Thursday, October 30, 2008

Maple Leafs' Halloween

So, I heard that Ron Wilson was going to let the players have a night off for some Halloween fun. Don't be surprised if a few of the Leafs come trick-or-treating at your door tonight. To help you figure out who's who underneath those scary costumes, here's a sneak preview of what some of your favorite Leafs might be wearing...

Jeff Finger a big walking hand! I know, too easy.

Nik Antropov Frankenstein! "Buuugrrrzz Kang!"

Alexei Ponikarovsky the Bride of Frankenstein! Scary.

Ryan Hollweg a Gorilla. That's about right.

Jiri Tlusty the Pizza Boy! Yikes. Delivers, extra cheesy.

Matt Stajan the Invisible Man. A throw back to the first 2 games of the season.

Jamal Mayers the Hot Cop! Arresting and enforcing.

Nikolai Kulemin the Kool-Aid Guy! Oh-Yeah!

Carlo Colaiacovo the Mummy! He must have spare bandages around he can use.

Jonas Frogen the Techno Viking! Except, in this case, he really is.

Trick or treat, everybody. Have a safe and happy Halloween!
(Vincent Price voice) Oooohwaahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.......!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Sundin Update? Not Again!

I wasn't sure if I was going to post this, but I thought, if I don't - who will? Only everybody else! I know everyone's sick and tired of the Sundin drama, especially me, so I decided that I wouldn't bother posting this after all, but then I went and typed the whole thing anyways. And then I hit "PUBLISH POST", and it was too late. Fortunately, I knew all of that was going to happen and included it ahead of time in my introduction, which by now, you've already read.

On the weekend I happened to read an article in the Star by Rosie Dimanno about Mats Sundin. I don't normally care for Dimanno's work, - her last piece on Sundin, when she covered the Festival Cup, was horribly bland and uninspired, - but buried down at the bottom of this article was a really weird bit:

Yet his interest is clearly perked when informed about one well-connected hockey journalist who reported yesterday that coach Ron Wilson believes Sundin will return as a Leaf at some point this year.

"Wilson said that? But did he say he wants me to?''
Sundin, Oct. 24/08

Strange thing for Sundin to ask, I thought. Is that all he's waiting for? Maybe Dimanno didn't have the exact quote in her notes, or maybe she didn't have her notes in front of her, or maybe she doesn't believe in notes, but just so we're not gossiping or playing broken-telephone, here's what Wilson said on record the next day:

"Hey, I wouldn't mind if he came back, and reports say he might come back to Toronto, that he's waiting to see how we play."
Wilson, Oct. 26/08

Aha. He said, he wouldn't mind. That's not bad. That's about as much as you're going to get out of Ron Wilson, I think. The desire has to come from within, Mats. Wilson doesn't want Stajan to play better, he expects him to. If Blake doesn't want to play the way Wilson expects, then he doesn't play. Wilson never said publicly that he wanted Luke Schenn to be part of his top 4 defence this year - but he gave him the opportunity, and now Luke gets the rewards:

"He just came up to me and said: `We're going to keep you. You're not going to have to go back and ride the bus.' That's all he said."
Schenn, Oct. 28/08

Wilson's not going to ask anybody to do anything. Either get the job done or be out of a job. But if he believes in your abilities, he will give you the opportunities. If you accept those opportunities, then you also accept the responsibilty of Wilson's expectations.

"If Mats Sundin came back I would make him the captain."
Wilson, Oct. 26/08

That's a pretty strong endorsement, I would say. Without saying specifically that he wants Sundin to come back, he is suggesting that if Mats did decide to return, Wilson would expect him to lead. The fact that Wilson has left the captaincy vacant, or that Fletcher has built a roster perfectly suited for Sundin while leaving enough cap room to sign him, suggests the Leafs are very interested in having Sundin rejoin them. Without saying so publicly, they've done everything they can to create the perfect conditions for his return. Oh, wait a minute, they did say so publicly:

"It feels like my decision is going to come after there's going to be some other stuff going on with the Toronto Maple Leafs and I'll see what happens there. I'll have to make my decision after that."
Sundin, May 29/08

"After I sit down and tell him what we have in mind -- which isn't for public consumption now -- I think a clear picture will emerge for him," Fletcher said. "I think he'll be comfortable."
Fletcher, early June 08

What wasn't for public consumption then was how Cliff was going to do it. Cliff is a man of his word though, and while it took time to get all the pieces in place (and McCabe and others out of place), the Leafs are a different team this year, a better team, and yet there remains a huge hole in the line-up specifically suited to allow for Sundin's return. Matt Stajan has done well the last 3 games between Antropov and Ponikarovsky, including a goal last night, but, c'mon seriously, Matt Stajan is the number 1 centre on the Leafs?!?

Actions speak louder then words. It's taken a while to get there, but I think the Leafs have more then demonstrated their desire to have Sundin come back. No one wants to lose face on this and look the fool, but, baby-step by baby-step, the two sides are getting closer to resuming the relationship again.

Maybe there really isn't anymore to it then that. If we look back to the beginning of the summer, before Sundin was even a free-agent, the message from Sundin was already there:

"First of all, for me to come back to Toronto, Toronto has got to show they really want me to come back, too," Sundin later added. "So we'll see what happens."
Sundin, May 29/08

Maybe there is more. Maybe it's up to the fans. Us. You, me, and all the other apathetic weirdo's out there who've lost interest in Sundin and don't care if he returns. Some (not me) don't want to see Sundin return because it will decrease our chances of a quality draft pick. Others (also not me) are skeptical of having Sundin back because of the weight of his larger-then-life presence and the way it affects team chemistry. And finally, some people (me) are just bored with the whole thing. They need constant stimulation (totally me) or they lose interest.

So I think I've found the solution. We just need to have our buttons pressed. Generate a little excitment. Once that ball of hype gets going, there'll be no stopping it. One way Sundin could do that himself would be to start talking about hockey again. To show some enthusiasm for the sport we all love. Get that look of determination back in his eyes. Because, as Leaf fans, we know there's very few things more exciting then a determined Sundin.

