this on YouTube every year, albeit from the collegiate or minor hockey level, the problem is those skills are not a clean as it seems. The only moves that make it online have been practiced for ages and fail 90% of the time, it’s only the successful attempts that go viral. After several years of watching players flip the puck into the air trying unsuccessfully to bat it in the only moderately positive results have been from Ovechkin donning a hat and Patrick Kane playing Superman. In fact the best part of the event to date was Carey Price facing the end boards and still being able to make the save. That alone tells you this event has got to go.

Combine all this with the inevitable technical difficulties (remember when the radar gun broke? When the timer broke? When the other timer broke?) and the dead air in between events and this is an event circling the drain. It really is a shame though, with the speed and talent they have one the ice they should be able to put on a great showcase. At least we can forget about it for one more year.

What if 2012/13 starts

November 6, 2012

What will this season be like if the lockout ends and the NHL opens it’s doors to the masses? There are some obvious answers – Tortorella will make some cub reporter run home crying, and the Phoenix Coyotes will remain in the perpetual state of “being sold.” (Hard to imagine they will be since they are yet to sell their product to the local fanbase)

But around the League there are interesting story lines that could end up adding some spice to what has so far been a season more boring than a Kings vs. Rangers cup final would have been.

Columbus Blue Jackets: With 2012-13 potentially being shortened this will be the most lucrative season in franchise history. Without having to pay a full season on player salaries it is reasonable to assume the loss column will have only two numbers preceding the 000,000’s on the deficit report.

Toronto Maple Leafs: While all stories currently focus on Brian Burke and his supposed pursuit of Luongo the more important move may result from his ongoing attempts to make Mats Sundin waive his No-Trade Clause.

 Nashville Predators: Shea Webber almost obliterated the entire franchise this off season. Now, if they can harness all that potential energy and funnel it to the on ice product someone may actually remember the name of Carrie Underwood’s husband.

Anahiem Ducks: Not nearly so mighty last season and will have to deal with a slightly unstable Bobby Ryan, who thought it was time to migrate last spring and started searching for way to follow former head Duck Carlyle up North.

Calgary Flames: Clearly not looking for success this season, but it is hard to figure out Jay Feaster’s overall plan. Bucking the trend of playing prospects and swallowing a season spent in the basement, the Flames have opted for the Maple Leafs approach to rebuilding: Hold onto all old players, overpay midrange defensemen, draft poorly.

Ottawa Senators: Never one to be caught unprepared GM Bryan Murray is looking into speech therapy on the off chance the Sens need to call up Cody Ceci during the year.

Tampa Bay Lightning: While you should never trust someone who carries the biggest stick, wears the most padding and refuses to stand anywhere except behind you; the level of paranoia surrounding these masked men in Tampa is scary. Latest in the line of potential *CEC’s  is Anders Lindback, now set to face the collective team effort to ship him out of town as they did with Roloson, Ellis, Smith, Nittymaki and Ramo.
*Career Ending Contracts

Like a Fat Kid on a Smartie

September 30, 2012

Just like that there is a tiny step forward.

About damn time.

After two weeks of what I can only imagine was the most astounding game of phone tag the NHL and NHLPA have finally agreed on something. Sure it was smaller matters, but if neither side is willing to completely reevaluate their stance on the high dollar issues then it only makes sense to make progress where you can.

It’s almost fitting for this time of year; the two sides seem more and more like a bunch of kids fighting over Halloween candy. First they sort it into piles: one full of disgusting orange wrapped toffee and candy corn, one complete with mini chocolate bars, suckers, caramels and rockets and the final, towering pile containing a glut of candy apples, full size bars and tootsie rolls.

Like foolish children both sides tried to start dividing up the biggest pile while secretly loading up their portion with all the Crunchies and Toblerones while leaving behind the empty wrappers to allow the other side get a whiff of what they think they can get. Both sides however are as suspicious as they are moronic and spotted the one-sided offers and moved quickly to reform the pile. This stems from the greed of the fat kids at the meeting, Bettman and Fehr, wanting everything on the table for their own while still wearing their guises of fairness and sharing.

Unable to evenly split the highly desired pile under the critical eye of mother media they have taken a step back, moved to the second pile. Sure enough after a single meeting this pile is all but split, albeit with one of the fat kids out of the room. This agreement is as redundant as it is important. Sure, both sides showed an ability to communicate and come to an arrangement both sides could live with but in the end the only real point of contention is the division of the biggest pile.

For this pile to finally get split up there is one obvious outcome: the Bettman side will get the lion’s share. They hold all the cards and anyone who says differently is kidding themselves. Last time around the Owners had no problem losing a year while the NHLPA cracked.

The third and final pile will always be there and will never be fought over. Both sides know where it is, but neither cares about it. Both sides regard this pile with superiority and disdain. It will remain sitting out of the picture, ringing the debaters yet ignored by both sides until they need to rally support for another lopsided proposal. Neither the PA nor the NHL will deal directly with this pile as they assume it will always be there, neglecting the fact that without this distasteful pile the other two would not even exist.

As Bettman said, “We recovered last time because we have the world’s greatest fans.”