Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stempniak I Like - It's The Rest Of These Guys I'm Not Sure About


Setting in.

Welcome to Toronto, Lee Stempniak. Welcome to the airport, where random yahoos will chant "Go! Leafs! Go!" if they see a hockey stick and a hockey bag. Welcome to the ACC, where the best seats in the house are empty for the first five minutes and the last 5 minutes of every third period. Welcome to an economy that no one understands, but we're all slaves to it anyways. Welcome to a 6-3 loss to Atlanta on home ice. Welcome to Ugly.

Blowing a 2-goal lead in the 3rd period against Chicago was very depressing, especially so since it came on Wendel Night. A shake up was understandable. The Leafs responded with a terrible game against the worst team in the East. Their record for November stands at 3 wins and 8 losses. I'm unable to instantly explain what's wrong with this team though, and while goaltending is an issue, there must be more to it then that, so I'm going to look at each player individually and assess their performance, one by one.

Antropov -- Last night had a lucky goal, but was a not so lucky minus 2. He didn't take the night off though, he just had a bad night. His 6 shots on goal was a team high. Antropov now has 8 goals, 8 assists, second on the team with 16 points, but only just; Kaberle, Hagman, and Poni are all one point behind with 15 each. So far he's been good, but not great. Bordering on only okay. Significantly less then outstanding or spectacular, which is what he should be.

Blake -- No points last night, minus 1, 2 shots, and was only on the ice for 13 minutes. Took a hard hit to the head and stayed down for some time. Is it bad that I was hoping he was seriously injured? I reacted to the hit the same way I would react to a Leaf player hitting an opponent. I think that is bad, but it's Jason Blake's fault for being so crappy. The Leafs highest paid forward has 3 goals, 7 assists, and has been a healthy scratch twice so far this year.

Finger -- I'm still pretty upset with Finger for the way he ruined Wendel Night, but he responded with a better game against the Thrashers. Wilson gave him a ton of ice time; 24:42 to lead the Leafs, and he had a goal on 2 shots, and was somehow a plus 1. Finger was not expected to be an offensive contributor, but he does have 5 points (1G, 4A) in 14 games, the exact same numbers as Stralman, not bad considering he gives the Leafs significantly more muscle. His role, however, in the Wendel Night dibacle will not be easily forgotten. In fact, I'd say it's a huge strike against him. His weird name and enormous contract is already strike one. Looks like he's going to have to be pretty much perfect from now 'til the end of the season to avoid strike three.

Grabovski -- Had less then 15 minutes of ice time against Atlanta. Didn't get on the scoreboard with any points but had 2 shots and came out even on the plus/minus. Grabovski has been a pleasant surprise this year, and is one of Cliff's best pick-ups from the summer. The kid can dance and dangle and seems to have an abundance of spirit, and there's still a lot of upside to look forward to. So far this season, he leads the Leafs with 9 goals, and a .237 shooting percentage.

Hagman -- Had a goal and as assist last night, but still came out minus 1. His 18 minutes was second among forwards after Stajan. I really like Hagman so far. He's been very consistent, doesn't get knocked off the puck easily, and creates offence every game. After 21 games, Hagman has 7 goals, 8 assists, and is a plus 2. Four of his seven goals have come on the powerplay.

Hollweg -- Perhaps the least popular player on the team, with the only possible exception being Blake, Hollweg played a well-contained physical game last night, throwing a few hits and even chipping in with an assist. He was on the ice for only 7 minutes and came out even on the plus/minus. I guess that's the kind of game that Hollweg needs to play in order to be effective, but I worry that this is his best side, and that eventually the dumb side will resurface. Also, I'm not comfortable with Hollweg taking minutes away from Tlusty, who, at this point, needs every opportunity he can get.

Kaberle -- Nobody misses Mats Sundin more then Tomas Kaberle. Tied for third in scoring on the team with 15 points, Tomas was held off the scoresheet last night. For years he has been my favorite Leaf because of his ability to see the play and move the puck. He is one of the very best passers in the league. The problem, is that this year, Tomas has no one to pass to. He seems lost, confused, and uncertain. Kaberle has the ability to see the play as it developes 2 or 3 moves ahead of time. Unfortunately, no one else on the Leafs seems to have that intuitive sense of anticipation, and as Kaberle looks around, he sees only half the options that he used to when Sundin was on the ice. It's a major adjustment for Kaberle to not have a fellow superstar to work with, and it's hurting his play tremendously. If only for Tomas Kaberle's sake, I hope Sundin comes back to the Leafs, and soon.