Another way Sundin could totally win over all Leaf fans would be to return without an NTC. I know, not going to happen, but from a purely PR perspective, it'd be a brilliant move. Let it be a gentleman's agreement between Mats and Cliff. Let Fletcher take the heat at the trade deadline and at the end of the year for not moving Sundin. Cliff is a man on his word, I don't think he would screw Sundin by sending him to a team if he didn't want to go, contractual agreement or not. It doesn't really need to be there, so why should it be there? But imagine the joy in Leaf Nation when it's announced that Sundin has signed without a No-Trade clause. Fletcher would be a hero, and Sundin too. Until the end of the year when the Leafs miss the playoffs again by a single point, but then all the heat will fall on Cliff's shoulders for not trading Sundin when he could have. Fletcher won't care 'cause he'll be stepping down and handing the reigns over to someone else. Meanwhile, Sundin can ride off into the sunset and retire as a Maple Leaf, having thanked the fans for making his dream come true with one last season.

"My dream and the best scenario would be if I ended my career as a Toronto MapleLeaf."
Sundin, May 29/08

No one player, not even Sundin, is bigger then the Leafs' orginization. By demontrating that he understands that, and then leading by that kind of example, without a No-Trade clause - only a handshake from Cliff - Mats can have the send off he deserves, and so can we.

*** An Update to the Update ***

From the comments section, Drake asks a good question:

I've always been a Sundin fan, but having said that, the team seems to be developing some good chemistry without him... Sundins return would obviously demote Stajan, so do you think that might mess up the chemistry?

I responded with: Personally, I think no one wants Sundin to come back more then Stajan.

It seems someone from the Natioanl Post overheard our little conversation and gave us this follow up (Nov. 3/08):

Wilson was asked if Sundin's return - theoretically, at least - would place the team's new-found chemistry at risk.

"I don't see how it could hurt," the coach said. "But that's just speculation.

From the same article, further down, Stajan responds with this:

"I hope he comes back. I hope he comes back to us. He'd be a big boost to our team, for sure... You add one of the best players in the world and, no doubt, it's going to help the team."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Battle of Ontario Blow by Blow

Toronto and Ottawa resumed their rivalry last night, and so for the grand historical significance of the occasion, I've covered the game for anyone who didn't get to see it, or for the rest of you that want to relive it again and again. Here's the Battle of Ontario Blow by Blow, also known as the BoOBbB, round 1.

One minute in
. Neil gets a piece of Stajan and Schenn goes after him. They have a scrap and Schenn looks awesome. Neil comes out of it allright, but the rest of his NHL career is about to get a lot more painful, and a lot shorter.

Bad choice Neil. There will be payback.

First shot for the Leafs goes to Kulemin. Are you playing SPG? Don't ask why. Just do it, okay, who cares why!

Two minutes, 15 seconds in,, Vermette is stopped on a breakaway. Shortly after at the other end Steen is set up nicely by Blake and stopped by Auld.

4 minutes in. Poni takes a hit to get the puck in deep and then Antro does some bangin' down low. Strong play from those two.

5 and a half minutes. Some nice defending by Van Ryn. 45 seconds later, Blake's hard forechecking leads to a good shot from the point.

6 and a half minutes gone. Moore is hauled down. Ottawa penalty Volchenkov goes for clipping(?).

The powerplay had an early drive but then looked slow and lethargic, starting with Kaberle's lazy retrieval of a puck down the ice.

At the half way point of the period, Schenn is looking great and leading the way.

11:30. Great save Tosakla on Alfie in close and then Alfie takes a stupid holding penalty shortly after. The powerplay is again weak. Stajan does okay digging behind the net, but Van Ryn didn't look focused at the point.

Next shift, a beautiful pass by Kaberle up the middle to Grabovski, who is stopped on a breakaway.

Another good shift for the Blake line. Jason Smith nails Moore and gets called for a cross-checking penalty.

6 minutes left in the first. Leafs are 75% on face-offs so far.

14:14. GOAL!!! Taken it to the net! Blake makes a nice play at the side of the net to get the puck in front, and a good crash by Van Ryn and Moore. Dominic Moore gets his second of the year, on the powerplay, from Van Ryn and Blake.

With three minutes remaining in the first, Sens put together a decent shift against the Hagman-Grabovski-Kulemin line.

18:15. Good hit by Steen.

18:45 More pressure by the Sens leads to their first powerplay. Stralman goes off for hooking. (He had a good goal Thursday, but I am surprised he's getting so much playing time over Carlo)

Period ends. Overall a very good first 20 minutes for the Leafs. Shots were 21-9! Faceoffs, 14-3! Wow. Moore leads the way with 4 shots, 1 goal, while 13 different Leafs also had at least one shot on net that period.

2nd Period

First minute. The penalty to Stralman expires and he steps out of the box and into a breakaway, but has his shot stopped.

Next shift features some nice passing by Schenn, Kaberle, Antropov, Ponikarovski, and Stajan.

2 minutes, 15 seconds. GOAL!!! Grabovski from Hagman. Stralman nearly loses it at the line but then kept the puck in and threw it deep to pick up the other assist. Kulemin doesn't get an assist but made a really nice play to protect the puck until it got to Hagman behind the goal. Grabovski's skot was like a comet to the top corner.

4:06. Goal. Mitchell loses his stick in the defensive zone, and then a point shot is deflected. Donovan from Picard and Kuba. Boo.

4:42. Penalty to Ottawa. Volchenkov for hooking. The powerplay for Toronto has some okay pressure but no goal. Should have been another penalty to Ottawa on a Hagman takedown.

7 minutes played in the 2nd. Shots are 9-2 for the Leafs so far in this period (30-11 overall).

The Blake-Moore line again with some pressure. Seems like the Leafs have 3 good lines going tonight.

8 and a half minutes. The 4th line gets some ice time and pressures Ottawa. Leafs controlling the play through the first half of the 2nd.

10:20. Stralman throws a hit.

10:50. Kulemin-Hagman-Grabovski hemmed in. First poor Leaf shift in a while.

