Monday, December 13, 2010


It's a good time to celebrate the play of Tomas Kaberle. Last week he was my choice for Leaf of the Week, on the strength of 4 assists in 3 consecutive games, and for being a surprise plus/minus leader. Kabby continues to shine this week, notching his first goal of the season Saturday night against Montreal, and setting up another, as the Leafs played one of their very best opening periods of the season.

7 Points in his last 7 games.

The best plus/minus on the team (+2).

Surpassed Ron Stewart (838) for games played Nov. 20th vs. Montreal and Darryl Sittler (844) on December 4th vs. Boston, to move up to 8th (849+) on the Leafs all-time games played list.

Kaberle's goal, the game-winner Saturday night vs. Montreal, and the 81st of his career, equals him with 80's super-legend Al Iafrate, and puts him now just 2 back of Bryan McCabe.

With his latest assist, also Saturday on Kessel's opening goal, Kaberle moves ahead of George Armstrong in to sole-possession of 5th on the Leafs all-time Assist leaders list at 418.

He is 1 point away from career-point 500.

Give it up for Kaberle. And let's hope this isn't a swansong, but the beginning of a team-wide resurgence.

Pride and Glory. Go Leafs Go.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ron Wilson: Coach Of The Year For A Day

I love this goal. As glorious as Nazem Kadri's shootout goal was, I like this one even better. Have a look:

I love the fact that this goal tied the game with under a minute left. I love that Ron Wilson used his time-out and set up a very clever play. I love that 5 forwards - Grabovski, Kulemin, Kessel, MacArthur, and Versteeg - are on the ice.
As they line up for the face-off, Grabbo is taking the draw, MacArthur is to his right by the boards, Kaberle at the right point, Versteeg at the left point, Kulemin on the inside at the hashmarks and Kessel on the outside in the high-slot.
But then it gets interesting. Grabovski INTENTIONALLY gets himself thrown out the face-off circle.
Kulemin steps forward as if he's going to replace Grabbo...
...but then Kessel calls him off and slips between them to take the draw. Grabbo and Kulemin drop back into position, and when they do...
...Grabbo takes Kulemin's spot on the inside and Kulemin takes Kessel's spot in the high slot. This little switcharoo momentarily confuses Chara and the Bruins right before the draw.

Kessel doesn't get an assist on the goal but he deserves to as he wins the draw cleanly back to Kaberle.
Kaberle gathers the puck at the right point...
...and cruises into the centre of the ice along the blueline...
...and continues all the way over to the left point.

Let's rewind that:
Look where he came from...
...and where he went. Kaberle draws every Bruin over to one side of the ice and rotated the set-up 90 degrees to the left. Now, not only are the Bruins not sure who they should be covering, they're not even sure where they should be.

Just as Kabby has everyone's attention and has them all leaning on the wrong foot...
...he slips the pass over to MacArthur, now manning the right point.
As everyone scrambles from left to right, MacArthur blasts it as hard as he can...
...INTENTIONALLY wide right. As the Bruins continue to scramble to the Leafs right, all of them have their backs turned to Versteeg who's dropped down low on the left.
The puck banks hard off the backboards and comes right to Versteeg.
Thomas is completely out of position and Versteeg reacts quickly and puts the puck in the top corner of the open net. Tie game.

That the Leafs would go on to collect 2 points by winning the shoot-out makes it that much sweeter.

What a great goal to rescue the best team effort we've seen all season. And what a crazy, complicated, cunning and inspired strategy that I have no doubt was entirely orchestrated by Ron "Deep Blue" Wilson (who also made the gutsy decision to throw Nazem Kadri out first-up in the shoot-out). And for once the players finally executed with the necessary precision.

Nice to see a 65+ minute effort from the crew and nice to see Wilson make a difference. Hopefully this is a turning point in our season.

Friday, December 3, 2010

8-2-3 When Scoring In Either Of The First Two Periods, 0-10-1 When They Don't

Anytime the Leafs score within the first 40 minutes of the opening face-off, their chances of success improve dramatically. Anytime the Leafs score in the 1st or 2nd period, the excitement value of the game skyrockets.

Everytime the 2nd period ends and the Leafs have yet to score a goal, I'm reminded of a quote from Brian Burke from way back in the first week of the season:

"Then, the rest of it for me is, we want to have a certain attitude. We want to play an entertaining style. We don’t trap. We pursue the puck in all three zones. We hit in all three zones. We fight. And we try to score a lot of goals. We’re not afraid to trade chances because our D is good because our goaltending is good, we’re not afraid to trade chances, which leads to an entertaining hockey game.”

My teams play a style that’s designed to entertain."

-Brian Burke speaks with Paul Hunter, published October 8th, 2010

October 18th vs NYIslanders,
after 4o minutes 1-0 NYI, final score 2-1OT.

October 21st vs NYRangers,
after 40 minutes 2-0 NYR, final score 2-1.

October 28th vs Boston,
after 40 minutes 2-0 Bos, final score 2-0.

October 30th vs NYRangers,
after 40 minutes 2-0 NYR, final score 2-0.

