Saturday, February 28, 2009

Enigma On Fire

Why does Vesa have to do this to us now? 3 wins in a row with only 2 games left until the trade deadline. Is there any possibility that these points will lead to a team taking Toskala off our hands, or is the damage already done, and now he's just undermining our future success? The answer, Leaf fans, is less then a week away.

Can Toskala make it 4 in a row tonight? My gut says no, but since I'm usually wrong about Vesa I expect him to win. But now that I'm expecting a win, I'm sure he'll do the opposite. I'm gonna stick with that and call it a loss, hoping the Vesa continues to surprise and defy expectations.
Toskala: Looking more focused and coming out of his net more. Still needs to work on positioning a little.

"I don't think there's anything that Vesa can possibly do between now and the trade deadline that's going to undo the damage he's done to his reputation as a starting goaltender."

Has it really been six weeks since I wrote that? I was convinced that Toskala's terrible play had cost us any return we might have once seen for him.

"It's too late for Toskala to turn it around and salvage the season. The promise of any return at the trade deadline for Vesa has disappeared. The only thing his playing better would do now is add further harm to the franchise's ability to rebuild itself."

Was I right? Was I wrong? We'll find out in less then a week. To his credit, Toskala has done everything he can to either sabotage the Leafs' draft position, or (please God, let it be this alternative!) re-create a market for himself at the deadline. Since I wrote those less then infamous words above, The Vesa has played some of his best and most consistent hockey of the season. In his last 12 starts, the Leafs are 7-1-4, and for that one loss, I'm pretty sure it was Joseph, who gave up the 5th and 6th goals in a 6-4 loss to TB in the 3rd period, who was credited as the losing goaltender. Therefore, Toskala has quietly, and not so genuinely, run up a streak of 12 games without recording a regulation loss, going back to January 19th ( a 2-0 loss to Carolina). Not impressed? He's picked up a total of 18 points out of a possible 24 in his last 12 starts, for an unfathomable winning percentage of .750!


Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock.

With time ticking down on the Trade Deadline clock, the Vesa is making a mad-dash for the Finish-line out of here. In the process, the Leafs are losing their hold on a top 5 draft pick, but maybe the Leafs can pick up the equivalent of one in a promising prospect if they can trade Toskala. I would actually prefer that - it's more honorable, and it's more exciting as well.

Are we making a big mistake with the Vesa? We have seen him play brilliantly, just not very often. Hs problems don't seem to be mechanical so much as focus. When he's on his game, he's terrific. He's looked bad for most of this season but he's in an awkward position playing for a rebuilding team with a new coach who's trying to teach accountability. Granted, it's easy to hate JFJ and blame him for this mess and for Vesa's salary, but when he got the contract I don't remember too many people screaming, "My God! This is unreasonable!". Mostly I was happy 'cause it meant the writing was on the wall for Raycroft. Toskala could still be a winning goaltender in this league, but he's a tricky one to manage.

At the bottom of my post from six weeks ago is a great comment from MF37, the standard-bearer for bitter excellence:

"Before joining the Leafs, Toskala had never been a starter, never played more than 38 games in a season, and his total NHL experience was 105 career NHL games.

He has now played 105 games for the Maple Leafs and his numbers indicate he's either lost his edge, he can't handle the rigors of playing 60 games a season, or a little of both.

Perhaps the best case scenario for the Leafs and Toskala is hanging on to him to platoon with Pogge, lessening his workload and hopefully repairing his game

Totally agree. This should be the plan going forward. Take what you can get at the deadline from any desperate last-minute shoppers, but if there's no takers, then we should hold on to him through the summer and let him share the duties will Pogge until next year's deadline. With another year off his contract he might seem more attractive to other NHL teams, and with a decreased workload, it's not unfathomable that he might rebound and have a stellar year. Well, not as unfathomable as a .750 winning percentage in the six weeks leading up the trade deadline.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Not A Sentimental Journey, Parts One And Two

This is a really long post that attempts to pin-point exactly where and why things went wrong for Nik Antropov and Ron Wilson. It's divided into 2 parts just to give you a break, but there's no intermission and there's nothing in the lobby anyways. As the title suggests, it is "not a sentimental journey, for sure".

Part One

Way back at the beginning of December, the Leafs went on a 3-game western road trip out to California and Arizona. The first game, against the L.A. Kings, began with (a common thread at the time) Toskala letting in the first shot on goal. The Vesa played well after that, however, stopping the next 32 shots, and the Leafs finally broke through with Stajan and Grabovski scoring 1:21 apart early in the 3rd. Finger added an empty netter and Toronto prevailed, 3-1. 24 games into the season, and the Leafs had a record of 9-9-6 and looked like they might be a team with some character.