14 minute 45 seconds. Mayers and Neil get the crowd going but don't scrap. Mayers drops his gloves, but Neil won't go. Coward. Shortly after, Neil shoves Grabovski into Toskala and receives a 10-minute misconduct.

11 seconds later, Moore gets a holding penalty. Ottawa fails to score or get a good chance. Stajan does a nice job on the penalty kill. Moore then gets a chance in the slot with 2:45 remaining in the period.

With a minute and 8 seconds left, Antropov draws an Ottawa penalty, Schubert for interference. The powerplay really goes nowhere, and the period ends.

Shots 33-13. Face-offs 24-7. The goals advantage is only by one, 2-1.

3rd Period

The good pace to the game continues and the first six minutes of the 3rd go by quickly. Steen has the only early chance.

6 minutes, 45 seconds, Toskala makes a great save, and Finger does a good job clearing the puck.

7:40. Antropov leads a nice rush.

10 minutes left. Back and forth, but neither team with any solid pressure. Leafs are doing a good job of limiting the Senator's attack. Shots are 4-3 for the Sens in the 3rd at this point, 36-17 for the Leafs overall.

11:30. Good shoulder by Finger! His name still sounds weird but he's lookin' allright.

7 minutes left. Another nice pass from Kaberle and Blake is away on a breakaway but then loses the puck.

37 seconds later. Good pressure. Antropov shot - rebound, Pony! GOAL!!! Complete phantom assist for Stajan, who led the rush, stopped just inside the blue line and then had his shot deflect wildly off the glass, behind the net. Antropov picks it up, skates around to the slot, and throws the puck at the net where Poni bangs it in. Leafs lead by 2, 3-1.
Under 5 minutes. Blake throws a hit?! Then Kubina throws a hit. That's more like it. Ottawa's pressure is all on the perimeter.

Blake's hustle with 2 and a half minutes to go leads to a Sens' penalty. Phillips goes to the box for hooking, and that's pretty much it for Ottawa. Great work, Blake.

55 seconds left. Ouch! Ugly short-handed goal by the Senators cuts the lead to one, 3-2. McAmmond banks it in off of Van Ryn's skate, who goes bezerk on his stick and chops it in two. How huge is that Poni goal now? Or the Phillips penalty?

30 seconds. Woweee! Mad scramble and then a lot of pushing and shoving. Spezza gets a little aggressive with Scehnn. I guess Emery wasn't the only player on the Senators lookin' to sabotage their own career. Spezza's is done for.

10 seconds. Senators win an important face-off and Heatley has a chance, but hits Toskala with the puck and it bounces away. Finger clears the puck and the Leafs win!

Two in a row!

My Three Stars:

The third star, Alexei Ponikarovsky

The second star, Jason Blake

The first star, Luuuuuuuke Schenn!!!
Overall, a very satisfying game. There's a box score here. It's always fun when the Leafs beat Ottawa, but tonight it was nice to see the Leafs come together and show some real confidence. Blake really rebounded with a strong effort, Toskala had 22 saves for the win, and several key players, including Moore, Antropov, Kaberle, and Kubina, had strong games. There's still long way to go for both the Leafs and the Senators, but right now, I'd so much rather be us then them. We're four points ahead of them in the standings, but more importantly, we have Luke Schenn - they have a funny lookin' zero on their shoulder.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The White Attitude

It's time to get Ian White back in there. He's waited long enough. Most people have probably forgotten about him by now, or think he's not part of the team's future, or even immediate plans. Well, the Leafs have now lost 5 in a row, and none of those, not a single one, was Ian White's fault. Unless he's doing things in paractice that are so distracting that the PP can't focus on drills (and that may be true; 3 for 27), White is due to get in to the line up now. After all, there's nothing to lose really, other then hockey games.

The blue line is obviously way too crowded for Ian. Even Carlo is having a tough time getting in there, scratched for two of the last three games. Kaberle and Kubina are going to be in every night, and Schenn and Frogren are playing well enough to stay in for now, and Van Ryn with 3 assists looks like he's earned his playing time. That leaves Colaiacovo and Stralman sharing 6th and 7th defenceman duties, and things are going to get much more complicated once 3-million dollar's worth of destructive force known as the mighty Finger enters the line-up picture. Defence isn't where the Leafs need help. I want to see White up front.

White impressed in his debut at forward during the pre-season. What was the point of proving he could do it, if we're not going to let him do it again? Specifically, I want to see him paired up with Stajan and Steen once more, because both those guys really need to get going. Stajan's already had the spotlight treatment after the whole world read my post about his weak performance in game one. Now Steen deserves the same attention. So far he's done nothin', but the pressure will be on him to step up his game and get 'er goin' with White on the wing. Imagine Steen coming to the bench to see this face:
"Please play better, Alex! I really want this job!"

So who should come out? We have two easy choices, take your pick. Blake or Tlusty. No more nice guy from me for these two. Blake is terrible in so many aspects of his game. He does not play Toronto Maple Leafs hockey, he plays NY Islanders hockey or Tampa Bay Lightning hockey, but that's not Leaf hockey.

After floating the puck uselessly at the net over 20 times in 5 games, Wilson limited Blake's ice time Tuesday to just 14:15. Blake finished the night minus 1 with no shots. No shots!? When was the last game Jason Blake registered no shots on goal? Was that his way of sulking? We need quality shots, not no shots. We need players who can take the puck to the net, and players to be going to the net before the shot has been taken.

As for Tlusty, it's Tlittle Tlate. Or not soon enough. After 6 games, it's no goals, no assists, for no points, and a minus 3. I'm not waiting for Tlusty anymore, I don't think he has it. Like Stajan, he plays too soft and doesn't seem to want to stand out one way or another. Worse, he doesn't have Stajan's maturity, or any flexability to his game, and there seems to be zero progression. Time to let someone else - like White - have a turn or two.

There is one other option, and though I don't think I like it, I do love this qoute from Ian White:

"I can't wait to play, forward, defence, whatever. If Vesa (Toskala) or Cujo (Curtis Joseph) get hurt, I'll play between the pipes too. I just want to play."