November 2nd vs Ottawa,
after 40 minutes 3-0 Ott, final score 3-2.

November 9th vs Tampa Bay,
after 40 minutes 3-0 TB, final score 4-0.

November 10th vs Florida,
after 40 minutes 2-0 Fl, final score 4-1.

November 20th vs Montreal,
after 40 minutes 1-0 Mon, final score 2-0.

November 26th vs Buffalo,
after 40 minutes 2-0 Buf, final score 3-1.

November 27th vs Ottawa,
after 40 minutes 3-0 Ott, final score 3-0.

December 2nd vs Edmonton,
after 40 minutes 3-0 Edm, finals score 5-0.

Scoreless after 2 periods 11 times and shutout completely 6 times in 24 games - 25% - zero Leaf goals in 1 out of every 4 games so far this season.

This isn't entertaining at all. No NHL team with a fan base this big should have this little to cheer bout.

Is it possible that the Leafs have learned all they can from Wilson? Isn't it possible that the team could retain the best aspects of Wilson's teachings and keep it in their back pocket while moving on with a fresh approach? The Leafs are well versed in their responsibilities but what they seem to need is someone who can spark their imaginations and get the offence rolling. Someone focused on scoring goals and winning now. Someone who grants freedom and allows creativity and someone who inspires courage and determination.

Someone who forgives mistakes so there's no fear in making them. Someone that promotes confidence, not insecurity. Someone who encourages the players to celebrate their success.

Someone who can teach them about Wendel and Dougie and Mats.

I'm not gonna tell you who I'd bring in as interim-coach for the rest of the season, but I'll give you a hint: it's a name I've mentioned before, and it begins with "Todd" and it ends with "Gill" and it rhymes with "Totally Awesome".

If he's not availbale, my second choice is Frantisek Kaberle Sr.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Word Is Leaf: November

Hey Gang! Sorry for the absence of posts and updates from this corner. Time and inspiration are in short supply these days.

Someday, I'd like to do a post reflecting on the life and career of Pat Burns, celebrating the great work and character that he brought to the game. He had a wonderful impact here in Toronto, as he did everywhere he went. He will be remembered and missed.

I'm kinda cheating with The Word Is Leaf this month. There were a lot of things said, a lot of excuses, and a lot of cynicism, but none of it seems humourous now, and only one quote really deserved merit and pointing out:

"You can say all you want about getting shots, but guys are playing soft in their end and in front, guys aren't competing, getting to the hard areas. It's pretty easy for their defencemen to box our forwards out. We're just not battling hard enough... Have a little will, take pride in getting to the net and take pride in scoring goals. Goals don't come free in this league. From the perimeter, guys have to be a little more hungrier."
-future Captain Luke Schenn

Here's a rundown of some random thoughts;

* I really feel for Schenn and Gustavsson as I think they've both been really good this year. I feel bad for Kaberle too and I think he's been excellent overall despite struggling with players that don't have his offensive imagination. However, without a dramatic turnaround and fast, Kaberle's usefulness and value will quickly diminish. For his own sake, I hope Kaberle finds a way off this sinking ship before it's too late.

* Versteeg at the point on the powerplay with Kaberle has been a good adjustment.

* While Mitchell and Lebda are obvious scapegoats, Tyler Bozak has been the biggest disappointment from an expectation perspective.

* Kessel doesn't really seem like himself lately. In October; 7 goals, 2 assists, 9 points in 10 games. For November, 3 goals, 2 assists, 5 points in 13 games.

*Clarke MacArthur has suddenly run cold with just 1 assist in his last 5 games and no goals over 12 games since November 2nd.

* Nikolai Kulemin, this week's Leaf Of The Week, has scored exactly half of the Leafs goals over the last 5 games - 4 out of 8. Kulemin has 4 goals in the last 5 games while the entire rest of the team has 4 goals combined. And Versteeg has 2 of those.

* Kadri added a brief spark when he was brought in - 4 assists in 5 games - but it didn't take long for him to adjust to Wilson's style and attention to detail and in the last 3 games Kadri has settled in as a minus 3 with no points.

* And now the really bad news. The Leafs have 4 wins in their last 19 games. 4-11-4 since opening the season 4-0-0.

* In the last 19 games, the Leafs have been shutout through 2 periods of play 10 times. Since that miraculous 4-and-oh start, the Leafs have scored a goal in the opening 40 minutes less than half the time...

* It's hard to fathom that the two above points can occur without a coaching change being imminent. How can a team endure a 4-11-4 slide without the coach being fired? How can a team go into the 3rd period without a goal 10 times in less then 20 games without the coach being held accountable?

* The ACC has often been described as a morgue, but on Tuesday night, with the Leafs ahead 3-2 and just 12.5 seconds on the clock, I was astonished to see the crowd sitting in their seats for the faceoff in the Leafs end after the time-out. Just a dozen seconds away from snapping a two-game losing streak and securing a 4th consecutive victory on home-ice, after a gritty performance by Gustavsson and a limb-sacrificing shift from Mike Brown, and the Toronto audience - the best hockey fans in the world in my estimation- aren't standing and clapping and urging the Leafs on to victory. They're just sitting there, passively observing. It's curious. My first inclination was that these fat cats in the gold and platinum seats just don't care about hockey the way the middle-class and working-class do, but that's a pretty silly generalization that unfairly judges people I don't know. I don't understand how the economy works so I can't really discuss it, but there's no law that says that any amount of money you have should stop you from caring about whatever you want to care about, including hockey teams.