The very next night, the Leafs went to San Jose to face a well rested, prepared, motivated Sharks team. The Leafs had the cards stacked against them to begin with. It was their second game in two nights on the road, in a different time zone, and they were playing one of the very best teams in the league. Even still, the Leafs seemed woefully and curiously unprepared for this game. The first period was a slaughter. Joe Thornton had a goal and three assists, leading the Sharks to an early 4-0 lead after just 20 minutes.

“If we somehow could have survived maybe the first 10 minutes of the game, we would have found an equilibrium, but it was over by then. That was one where you throw the white towel in the corner."

...said Wilson after his first game against his former team. While the Leafs were horribly outmatched in the first period, they kept the game respectable in the 2nd and 3rd, eventually losing 5-2. Of note, Hagman, Grabovski, and Schenn all finished the game plus 2. Still, the sensation of being thoroughly defeated was deeply felt. Antropov, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, and Kubina were all minus 3.

“Really, the game was over after the first 10 minutes" said Thornton, who obviously found the game extra meaningful and gave a performance to match.

“Guys were definitely motivated to play against the old coaching staff,” said Setoguchi. “I definitely felt a little jump out there." The Sharks were clearly geared up to go against their old coach, but did Wilson have any special enthusiasm to succeed against his old mates? Added Setoguchi, "You don’t want Ronnie bragging". Oh, really.

"It's not any different than any other game... I've got a team that I have to prepare. I'm not on a sentimental journey here, that's for sure."

...said Wilson the day before, downplaying any suggestions that he might have had high hopes for his return to San Jose. Still, it must have been disappointing, especially so since it was Wilson's best players who failed him the most, right from the beginning of the game. For a coach returning to face the franchise that fired him, this was in no way similar to (the Number One 1993 regular season moment) when Pat Burns returned to Montreal. It wasn't going to be that kind of a season either.

The next game was in Phoenix. While Wilson gave no prior indication publicly that he was extremely frustrated with the loss to the Sharks, nor with any one specific player, his response for the next game was to start Tomas Kaberle on the bench and to keep him there for the entire first period. Kaberle then went on to play the worst two-thirds of a hockey game I've ever seen him play. Registering a minus 3, Kaberle was on the ice for all 4 of Phoenix's goals in the 2nd and 3rd and looked just terrible, as a 2-2 first period tie became a 6-3 blowout.

When the road trip ended, the magic and sparkle of Wilson's presence was a little dimmer, the rebuild took a step back, and the Leafs resumed their campaign of deconstruction. Key players, specifically Stajan and Antropov, suffered blows to their confidence that they've never fully recovered from. Perhaps they were riding an overconfident wave to begin with, believing themselves to be World-Class first-line forwards (due mostly to Stajan's unexpected early success) but the grim reality of the San Jose thrashing seemed to have drained their Mojo considerably. Antropov especially seemed effected, scoring just 4 goals in the next 24 games while his once respectable plus/minus began to plummet.
Part Two

Antropov is one of only 4 players who has appeared in all 60 games for the Leafs so far this year. I've gone through every game, one by one, and checked the box scores for his totals, then looked at each 12-game span and compared them. The first 24 games and the last 12 are decent and consistent numbers. Games 25 through 48 however, beginning with the game in San Jose, are underwhelming and even worrisome, reflecting a player who's playing well below his capabilities.

The first 12 games: 4G, 5A, 9P, +5, 32 Shots

Not a bad start to the season. On pace for 60-70 points and most remarkable is the plus 5. He was held without a shot for 2 games in this stretch.

Games 13-24: 5G, 4A, 9P, -3, 41 Shots

Again, not bad, and though the plus/minus has fallen, it's still respectable enough. Not once in these 12 games did Antro fail to register at least one shot, and he's averaging well over 3 a game.

Games 25(San Jose)-36: 4G, 7A, 11P, -9, 25 Shots

This is actually Antropov's most productive stretch for points, but a closer look shows that 9 of those 11 points were picked up in 4 consecutive games in which the Leafs as a team scored an amazing 21 goals (3-2 NJ, 5-8 Bos, 7-3 Pit, 6-2 Atl). In the other 8 games in this set, Antropov has just 2 points. His shots per game has dropped below 2.1, and his plus/minus for these 12 games is a scary minus 9. He is held without a single shot 3 times.

Games 36-48: 0G, 6A, 6P, -5, 29 Shots

Zero goals. Zero. The plus/minus is still on the wrong side, and the shots continue to be under 3-a-game.

Games 49-60: 7G, 2A, 9P, -1, 37 Shots

Antropov ends a 16-game scoring drought by collecting 3 goals in 3 consecutive games. His point total is exactly the same as the first two 12-game sets, and his plus/minus is back to a very respectable level. Maybe most importantly, the shots for these last 12 games is back to an average above 3 per game. Since Burke's suggestion that the timing for Antopov might be right for a "change of scenery", the Lanky Kazakh has produced 4 goals, 2 assists, for 6 points in 7 games, is a plus 1, and has averaged 3.7 shots per game.