Beautiful. Reminds me of Todd Gill. Maybe next time Wilson wants to experiment in the shoot-out, instead of Cujo, he can put in Ian White. That sounds fun. Otherwise, he should just leave Toskala alone. Tuesday's game was Vesa's to win or lose, and despite his poor perfomances in shoot-outs past, we shouldn't forget the shut-out performance that got us that far. Toskala didn't let the team down Friday in New York, the team let him down. Specifically, Blake let him down with his weak attempt on the last shot.

Ian White has the right spirit, and since Blake and Tlusty aren't contributing to wins, that spirit should be recognized with playing time. After appearing in 9 pre-season games, more then any other Leaf, White deserves a turn in the regular season as well, if only to showcase his skills for a possible trade. Let White have a chance beside Stajan and Steen again and let's see if the Leafs can lose 5 more in a row. In a year where spirit is everything, having the White attitude should count for something.

*Whoops. Almost forgot to credit Loser Domi for originally posting that great photo of Ian White at PensionPlanPuppets.

**Update - As if to add to my point, Nik Antropov had this to say in this morning's Toronto Star:

"It doesn't matter who you are, you have to earn your ice time," he said. "If you're not playing 100 per cent and there's a guy waiting to play and giving it his all, why not send a message?"

Eat it, Blake.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Looking For Plus Signs

Another sorry Sunday comes and goes. The box of crayons on the floor is still unused and unopened. The unfinished tin-foil Stanley Cup I started building last Saturday morning looks more like a tin-foil Ground Zero. Since beating the Detroit Red Wings in the season opener, the Leafs have now gone 4 games without a win, and only scored one goal in 2 games on the weekend. Pretty crappy. Don't get too down, though. There's always a bright side to look on, right?
For instance, last year when we sucked there were no positives, only excuses and betrayal. Having to listen to Paul Maurice discuss theoretical quantum mechanics while explaining the Second Act of King Lear after every loss would be unbearable. This year at least we're getting solid quotes from Wilson, not to mention a lot of straightforward, easy-to-understand, honesty:

"A lot of times, he's just standing there in our zone."

That's Wilson talking about a player who may or may not be my new favorite Leaf. So there's one positive already; Wilson's wisdom. Let's look for some more plus signs and see how many we can find...

Hustle. The Leafs' energy and speed is much better so far then at any point last season. Aggressive forechecking and smart positioning is giving the Leafs the ability to control the tempo of the play for long stretches at a time.

Accountability. Wilson sat out Stajan for a game in an attempt to light a fire under him. Seemed to work, sort of. Then he threw him into the fire when he put him in the shoot-out. Meanwhile, Ponikarovsky, who began the third period Friday with a needless hooking penalty, saw very little ice-time after that and was demoted to the 4th line for Saturday's game. As for Hollweg, I suspect that the things that were said publicly were not the same as the things said behind closed doors. I think Hollweg must be on his last chance and a very short leash.

Toskala earned his first shutout. It wasn't a win, but it still counts as a shutout, and it's a good sign that Vesa has found his top form. I wonder what the record for most shutout losses in a season is? Something for Toskala to shoot far, I guess.

Kaberle and Schenn look like a good pair. Schenn doesn't yet have the big shot that Kaberle needs to dish to, but together, their positioning is so sound that they seem to have the ice covered defensively and both can move the puck up the ice safely. Also seems like Kaberle is playing a little bit tougher then he did last year.

Antropov scores his first goal. I was a bit worried about Antro because he hadn't scored a goal in the pre-season, so it was good to see him break the ice Saturday night in Pittsburgh. Antropov is a streaky scorer who can go long stretches without a goal if his confidence goes down, but he aslo scores by the bunch when he gets hot, so hopefully this helps the Lanky Kazakh get on a roll.

Carlo's still playing. He hasn't been injured yet. On Friday, he was a healthy scratch. Healthy! Back in the lineup Saturday, Carlo played hard, bangin' and crashin' on the blue-line. He might want to do up his chinstrap a little tighter though. Twice in the same period Saturday, Colaiacovo had his helmet pop off on a colision. The last thing he needs is a head injury, but it's good to see his fearlessness and courage.

The Grabovski-Hagman-Kulemin line looks very sharp. Excellent puck control, they just need to find a little finish. Collectively, the line reminds me of three John Cullens - lots of flash and dash and dipsy doodle but not a lot of goals so far. They look like they should make a good second line, would probably make a great third or fourth line, but unfortunately, they seem to be the Leafs' best line. Hopefully they start to find the back of the net with some consistency, and find a way to turn "dangerous-looking" into "potent".

Frogren looks great. This guy is a monster. He can hit, he can take hits, he isn't afraid to sacrifice his body, throws himself in front of point-blank slap shots, and everytime he gets back up and back into the play quickly. We're still just at the beginning of the season, but already Frogren is giving the Leafs the kind of selfless extra-effort that is usually reserved for the playoffs. I think Jonas is doing an awesome job so far as a defensive specialist, and I think his strong play is making the entire blue line better.
So let's count'em up and see how many positives we found: 1, 2, 3, ...Toskala, ...Antropov, ...the Hagman line is 8, and Frogren is 9. Nine positives in only 5 games. If we count actually winning a game as a positive, that makes 10! That's 2 positives per game. That's quite a pace. If they can keep that up, they'll finish the season with over 150 positive things that could be said about them! Can you imagine? And I was hardly looking, really. Success is worth waiting for, I guess, especially if we can keep things positive and have a laugh or two along the way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Super Kule

I have a new favorite player in the NHL. Exept for a brief period in the 1980's when I thought Jari Kurri was my father, that usually means I have a new favorite Leaf. His name is Nikolai Kulemin. He wears number 41. He is the Leafs second round pick, 44th overall, from 2006, and he's already shown the kind of flash and finish that gets me excited enough to say, "This guy is Super Kule!"
Nikolai Kulemin demonstrates some nifty puck-handling.

I don't want to put too much pressure on the young kid's shoulders. After all, it's only been 3 games. That's a long way off from establishing an NHL career. But I can tell you this: he's better then Brandon Convery. He's better then Sergei Berezin. And he's going to be better then Kyle Wellwood.