Kubina -- Was also held pointless last night, finishing at minus 1, with 2 shots on goal. I like Kubina, but I feel like his numbers could be better: just 10 points after 21 games, and a minus 5. Similar to Antropov, Kubina has been good, but not great, bordering on just okay. I think he's an important player on this teams as it seems that when Kubina has a strong game, the Leafs do as well.

Kulemin -- Saw his ice-time limited last night and was held off the scoresheet. His plus/minus was even, though and he did have a shot on goal, but otherwise was a non-factor. I still like Kulemin, and mostly I think this guy just needs time and patience. He has excellent skills, paticularly his speed, which allows him to keep up with the play and finish his checks consistently, and he never seem out of position for long. He is still very young and inexperienced so there's a lot to learn. The pressure of winning this season should definately not be on his shoulders. The first 20 games were a promising start for Kool-Aid - all he needs to do now is keep showing improvement at each quarter-pole and Leaf management should be happy. For Kulemin this year, it should not be about accomplishments, but progress.

Mayers -- I thought Mayers played a solid game last night, perhaps his best game of the season. In limited ice-time, he was a plus 1, and scored a decisive victory in a fight over Exelby. It should have given the Leafs a spark, but then only 17 seconds later, Cujo did his best Raycroft impression by fishing for a loose puck while leaving the net totally wide open. Mayers did his job last night, and did it well. Too bad Cujo sabotaged his contribution.

Mitchell -- His first two games back in the line up have not been pretty. Last night Mitchell was again held pointless and finished at minus 2. Because of the Steen trade, there is suddenly much more pressure on Mitchell's shoulders to perform. He began the year as a pleasant surprise in camp, and really got our attention with a magical 3rd period against the NYRangers, but now he's in the Big Show for real, with no one else competing with him for playing time. The next 20 games are going to be very important for Mitchell. We'll have a much better idea at the half-way point of where Mitchell is headed, and how much the Leafs can rely on him. So far this year he has tallied 2 goals, 4 assists, in 16 games, and is a minus 6. Those are Alex Steen-type numbers, but optimism is there, and he should improve.

Moore -- Picked up an assist last night, but was a minus 1. So far this season; 4 goals and 5 assists isn't bad for a 3rd or 4th line centre, but the minus 5 needs to be improved upon. In 38 games with the Leafs last season, Moore was actually a plus 7 while the rest of the Leafs were having a disasterous 2nd half. He needs to get back on the plus side of things again if he's going to stay a valuable member of this team.

Ponikarovsky -- Has had a decent year so far, tied for 3rd in team scoring with 15 points and is a plus 4. Last night, he had his minutes reduced by Wilson in favour of Stempniak, and was held off the scoresheet, going minus 1 on the night in just 12 minutes of ice-time. So far I think he's doing allright, but the arrival of Stempniak is rightfully going to put more pressure on Poni to perform as a top-six forward. If he doesn't, a checking role on the 3rd or 4th line awaits.

Schenn -- He is the future. He is making mistakes now, but he is learning. NHL competition is not easy for an 19 year old stay-at-home defenceman, but anything that doesn't kill him is making him stronger, and Luke is already on his way to being a strong, strong man. For now, he's a kid, and a minus 7, but Wilson - along with the rest of Leaf Nation - is monitoring his progress closely with a long term view. Way too early to pass judgment on a player that has his whole career ahead of him still.

Stajan -- It looked like another solid game for Stajan last night. Despite being a minus 1, his name was on the scoresheet yet again after picking up an assist on Nik Antropov's goal in the 2nd. Stajan currently has 20 points after 20 games played, an astounding Sundin-like pace through the first quarter of the season. So far, I'd say Matt has been the Leafs' most pleasant surprise this year. I'm happy for him, and I really hope he keeps it up, but I also wonder if his trade value has ever been higher. Seems to me like the going rate for a 25 year old averaging a point a game this year, is 2 former first rounders.

Stempniak -- Made a fairly impressive debut last night, picking up an assist, and finishing with 3 shots on goal and an even plus/minus. By the 3rd, Wilson already had him replacing Poni on the top line with Stajan and Antropov, and Stempniak didn't seem out of place. I'm looking forward to seeing more from this guy, but all signs point to positive. In his last 2 games with the Blues, he assisted on Brad Boyes' winning goal Saturday against the Wild, and scored the winning goal in overtime last Friday against the Ducks. He's currently rolling on a 3-game point streak.

