Make or Break

September 13, 2012

Finally back after an agonizingly long summer after what was one of the most disappointing seasons in Maple Leaf history. Just in time to hit the training blogs providing some assholes don’t lock me out of my computer for a second time in a decade.

For now let’s ignore the elephant in the room and act like Luongo fans, expecting the see great hockey on Oct. 11, while knowing full well that this isn’t going to happen.

So what went wrong last year?

Well, the obvious answer is goaltending. Reimer, even before concussing himself with Gomez’s elbow, was not showing his tremendous athleticism from the season before as he struggled the work with system handed to him be François Allaire. He became a target for the puck to hit instead of fighting for every save.  This left him in awkward positions, making it near impossible to scramble across the net for rebounds or bad bounces. But it didn’t end there, while he was out The Monster damn near earned his nickname, while good enough to win with during December, he was among the best in the league to start the new year. Then he hit a wall, his confidence shattered and The Monster’s play declined to far to even play backup for Patrick Roy.

It wasn’t just goaltending though, the defense corps bare more than a little responsibility for that massive collapse. Captain Phaneuf started off the season looking like the kid who landed his massive contract, Komisarek seemed like less of a liability and Schenn wasn’t a huge disappointment anymore. But then late January came. Liles went out with an injury, Komisarek and Schenn couldn’t take the strain of the terrible system implemented by Wilson, and Phaneuf… vanished. By the end of the year the back end was in complete disarray and seemed incapable of adapting to the game plan of Randy Carlyle on the fly.

Will those holes be fixed by the time the puck drops to start the season? Hard to say, Reimer will be healthy with a young, hungry kid trying to do exactly what he did to Giggy the season earlier. As for the defense, there is little to suggest that there will be vast improvements while the roster remains pretty much the same. Sure with more experience Jake Gardiner should continue to flourish, but will he be able to take over the top spot should Liles go down again? That remains to be seen as does whether Liles even be able to return with the flare he showed to start last season.

As for the offense that may be the only strong point to start the season. Finishing 10th overall in both goals for and PP% was a major accomplishment for this young team. It may be hard to repeat with a more defensive minded Carlyle at the helm by the addition of JVR will certainly help make up the difference, especially is Kulemin is unable to bounce back after a terrible year.

All in all there is not much change of the team this year, the real change will come from behind the bench. Only once we see what these guys bring the ice will we know if the problem was indeed Wilson as so many believed or if the players, and by extension Burke, need to go.

 

 

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Fork in the Road

May 27, 2012

Depending on the path Brian Burke and the Maple Leafs follow this season there are several different scenarios set to unfold. Exactly what happens will be determined by the performance of the team this fall.

No one would argue that the Leafs need a serious upgrade in goal; something as simple as a goalie cutout would provide some mild improvement. It might even be the more humane route given the dedication from the players in the defensive zone. Right now the thought is that Burke is in search of a solid, veteran goaltender (flashback to Giguere) but will that really solve the problem? Or will it simply create more?

Let’s not forget how poorly Giggy played in Toronto, but how amazing he performed in Colorado. The problem may go beyond the crease. What happens if the Leafs bring in a slightly overpriced but proven winner who continues to excel? That pushes James Reimer to the backup role and Ben Scrivens doesn’t get his very well deserved shot with the big club. The fallout continues, impacting intriguing prospects Jussi Rynnas and Mark Owuya, at least one bound for ECHL, a far cry from the starter roles they would surely get in the Swedish Elite League. Aside from Optimus Reim taking a temporary back seat, it’s hard to argue against any of the tenders taking at least a small step forward. With any luck they will all accept their role for next season; the last thing this organization needs is disgruntled goaltending prospects taking off to the SEL or KHL never to return.

If the rest of the lineup remains the same I don’t think goals will be a problem after a top 10 finish this year. Even with a more defensive approach the Leafs have at least 4 potential 30 goal scorers (Kessel, Lupul, Grabovski, Kulemin) so shoring up the net should go a long way to sending this team into the post season.

So what happens if the Leafs succeed this coming season? This is what concerns me the most; it seems very clear right now that a successful team under Randy Carlyle will simply spell the end of Dallas Eakins within the organization. This could stand to be the biggest loss for the team since mindlessly dismissing Pat Burns after the talent around him was distributed across the league. Dallas Eakins isn’t destined to leave Toronto although his ascension to the NHL would likely mean the end of playoff hopes for another season and draw to a close the disappointment of the Burke era.

What is better for the long run? Risk losing very promising goalie prospects and a man who is arguably the best coach outside the NHL? Stay the current course; find out how good you are within the organization at risk of losing the entire front office right in the middle of an extended rebuild?