Okay, maybe that's not saying a whole lot. Still, I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb if I say, "this kid has it, and he's going to be the real deal". In just three games, he has already scored his first 2 NHL goals. Not only that, he is the first Leaf to score 2 goals. Other skill-players on the Leafs, like Tlusty and Grabovski, have yet to register a point. Both Kulemin's goals showed poise and grace without a hint of nervousness or insecurity. Born in July, 1986, Kulemin has just turned 22 this summer, yet already looks very mature, while still being full of youthful energy and zip.
Here's an interesting note about Kulemin's first goal:

Became first player to make his NHL debut in a season-opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion and score a goal in that game since Eric Lindros did so for the Flyers against the Penguins on October 6, 1992

If you missed that odd bit of history, here it is:

Sweet and swanky! Also turned out be the game winner.

His second goal is equally as impressive. After Kulemin and Antro team up to steal the puck from the Blues inside their line, Kulemin glides backwards towards the goal and makes no mistake with a very slick backhand:

Kulemin's second goal of the year put the Leafs ahead by 2. Unfortunately, 2-goal leads in Toronto don't mean much and after 3 periods the game went to a shoot out. Step forward Nikolai and show us what you can do:

Nice. I truly hate shoot-outs. I really do. I don't even watch them. I listen for the outcome of each shot, but I usually find something else to distract myself with 'cause I find them so boring and painful to watch. Every time I see the Leafs in a shoot-out, a small part of me that once loved the NHL is sliced away forever. But if Nikolai Kulemin can keep on doin' it the way he just did against the Blues, every single time, and become a shoot-out specialist that we can depend on, well, I might change my feelings about it... a little. Only if the Leafs were to win every shoot-out that they were in this year could I accept this skills-competition-sideshow as a legitimate part of the game. And even then, deep down, I'd know I was lying.

This last video is kinda funny. After they mispell the word "difference" it gets better. I guess the real question, after watching that, is: How much of a difference will Kulemin make? Time will tell, I guess, but if he continues to hit the back of the net with regularity during the shoot-out, or actually during the "game" part of the game, then he might be making a huge difference after all - the difference between winning and losing. As a Leaf fan, that's all the difference in the world.

Friday, October 10, 2008

A Close Up Look At Invisible

Yes! Welcome to the Big Show. And what a show it was. Tomas Kaberle's 82-step "Commitment To Execution" is now; one down, 81 to go.

The Leafs last night were fast and tenacious. The forechecking was aggressive all game long, and for the most part, the team played a smart, simple game. Toskala was very sharp, the defense was good when it had to be, and the forwards threw quite a few hits along the boards. The Leafs also did a good job of keeping the puck on the Red Wing side of the ice, something they hadn't done well in either of their pre-season games against Detroit.

"They really forced the issue on us and forechecked well. They held us in our end quite a bit. And that's off determination and how fired up they were to play us."
-Detroit goalie, Chris Osgood

I liked Ron Wilson's 5 choices for wearing the "A". Kaberle, Kubina, and Jamal Mayers had the letter on their sweaters for opening night, and Antropov and Moore will also get a chance. Moore was great last night and Kulemin was excellent. Both looked good early and eventually scored big goals. I also think it's interesting that Matt Stajan was not included as one of the rotating Captains. He's been described by me as the enigma, and is often noted for being a player who "seems invisible" or "doesn't matter". So last night I tried to track Stajan's play to try to get a clear idea of his performance. Let's take a look:
First period

On his first shift, Stajan is on the receiving end of the first good hit of the game, a clean open ice hit in the nuetral zone. He does get back up and back into the play quickly.

On his second shift, Stajan has a brief chance in front, but then loses "the handle" and Detroit breaks up the ice on the turnover. To his credit, Stajan does an excellent job of back-checking all the way down the ice and pressures the Detroit player who puts the puck off the post.

By now there's already a terrific pace to the game. On his third shift, Stajan goes invisible. The pace of the game suddenly slows down just a touch.

The fourth and fifth shift Stajan remains invisible. I feel like I'm watching an Ottawa Senators regular season game from 5 years ago - there's a lot of traffic in the nuetral zone, but not much flow. We seem to be doing something right, 'cause we're not losing, but I can't tell who's doing it or how. This seems to be when Stajan is most effective.

On his sixth shift, Stajan loses the puck and it leads to a Detroit rush and a shot on goal. After, he meekly gets involved in a scrum, then turns away before it's over, and then reluctantly rejoins the scrum again. I guess it didn't look any worse then Jason Blake's attempt to stand tall after he got run over beside the net by Maltby. At least Wilson's message of not backing down is sinking in.

Second Period

I hardly saw Stajan at all in the second period. To be honest, I was a bit distracted - making dinner, changing diapers, and furiously trying to read every comment on the GameDay open thread, and trying to follow Stajan was just too challenging - but I never heard his name mentioned and I don't think he touched the puck once. He was on the ice however when Detroit scored their first goal, as is evidenced by his minus 1.

Third Period

Stajan's invsibility act continues. Considering his ice-time, only 9:19, and that he had six shifts in the first, I don't think he saw a whole lot of ice in the third. He certainly did nothing to distinguish himself, except for when he sort of fell over and his stick came up and hit a Detroit player in the face. Two minutes for high-stickng (8:43) and Stajan goes to the box, just the second Leaf penalty of the game to that point (Mayers would get a late delay-of-game call for their third penalty). 37 seconds later (9:20), Detroit scores on the powerplay, Holmstrom's second of the night, to pull the Wings within one.

In the end, the Leafs hold on through the final ten minutes to win the game, 3-2.

So the final line on Matt Stajan, not-so-future-Captain, for game 1 is, no goals, no assists, for no points, no shots on goal, two penalty minutes, a minus 1, and 9:19 on the ice. And no "A" on the sweater.