Instead, what I think we're seeing, and it's not just limited to the sushi-crowd but is actually happening in every corner of Leafs Nation, is total disenchantment. A reluctance, nay even a refusal, to embrace and believe in our own fantasy constructs. Complete emotional disengagement while remaining utterly fixated. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the Britney Spears of the NHL. The world's most popular train wreck.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Free Gunnar Now

From what I gather, Keith Aulie made a positive impression in his debut performance, despite the Leafs losing for the 8th straight game. To be honest, the only thing I noticed about Aulie is that he's really big, but most of the reviews I've seen were kind. Still, he finished the night a minus 1 over 14 minutes of ice-time, so not a great impact.

Now, I really don't have anything critical to say about Aulie, but I can't help wondering why on earth does Carl Gunnarsson have to continue sitting in the press box? It's bad enough that he's been pushed aside to find ice-time for Lebda, but now Gunnar is sitting out healthy for somebody else's NHL debut while the Leafs are in the midst of terrible slide? Is the Leafs record of 1 win in their last 12 Gunnarsson's fault? Seriously, what did Gunnarsson do to get so deep in Wilson's dog house?

Our first loss of the year was the first game Gunnarsson sat out. Our first regulation loss was the very next game, with Gunnarsson still in the press box. Gunnarrson returned the next game, but now the wheels had fallen off, and the Leafs lost once more, 5-2 to Philadelphia. Since then, Gunnar has appeared in just 4 of the last 9 games. Why?

Through 9 games this season, Gunnarsson's plus/minus is even. He picked up his first point of the season, an assist, on November 3rd, an overtime loss to Washington. He's played one game since then.

Brett Lebda, after 9 games played, is a team-worst minus 7. He's a minus 6 in the last 5 games and a minus 5 in the last 3. He has zero points, yet hasn't been a healthy scratch since November 2nd.

The Leafs record with Gunnarsson in the line-up is 4-4-1. With Lebda in the line-up, their record is 1-5-3.

I'm seriously confused by this.

When Phaneuf was acquired, I lamented the fact that Komisarek's season had been shortened due to injury. As the season wound down, Gunnarsson was proving himself a very capable top 4 defenceman. In the summer, I agonized through the suspense of Kaberle's trade window, hoping desperately that the Leafs best six defenders would get their chance to suit up together. Finally, after waiting since January 31st, the Leafs season began with a blue line that was truly worthy of getting excited about.

Phaneuf. Kaberle. Beauchemin. Komisarek. Schenn. Gunnarsson.

They didn't disappoint. The Leafs won 4 straight.

Komisarek struggled early and his minutes were down. Wilson left him in there to find his game, and he did. With the injury to Phaneuf, Komisarek has seen a huge increase in minutes and responsibilities, and he was ready for it and has responded well.

Gunnarsson was not afforded a chance to struggle and was yanked from the line-up as soon as he did. His efforts to rediscover his game have ever since been thwarted by not being allowed consistent playing time, and meanwhile the team's confidence is plummeting around him in a downward spiral.

I'm all for bringin' in Aulie as an extra defenceman and giving him ice time - ahead of Lebda. But Gunnarsson, unless he has injury trouble we're not aware of, should be in the line-up on a nightly basis, no question. He was a good player for us last season over 43 games with a team leading plus 8. He was more a part of this team then Jeff Finger was, or Exelby, and he should be contributing more this year then Brett Lebda. Now, with Phaneuf out of the line-up, there's no excuse nor reason for Gunnarsson to still be trying to sort things out from the press box. Let him find his game on the ice, fighting for the 4th-5th spot and not for the 6th-7th.

Seriously, Gunnar deserves mention - and a spot - alongside Schenn(+3), Kaberle(+2), Komisarek(+3), and Beachemin(+3). These guys are great, but they're not leagues ahead of Gunnarsson, and collectively they've lost their shine since Gunnar's demotion. He's not in the same category as Lebda, or Exelby, or Finger, so I don't know why you'd treat him like he is.

Some players go through slumps, and sophomores seem to get it the worst, but the only cure is believing in yourself and having success on the ice. It's chicken and the egg, but that's the way it goes. The best players don't dwell on bad games and past mistakes. They forget it, move on, and bounce back.

Let me be clear about this:

Carl Gunnarsson, 9 games: even plus/minus.

Brett Lebda, 9 games: team-low minus 7.

Confidence is something that doesn't come that easy,” said Gunnarsson. “Once you lose it, it's tough to get it back.”Great. Now the kid's wondering if he's worse than Brett Lebda. Nice going, Wilson.

All Gunnarsson needs to regain his confidence - and form - is regular ice-time and a show of faith. And as a key member on our exceptional blueline, on a team that's entirely without answers, it's the least he deserves.