I want nothing more than to be standing where Kings fans are right now. They stood behind their leader, Dean Lombardi, as his teams missed the playoffs year after year but with patience and sticking to his long term plan the Kings are now in the Stanley Cup finals. Would it be right to give Burke the boot and have another executive start another rebuild? No. Even if you bring in someone new who follows the course already laid out it’s hard to argue they can execute it with the same attitude and moxie as Burke. Who else could have gotten Dion Phaneuf for spare parts or mined the ranks of the Swedish netminders union for these rough cut diamonds we have now?

How will this play out and what course is best for the present and the future? I have no goddamn clue, just a nagging feeling that losing Eakins will be a mistake and, no matter the outcome, in 1 year this organization will be very different.

 

 


“Enter Season ending Cliché here”

April 16, 2012

Where did it all go wrong? The non-concussive concussion on Reimer from that intentionally unintentional non-elbowing elbow delivered by Montreal’s Brian Gionta? The dramatic falloff of Captain Dion Phaneuf starting in December? The league’s clandestine policy refusing pylons from taking over the net when your starters take an early vacation? Lupul falling into those old bad habits of sitting on his ass all game long during the end of the season?

It is hard to say but let’s get two things straight: it is neither Ron Wilson’s nor Brian Burke’s fault (at least not entirely). First with Wilson, he made his team lethal until the all-star break; even after the goals evaporated upon the arrival of Randy Carlyle and the injury to Lupul this team finished 10th overall in goals for and powerplay. Combine this with a reinvented penalty kill that went an entire month without giving up a goal and it becomes really hard to make an argument that Wilson is the main reason for the collapse. Carlyle’s team was considerably worse than Wilson’s.

As for Burke, would a trade or two really have made a difference this season? Sure a goalie would have been nice, but after stealing Lupul, Gardiner, Phaneuf and shipping out nothing but 3rd rate players to get them it is no real shocker that NHL GM’s are hesitant when dealing with the Leafs. Burke may no longer be able to oversell his players to wary GM’s who are now ensuring they get fair compensation to avoid getting burnt.  Right now the Leafs are better off with their 5th overall pick instead of a veteran goalie and a matchup against the Rangers or Bruins.

Forgetting the Racicot-esque goaltending, the disappointment rests on the shoulders of the players; specifically Lombardi, Komisarek, Schenn, Armstrong, Kulemin, Connolly and Steckel.

Starting with the forwards on this list: Lombardi, a throw-in in the deal to acquire Cody Franson, was never high up on the depth chart, but came in as a reliable two way vet and former first line centre from­­ one of the most defensively responsible teams in the league. What we got was an incredibly fast skater with no scoring touch whatsoever and defensive acumen rivaling Pavel Bure, finishing with a team worst -19.

With Armstrong and Connolly, both entered the season with lukewarm expectations but if they combined for 90-100 points it would have been a raving success. Instead they combined for 39 points in 99 games, or one point every 2.5 games. Nowhere near the production needed from a top centre or high energy agitator.

As for Steckel, his job was winning faceoffs and win them he did. Unfortunately after the draw was over he was a complete liability on the ice. He was too slow, not at all physical enough shut down the league’s top scorers and lacked enough defensive awareness to keep his 6’6” frame in the shooting lanes. This meant he would go out, win a faceoff and still get scored upon, finishing with a -14 rating. He was on the ice for more even strength goals against than he had points – not an effective shutdown man.

The biggest let down on the team this season was Kulemin. No contest on that one considering he had more goals last season than points this season. On the positive side his defensive skills are among the best on the team and if his scoring touch does not return then he could fit in nicely on the 3rd or 4th line with a different role. There is no denying that if Kulemin produced like he had last year the Leafs would have had a much different look, maybe even been a playoff contender. Toronto lost 22 games by one goal, 12 in regulation. It is not hard to imagine that if Kulemin netted an extra 20 goals this season this number could be much smaller. A big play from your hardest worker can inspire an entire lineup, and this team lacked inspiration when it mattered.

When dissecting the Leafs over the past 3 seasons there have been at least 2 constants: embarrassing penalty killing and defensive lapses. This was supposed to have been the main job of 2 players, Luke Schenn and Mike Komisarek. Both have been described as stay-at-home defenders ready to punish all who enter their zone. The reality has been 2 players who rarely use their strength to successfully defend their zone and have an odd inability to play any type of structured defense. Opposition need only to glide out of these bruisers’ line of sight and are forgotten, left alone to skate into some of the most dangerous scoring areas unchecked. Tap in after tap in are shoveled past Leaf goalies and replays often show Schenn or Komi idling in front of the net with a shocked expression, clearly puzzled as to why these players would so rudely return to that spot after being politely asked to leave. These 2 “defensive defencemen” have combined for a startling -41 in the past 3 seasons and played huge minutes on the league’s worst PK in that span.