The final word on Stajan's performance comes from Steve at HockeyAnalysis, with this summary:

In an interesting twist, favoured son of the Leafs media, Matt Stajan, has clearly been relegated to a 4th line role, playing only 9:19 of ice time in the entire game. Looks like all those predictions of Stajan leading the team as a future captain - based purely on the speculation around his wonderful work as the Leafs NHLPA rep - will have to fall by the wayside for now.

Well, those arrogant buffoons who all but guaranteed a letter on Stajan's jersey for the opening game are certainly eating their words now. Fortunately, I had an early sense that this wasn't going to be Stajan's year to seize his destiny. It didn't look good at a charity game in September, and it still doesn't look good. But maybe what we're not noticing, what we can't see, is the contribution Matt brings to practice and to the locker room. How much value can you put on enthusiasm? Last year, it was seriously lacking on the Maple Leafs. This year, before the puck had even dropped on the opening game, Stajan had these inspiring and encouraging words:

"It's going to be a thrill beating the defending Stanley Cup champs."

It certainly was, though few would have predicted it. I have to give Stajan some credit here. In a year where the new mantra is "Spirit Is Everything", The Invisible Matt is showing the right attitude.

"I have the best job in the world, we're playing hockey for our livelihood and playing for my favorite team growing up. I've just got to go out there and work hard and try to do my best and help the team any way I'm asked."

Good stuff. We'll be keeping an eye on ya, Stajan, though it ain't easy.

"I'm over here!"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's Time To Pump Up The Jam!

Spirit is Everything! Winning... not so much.
Tomas Kaberle presents... "Commitment To Execution"
2008-2009 Toronto Maple Leafs

"I am the Pony-King! I can do anything!"

Only a few more hours to go, Leaf fans, before we drop the puck on yet another un-glorious season. It's a year that begins with "zero" fans, zero expectations, and zero Captains.

It's a fresh start. A clean slate. And in mere moments it will all unfold, the living monument that is Leaf-history will yet again be carved with Blades of Honour and Glory. Towards victory or defeat, we march with a mighty roar...

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Yaaaaah! We love to win!"

Time to paint your face and get your freak-on, Leaf Nation. Despite the discouraging opinion of the sad, morose Damien Cox, this is going to be an exciting season. But don't take my word for it. Check out some of the comments from Damien's blog. Here's a good one:

Rather then the usual dissapointment and frustration of losing with under-achieving "superstars", Leaf fans will get to see a new coach with a new style, players whose jobs depend on their performances, unknown quantities like Kulemin and Frogren attempting to establish themselves, and working-class journeymen (Mayers, Stajan, Moore) emerging as leaders. Do the words "develope, blossom, mature" sound boring? ... If you live in Toronto, and you follow hockey, but you don't see this set of circumstances as being positive or exciting, well then you're just a sad, morose person who can't be encouraged about anything.

Surprised they printed that. Here's another:

The only folks who are "suggesting" the things that Damien is talking about get paid to express their opinions either on TV, print or radio. Not one fan with a brain in their head is as delusional as he suggests, he should check the meals at the ACC press room.

And another:

Folks, it's about more than just having lots of names, bald heads, and arrogant columnists.
The Maple Leafs might have the weakest media corps in the entire league.


Hahahahaha. Hilarious. Maybe it won't be exciting to Damien because he just doesn't care. That's fine, that's his choice. I choose: "Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"We did it again! Scoring goals is awesome!"

With the final cuts to Bell, Devereaux and Kronwall this week, the line up appears set. Coming out of camp, the big surprises for me have been Luke Schenn and Ian White. It remains to be seen how long either will stick with the club, but congrats to both for finding a way to get on the team for now.

And so here's where I take a stab at projecting the forward line matchups:

Poni - Antro - Blake (Tlusty/Kulemin)
Hagman - Grabovski - Mitchell (Kulemin/Hollweg)
Stajan - Steen - White (Tlusty/Mitchell)

Mayers - Moore - Hollweg (Blake/White)

The names in blue are the players that I think should play everyday together. The players on the right are the remaining 6 rotating through 4 spots. In bold is my first choice and in brackets are players they could be interchanged with depending on game situations, injury, etc.

"Something had to be done to change the culture of this hockey club."

I think Cliff's moves this summer have been very cunning and I really like what I've seen from Ron Wilson. The record in the exhibition (2-5-2) didn't show it, but this is a far better team then what we had last year. Wilson's attitude is already making a difference and he's also given us some great quotes early on. So far, this is my favorite:

"The only thing I guarantee is this team will not accept defeat. If they go down, they'll go down swinging."

Fuck, ya!! It's like I can feel something in my heart again. What is that? Love? Pride? Passion?!?

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

Look at those beautiful, sensitive, understanding eyes. What a dreamboat!

If ever there was a man to have a man-crush on, it is Vesa. The most adorable tandem the Leafs have seen since Damien Rhodes and Felix the Cat, Toskala and Cujo are going to bring respectability back to the Leafs' blue-paint this year. While the world waits for Pogge to mature, the time is now for Vesa to prove he is a superstar goalie in the NHL.

"Hey! You really don't suck! We might actually be good again someday!"

Finally, we need to acknowledge Luke Schenn. Thank you, Luke, for all you've done so far. Your skill, your poise, your power - humbles us and reminds us that the great hockey players of our time have all been worth waiting for. For this tremendous gift of genuine optimism we will, in return, have eternal patience (well, 2 to 3 year patience actually, but that's like an eternity on a Leaf Nation time-scale) while we wait for the right team, one that Luke Schenn deserves, to be assembled and delivered to him.

The future is bright Leaf fans. The future starts now. Get excited. This is it. Let it begin...

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

"Go! Leafs! Go!"

Monday, October 6, 2008

Further Deconstruction Of The Inner Circle

Since the beginning of the off-season, a lot of Leaf-talk has revolved around the Muskoka Deconstruction Project. While Sundin takes retirement for a test-drive, McCabe is dispatched to Florida and Tucker is bought-out and goes to Colorado. Neither Kaberle nor Kubina, the two remaining of The Five, are given the C to wear, nor are they openly endorsed by the coach for their leadership. In fact, sort of the opposite.

You have to look at the leadership in the locker room, and it has not been there.