Stralman -- Assisted on the Hagman powerplay goal in the third, but was a minus 2 overall, and played the fewest minutes of any defender. I'm still not completly sold on Stralman as an everyday defenceman, but his time to prove it to me is now. With Van Ryn and Frogren out of the line-up for a few weeks, Carlo gone to St. Louis, and White better suited as a forward, Anton's only real competition for a spot on the blue line is himself. Hopefully, Anton's Christmas present to the new GM Brian Burke will be a surplus of top-six defenceman to work with again.

White -- Has become one of my favorite players on the Leafs, but we'll see how long that lasts for. I really like him at forward, and the results have been good, but with Carlo traded and Frogren and Van Ryn injured, our surplus on defence has suddenly disappeared, and White may be forced back into a position that he doesn't really excel at. It's too bad, because he seemed to be finding success at forward, but until we get either Frogren or Van Ryn back, White's progress might get derailed. Confidence is a funny thing, and right now White's confidence seems strong at the forward position, but much less so on the blue line. Hopefully one of the other defenders will get back soon and White can continue his vast improvement in the position that he's best suited to play, which for the Leafs, is up front.

Frogren -- Did not play vs. Atlanta. Injured himself somehow in the Chicago loss with a muscle tear in his arm that will keep him out from 4 to 6 weeks. The injury couldn't have come at a worse time for Jonas, who had been waiting patiently for his chance to get back into the line-up. Carlo's exit to St. Louis seemed to be that opportunity, at least until Van Ryn came back, but now all that ice-time is going to go to Stralman, and sadly, Ian White.

Tlusty -- Did not play vs. Atlanta. Believe it or not, I think Tlusty hasn't still had enough exposure yet and needs more of a look. He's appeared in only 9 games so far and has yet to register a point.

Van Ryn - Did not play vs. Atlanta. Has not played since November 8th and is still recovering from serious injuries. His play is missed, greatly. Through 14 games, he had 8 points, with two powerplay goals, and was a plus 1. I really hope he gets healthy soon so we can welcome him back into the line-up as one our regular top-six defenders. I'd say he's earned it.

Toskala -- Did not play vs. Atlanta. Has been a considerable dissapointment so far this year. Hasn't stolen a single game, with the exception of a shoot-out loss to the Rangers way back at the 2nd week of the season in October. His poor play has certainly cost us a few games, and the Leafs are nowhere near talented enough a group to survive a continuous streak of soft-goals against. It appears to have already affected their confidence and not having any competitive accountability from his back-up goalie doesn't help either. It's entirely up to Toskala to turn himself around now, but after a slow start last season, he did, so I'm willing to give a little patience here. The playoffs, however, are quickly fading out of reach, and it's going to take more then consistency to get back in it; it's going to take spectacular. His numbers are: 7-6-4, .333 GAA, and an .876 save %.

Joseph -- Also didn't play vs. Atlanta. Not really. He doesn't look sharp at all, which is really too bad, 'cause the Leafs could really use a surprise performance from somewhere right now. Cujo is without a win so far, but in my mind he only needs to get 3 - one more then Raycroft's total from last season - for me to be happy. Looks like he plans to make it interesting. His numbers are terrible: 0-3-1, .395 GAA, and a brutal .851 save %.

I thought about "grading" each of the Leafs' performances with a letter grade, but basically the whole team gets a C- with just a few exceptions: Stajan, Grabovski, and Hagman, are all A to A-, and Toskala and Cujo are D- on their way to an F. The other players that didn't play Tuesday against Atlanta don't deserve to be graded because they haven't played enough.

So there you go, Lee Stempniak. Welcome to Toronto. Now you have a sense of who your teammates are and what it feels like to lose in a Maple Leafs' uniform. Welcome to a city where every player's performance is scrutinized in every medium, especially, it seems, in blogs like this one. Welcome to the Center of the Hockey Universe, Lee, where fans enjoy getting to know their players on a first-name basis. Do you mind if I call you "Lee"? By the way, I think Stempniak is totally the kind of name that I could see being engraved on the Stanley Cup. LEE STEMPNIAK. Just like that. Totally.

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