Did Burke and Wilson do everything right? No, there have been problems in both approach and execution by both men. It certainly didn’t help that both had a different idea of what the team’s identity should be. In the end, though, both are proven winners and their plans have worked elsewhere. While blaming the coach and front office is easier, in the end the players didn’t do their jobs and had they even reached the minimum of expectations a few extra points could have been found in that disastrous 7-17-4 run that ended the season.


Tales from the East

March 27, 2012

With the regular season winding down and the playoffs just a few weeks away the races for the final three playoff spots is on. As of today there are 3 teams in the East and 5 teams in the West with a realistic shot of making the grade. But no matter what the outcome you can be assured of one thing: the Leafs will do everything in their power to ensure they avoid any chance of selecting in the top 5 in the draft.

It’s a sad but true reality in this era of sub-mediocrity in hockey’s capital city. So in keeping with the tradition of Leafs Nation it is now time to take a look at those teams fighting for their playoff lives and determines which ones should receive invitations Quarterfinal Classic and join the Leafs on the links to start the postseason.

Today, the east:

Ottawa Senators: Never underestimate the power of the Moustache. The rest of the league did a few months ago and now its power has spread, covering more than just a lip. Bad goaltending and questionable defence now fall under the protection of the almighty soup-strainer, often beaten but somehow the puck stays out of the net. Capable of running red hot or Daigle cold, this team could go either way, however are most likely in the post season thanks to the early season vacations taken by Ryan Miller and Alex Ovechkin.

Over the final five games the Islanders and Canes should be an easy 3-4 points but playing host to Boston and visiting Philly and New Jersey could spell an early end to the season. Chances: 7/10

Washington: A quick glance at their remaining games, (Buf, Bos, Mtl, TBL, Fla, NYR) and it is hard to imagine the Caps falling short of that final spot if they manage a win against the Sabres tonight. The sudden reemergence of Ovechkin is likely all the Caps need to push them over the edge. Goaltending is the question mark, without Vokoun the likely hood of a postseason berth drops faster than the Wild. Chances: 5/10

Buffalo: New owner? Check. Inflated contracts? Check. Top end goalie? Check. Breakout seasons? Check. Yep the Sabres are on a path similar by the Montreal Canadiens when they made a push deep into the playoffs 2 years ago. Their biggest  game of the year comes tonight against the very team they are tied with. After this game however, things look decidedly more grim: Pittsburgh, Philly, Boston. Only a home and home against the wilted Leafs offers much hope to the Sabres. If they manage to take 4-5 of these games it would be a miracle, but 3 may be all they need to make it to playoffs. It may all come down to tonight. Chances: 4/10

Beyond these three teams you have an honorable mention: The Jets, still alive mathematically, have decided to further their borderline copyright infringement of the Leafs. First it was the Leaf in the middle of the sweater, the predominately Blue and White colour scheme and entire roster comprised of former Buds. Now it is the late season collapse including losing big games on home ice. Where will it end?

So with the East pretty much decided, Leafs nation sits. Waiting. And or the first time in many years there seems to be little to look forward to next year.East


Home Stretch

March 8, 2012

So Long!

Farewell!

Alvederzane!

Goodbye!

There, I think that takes care of those four teams fighting for a playoff spot. It’s always polite to give a friendly word and a wave as someone you know passes. The Leafs are on a roll but the team bus is stuck in reverse, drifting past their opponents and out of the playoff picture.

Yes, the Leafs, most likely, will not make the dance once again and lucky #7 will surely be included along with all those annual parade jokes. Don’t confuse that with “can’t” after all until the math tells you differently there is hope. For right now forget about Lupul, Wilson, Kadri and the let downs mounting as this season ends. Just for the moment focus on one thing: there is a hope.

Leafs Nation needs to put themselves behind this team, all the complaints about the lineup and recalls are moot, this is the team, support it. Take a look at Winnipeg and you get a clear view of what a positive , electric building can do for a team. On the road the Jets are terrible, but at home they have the 4th best record in the East.

The only real difference is the atmosphere: Leafs games have a steady, disgruntled buzz, couple that with the empty platinum seats at the start of every period and you have a hostile environment at home. There are times when boo’s or the Bronx cheers rain down after a single goal, these players are clearly feeling the pressure and as fans it is our duty to be behind them 100% of the time they are on the ice.

Bitch about them online, at work or directly to the GM himself. But for the love of hockey, scream yourself hoarse when they take the ice and don’t stop till the season ends, hopefully that will be well into the spring.