So we looked elsewhere. A lot of attention this summer has also been paid to the Leafs recent additions: Mayers, Finger, Van Ryn, Grabovski, Hollweg, and Hagman. These players will likely contribute to a higher work ethic on the ice with less disfunction off of it, but they are not a collective nor are they the leaders. They are individuals who can set a fine example for others to follow but won't be blamed when those others don't. No one will look at Mayers at the end of the year and say "we didn't win because Jamal didn't show enough spirit in the locker room".

So has the culture in the Maple Leafs' locker room changed? Or will it? A 2-5-2 record through the pre-season, including 3 games where 2-goal leads in the 3rd period turned into losses, is disturbingly similar to what we experienced last year. If our recent additions can't be fairly blamed for not having enough influence at this early stage, and the former usual suspects (Raycrap included) are all somewhere else, then who should we be talking about now? Who represents the identity and character of this year's Toronto Maple Leafs? Which players form the new Inner Circle?

In my last post, I looked at a group of seven Leaf players that could all possibly hit the 100 assist milestone this year. In this post, I'm going to look at another group of seven - no, not that Group of Seven - , Leaf players, that as a unit, form the new dominant entity within the team, and thus, have the strongest influence over the locker room and its personality. (Also, what should we call them? The Muskoka Five was so catchy. This group needs something similar.)

The core group of players that best represent this team's identity now are: Kaberle, Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Steen, Stajan, Colaiacovo, and White. All seven of these players have been with the team since at least 2005. All seven have never played for another NHL team. Like friends who travel through high school together, these seven are all very familiar with one another. To say that they should be comfortable in Toronto is an understatement. None of them have ever played for any other team. The Leafs' locker room is the only one they've ever known. It's practically their living room, minus the fireplace. For all of them, this year represents a cross-roads in their careers - greater opportunities and greater responsibilities - a chance for each of them to cement their presence on this team as long-time Leafs, but if individually they falter or can't find success, this group may be broken up very quickly, and their careers re-evaluated, probably somewhere else.

So how have they done so far?

Kaberle: Tomas is the unappointed leader of the team. By far their best player, but maybe also their quietest, Kaberle's silent leadership was once endearing to me, but I think a more vocal role is expected of him now. I'd like to see him doing more post-game interviews and I'd like to see some fire in his eyes. Nothing wrong with his hockey though; in 5 exhibition games played, Kaberle averaged nearly 24 minutes of ice time, had 1 goal, 3 assists, and was a plus 3, with 6 PIMs.

Antropov: The lanky Kazakh is gonna be leaned on heavily by Ron Wilson this season, and his shortcomings won't be as easy to hide. Without Sundin, Antropov is going to face a lot of pressure from other team's front line defenders. It'll be his job to lead the team on the scoreboard, but also, to get guys going on the bench. His pre-season stats were only okay; in 6 games played he failed to find the back of the net, but did have 6 assists. Remarkably, Antro stayed out of the penalty box, but was overall a minus 2. His ice time was fairly consistent, ranging from 16 and a half minutes to just over 19.

Ponikarovsky: Alexei could be headed for a break-out year and he really needs it. He definitely had some spark in his last game, scoring an Andreychuk-like goal from the crease, throwing a couple of hits, and he even had a fighting major. Not that he should be defending Jason Blake's stupidity, but if Alexei can play like that every game, the fans will soon be chanting "Pony! Pony! Pony!" His preseason stats are: 6 games played, 3 goals and 3 assists, which is very good, but he was somehow a disappointing minus 4. He also tallied 13 PIMs while averaging 16:54 ice time.

Stajan: The enigma. Has had a very quiet pre-season. Hasn't really stood out one way or the other. I have the feeling MLSE would really like to see Stajan take a more prominent role with the team, but I'm not sure he's ready for it mentally. He needs to find away to get people excited and to play his heart out when the time is right. Obviously, exhibition is not that time, but here's what he's done with it: In only 5 games, Stajan had 1 goal, 1 assist, 8PIMs, and came out minus 1. His ice time ranged between 14 minutes to 19 minutes. Nothing special, but I think he didn't have the same kind of pressure to impress as some of the others in camp did.

Steen: Alex also needs to have a breakout year. His numbers after 3 seasons with the Maple Leafs are not bad, but this year they need to get better. Steen is another quiet leader that I'd like to see more passion from. Whether we win or lose, I want to see the results on his face. His pre-season stats are not great: 8 games played, 2 goals, no assists, 4 PIMs, and a minus 2. His ice time was all over the place, ranging from 13:47 to 21:13.

Colaiacovo: We know what Carlo can do, the big question is for how long can he do it? I don't think Carlo has to worry about ice-time, he'll get plenty of it as long as he stays healthy. He had a very decent pre-season in limited action, seeing only 5 games, but registering 4 points. Carlo had 1 goal and 3 assists, including a couple of really nice plays, and also picked up 4PIM's . His plus/minus finished at even, while averaging well over 20 minutes a game (22:02). Carlo's looking good so far and his effort on its own is uplifting and inspiring. Another spiritually-deflating injury however, and it might be the end of the line for this wonky warrior.

White: In this group, Ian "Snow" White, is the fairest of them all, and appears to be the most on the bubble. In fact, he may already have lost his job as a 5th or 6th defenceman as he doesn't appear to have the skills Ron Wilson values on the blue line. However, his recent transition to forward has been nothing short of inspired and dramatic. White looks good there, especially in that first game on the wing against Detroit where he played beside Stajan and Steen. That line had jump and forechecked very effectively, mostly thanks to White who seemed quick, tenacious, and aggressive. A brilliant move by Wilson, and I'm really hoping it works out for White (as long as he doesn't grow a mid-season beard). This may be his last chance to stick with the team, and to be part of a nucleus of imporant core players whose future is now.

This is the group our fortunes will follow. Their efforts, their attitudes, their responses to their own failures and successes will dictate the character of the team, and will define the identity of the Toronto Maple Leafs this season. Will they be known as the Magnificent Seven, or as Ian White and the Six Dorks? The Personality Of The Room: A New Season, episode 1, begins Thursday night.

*Update - Earlier today, Mark Bell was placed on waivers. I guess this means you can probably scratch his name off the list of Leaf players on pace to get their 100th career assist. The other thing that occurred to me, is that in just 3 games, Ian White outplayed Mark Bell for a job in the lineup as a forward. Congratulations to Ian White, best of luck Mark Bell.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Hundred-Helpers Club

Seven New Members Are Waiting To Join!

Does 100 assists mean anything? Is that really a milestone? Well, it's not spectacular, but in a way, it's a significant indicater of a player whose having a legitimate NHL career with meaningful contributions. I don't know how many players have reached the 100 assist plateau, a lot I guess, but there must be even more who haven't. It's a line in the sand that seperates those that could from those that couldn't.
So, I was looking to see what milestones any Leaf players might achieve this season, and discovered a few - Antropov, if he stays somewhat healthy, will play in his 500th NHL game this season. He has 54 games to go. Blake is 10 games away from his 600th career game and is destined to take his 2,000th career shot on goal this season, and then later, his 3,000th. 3.5-million dollar defenceman Jeff Finger is just 6 games shy of 300 games in the NHL. Wait. That should be 200. No. Sorry, again. 100 games, and worth every penny.
Hey, remember that exciting opening paragraph? The only other milestone any Leaf players are likely to hit this year is in the category of Assists. Specifically, that first big milestone, 100. Seven players on the Leafs' roster will have a shot at it this season, which seems like quite a lot, and it gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of a team we have this year. Young and inexperienced, yet on the verge now of proving themselves to the league and establishing their right to be recognized.
The seven Leafs who might join the Hundred-Helpers Club this year are: Mark Bell with 95 assists, Mike Van Ryn 91, Jamal Mayers 87, Hagman at 85, Ponikarovski has 83, Steen 74, and Stajan 71. Mark Bell - 5 to go. Bell might be the first to reach 100 assists, and he might do it by December. If he doesn't, it means he's not on the team, or shouldn't be. Last year he had 6 assists in 35 games, but I think this year he'll have less time to show that he can do more. If he's in the line up on a regular basis, it means he doin' allright, and 100 is in the bag.

Mike Van Ryn - 9 to go. Again, Van Ryn is going to need playing time in order to get there, but if he plays a full season, it should be no problem. In three full seasons with the Panthers, in which he played 79, 80, and 78 games, Van Ryn collected 24, 29, and 25 assists, repectively. If he's playing everyday, he could reach 100 before mid-season.

Jamal Mayers - 13 to go. It might take the season, but Jamal has a chance to get to 100 career assists this year. Last year with the Blues, Mayers had 15 assists in 80 games played. If he's healthy all year he'll probably see increased ice-time with the Leafs and will have a good chance to hit the 100 mark if he plays with anyone who can score. Mayers brings leadership and toughness to a team that needs it, so if he can contribute 13 assists as well, I'll call that a success.

Niklas Hagman - needs 15. This one will be close. Hagman is more of a goal scorer. He had an imressive 27 goals last year with the Stars, but only 14 assists. He's only had more then 15 once in his career, way back in 2002 when he had 18 with the Panthers. The following year he had exactly 15. Obviously the pressure will be on Hagman to score goals, but if he doesn't reach the 100 assist milestone this year I'll be a bit dissapointed. It should be within his potential, and given his role as an offensive player, he should also have talented linemates to work with. This will be one to watch.

Alexei Ponikarovsky - needs 17. For 4 straight seasons, Ponikarovsky has not produced fewer then 17 assists, averaging 19.5. Last season he had exaclty 17 assists in only 66 games. This one may take all season as well, but Poni will be expected to produce and deliver this year, and if he can't reach the 100 assist plateau by season's end then he's probably not had a good year, and neither have the Leafs.

Alex Steen - needs 26. In three seasons with the Maple Leafs, Alex Steen has recorded 27, 20, and 27 assists, so 26 is very much in his range, but he'll need to have a good season, stay healthy, and be a leader on the ice in key situations. Steen is a good player, there's no doubt about that, but if he can get up to 100 assists this season, in just his 4th year with the team, it'll show that he's still got a great future.

Matt Stajan - needs 29. This is the long shot. Last year Stajan was well off pace with a disappointing 17 assists. However, the year previous, Stajan recorded a career high, 29 assists, which is exactly the total he needs this year to reach 100. So basically, Stajan needs to have a career year or better. Can he do it? 29 assists, in today's NHL, seems like an awful lot for someone who'll be used in a checking role primarily. But he's done it once before, and I think Stajan has a lot he wants to prove. Reaching the 100 mark for career assists would definately help in that regard.

Seven players. 100 assists. Can they do it? All of them? Will any of them? Why should I care?
I'm going to make a chart with all of their names on it, with a blank space beside each. Whenever (if ever) any of them hit the 100 assist plateau this year, I'll write a 1 in the blank followed by 2 happy faces. At the end of the year, I will count up the total number of happy faces and compare it to my projection below:

No one does it, so - no happy faces: Here comes Tavares!
Only two happy faces: Here comes Tavares!
Four happy faces: Tavares?
Six happy faces: Hmmm. Easy come, easy go, I guess. We suck, but probably not bad enough to get Tavares.
Eight happy faces: Aw, crap. Not even a top 5 pick.
Ten happy faces: Please no, not 9th place!
Twelve happy faces: Hey, is this team playoff bound? Damn, still 9th place, but that was close and a lot of these players had really good seasons. Hopefully Cliff can swing a nice trade at the draft for one of these proven performers.
Fourteen happy faces - all of them do it: Holy smokes, what a season! Team chemistry, career-years, and exceeded expectations! Man, it's weird to be back in the playoffs!

So, there we go, a way to measure success or failure this season, since everyone knows we're probably not gonna win the Stanley Cup: How many milestone-makers will finish the season in the Hundred-Helpers Club?

Dougie's Tip For Frequent Helpers: Pass the puck to Kaberle.

What YOU can do to help: Yell "SHOOOOOOOOOT!!!"