And right now, all we have is hope.


Competition Committee

February 22, 2012

There is a rather telling trend between the pipes in Toronto, one that has been going on since Monster was originally courted and brought overseas: Competition.

It just seems as though it would come so natural, athlete vs athlete in a head to head competition. The reward? Be the #1 goalie with the biggest team in the hockey universe, arguably the pinnacle of the sport. Why wouldn’t this be the best way to go? Just a look around the League and you can see where this approach has produced all stars.

In St. Louis there is Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. Last season both goalies were handed their starting roles and failed to live up to expectations. This season Halak is playing at his highest level since wrangling the starter role from Carey Price in Montreal. And Elliot, embarrassingly bad with Ottawa and Colorado, would be a no contest Vezina winner if he played more than half of the Blues’ games.

It doesn’t end there; Tim Thomas found a new resolve when his job was lost to heir apparent Tukka Rask a few seasons ago. In Florida it is perennial backups Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen splitting duty with renewed success. Go back a decade and the first playoff appearance for the Ottawa Senators was due in part to the elevated play and determination of Damien Rhodes and Ron Tugnutt to make their mark as starters in the bigs. Not to mention the perennial battle on Long Island to fill the massive void left by the Porcelain Protector of the cage, Rick Dipeitro, that has led to resurgences for Dwayne Roloson, Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov.

But this formula does not work for everyone. Look at the aforementioned Price, whose play plummeted when he had to compete for his job. This is similar to what is happening in Toronto this season. When James Reimer broke in last year there was not supposed to be a chance for him to compete for a starting job. So without this pressure he just went out thinking of the future. When he was called back up he was the clear #1. Monster and Giggy had been effectively shut down for the season so it was an extended audition for the new guy. Jump to the start of this season: Reimer posting solid numbers as the undisputed front man before he apparently concussed himself. (I thought he got hit in the head by a Hab, but Shanny thought otherwise.)

Enter the Monster. Bad out of the gate and with Ben Scrivens being handed the reins Monster’s fight for ice time continued. When Reimer, no longer the only option, returned he was clearly feeling the effects of the injury and Monster was given his shot. One good start became three then Monster was given #1 status. The promise of consecutive starts led to the best month of Monster’s career. But when he faltered Reimer was sent back in the net and the competition started in earnest. The results have been disastrous. Right now neither goalie looks like an NHL regular, much less a starter. History has shown both thrive when they are the #1 man, and while fighting for starts they start to fight the puck.

You have to wonder if this carousel of starts is really the best way to handle to manage these two young, unproven netminders. Some athletes thrive on competition, others need job security to get over the mental hurdles. Which do we have here?


Never tell me the odds

February 20, 2012

This Is the most exciting time of year, trade rumors fill the forums and the New York Islanders get eliminated from playoff contention. Oh tradition.

But there is only one thing that really matters to the NHL: How many Canadian teams will make the playoffs? After all, these are the only franchise’s that contribute significantly to keeping the Phoenix Coyotes afloat. Let’s take a looks at their chances:

 

Toronto Maple Leafs

Will make it if:

–          Kessel and Lupul rediscover their early season scoring touch

–          Ron Wilson learns that the appropriate time to pull a struggling goalie before the 4th goal

Will miss if:

–          They continue to play without a goaltender

Ottawa Senators

Will make it if:

–          Spezza, Michalek and Alfredsson continue to exceed expectations

–          Anderson decides to stop allowing his cousin to fill in for him

Will miss if:

–          They continue rely on Spezza, Michalek and Alfresson exceeding expectations

–          Paul Maclean shaves

Edmonton Oilers

Will make it if:

–          The kids continue to behave and remember to send advanced letters to Santa

–          The bulk of the Western Conference throws the season in hopes that a first overall pick could go to an team that will make use of the prospect

Will miss if:

–          Let’s just face it, they will miss

Vancouver Canucks

Will make it if:

–          They keep playing in a division with the Oilers

–          The Sedins continue to confuse defenders by switching places

Will miss if:

–          Some industrious fan from a rival team places some of BC’s famous plant in the ‘Nucks bags before a lengthy southern road trip.

Winnipeg Jets

Will make it if:

–          Claude Noels pre game interviews continue to put visiting teams and fans to sleep

Will miss if:

–          Keep dressing players cut from some of the worst Leaf teams in franchise history.

–          Byfuglien keeps telling stories of what happened to the last team he won with.

Calgary Flames

Will make it if:

–          No one other than Kipprusof plays goal

–          The opposition keeps thinking Iggy is the only threat on the team

Will miss if:

–          A Sutter has any input on a trade

 

Montreal Canadiens:

Will make it if:

–          Hell Freezes over