There's only a week left before the NHL Trade Deadline, yet the Leafs still have 4 more games to play until then, so I'm surprised that a team hasn't already snapped up Antropov to save him some of his workload before they get him. For that reason, I don't think the Leafs are going to get their asking price for Antro, but I'd still be very surprised if he completed the year in Toronto and isn't, a week from now, on a team bound for the playoffs. Not a sentimental journey, for sure, but if it gets you to the Cup Final and a 4-year deal from somewhere...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Loose Ends

Do your friends think you need professional help?
This is just what the doctor ordered. The perfect prescription. The scores don't matter anymore, and the points on the table were only meaningful to Vancouver, yet tonight's game will probably be the most dramatic Leaf game of the season. The Captain is on an all-new journey, but this is still his Home. Tonight has nothing to do with the Canucks' playoff drive, nor even the current squad of marquee-less Maple Leafs. It is about Mats and Us. It is about Hope and Sorrow. And most of all, it is about Healing.

We all need somebody to love. For more then a decade, for millions of Leaf fans, that somebody was Sundin. Today we have Our Luke And Saviour, but we're just building that relationship and there's still butterflies on both sides. We know the best is yet to come. With Sundin, we had the best there was. And then he left us... or maybe we didn't want him enough... but then he took forever to decide if he wanted to come back... and we had to accept that our feelings for him were getting in the way of our good judgement, preventing us from moving on...

And so on and on and on it went. Until about December 19th, at which point Vancouver began to nosedive. We loved him, we hated him. We ridiculed and mocked him. And yet we swoon for his every word, thirst to see him strive and be challenged, and gawk at his humility and grace.

"Liar! Hypocrite! Sell-Out! Flip Flopper!", we hollered. To no avail. No one was listening. No reaction - no explanation. Sundin remained aloof as a butterfly, lost on the Pacific shores, fluttering thousands of miles away, as an on-line gambling spokesperson ought to be.

Finally, tonight was our night. Our chance to let him hear it, to let it all go, the love, the hate, the disappointment that comes from Hope, and the Healing needed to recover from Sorrow. For Sundin as well. It's important that we face each other, and get it out of our system, the good and the bad, even if it gets ugly, once and for all.

I should thank the Leaf faithful that were at the ACC tonight - they were outstanding. The atmosphere was as close to a playoff game as we're going to see this year, and the noise level increased with the tempo of the game until the very end. The standing ovation for Sundin was awesome. Very classy and I'm very glad it happened. It was my favorite part of the night. I also liked the booing, though. It gave the game an edge, which is fitting, since there's two sides to every situation. 

Hopefully the issue is now settled and everyone can move on. The game was extremely satisfying and memorable, an excellent way to close the doors on this incredible saga. Our divisions can now be forgotten, along with our heartbreak, and the house of Leaf Nation can stand united and proud, once ag~

Mats Sundin. Greatest. Leaf. Ever.

What the?!? How'd that happen!?

It needed to be said.

But, this is impossible! It's absurd! You can't just~

Deal with it.

Ok, allright. Consider it dealt with. But consider this as well: Sundin, the greatest Leaf for more then a generation, may have just played his last NHL game at the ACC and skated off the ice as the triumphant shoot-out hero for the opposing team. Classic. Way to go, Mats.

There goes a Legend.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Apathy Vs. Despair: Believing In Something That Sucks

I needed a vacation from my recreation.

I haven't published anything on this site for 3 weeks now. Maybe somebody, somewhere, is wondering why. Not you, probably, but somebody else, maybe, someplace really obscure, possibly, that you'd never think of. They might even care. That'd be weird, but if so, I thought they should have an explanation, eh?

We knew the Leafs were going to suck this year. We knew we probably weren't going to make the playoffs. But we were promised we'd see an exciting, aggressive style of hockey, young players developing, accountability, and a team that "will not accept defeat". SPIRIT IS EVERYTHING, they proclaimed. I actually thought that meant this team was going to try.
I've been looking at the schedule - trying to figure out when it was, exactly, that my spirit was crushed. The 2-0 loss to Carolina was painful, and that was followed by a 4-3 OT loss to the Bruins where the Leafs held a 3-1 lead going into the 3rd period. Then came the All-Star Game, where the only highlight for me was seeing Luke Schenn dominate in the Young Stars exhibition. He really is the Future for the Leafs, but it was a stark reminder of where the Leafs are now and how far they still have to go.

Anyways, after the break, came a disgraceful 6-1 loss to Minnesota. Just a horrible, classless effort. I guess this is where I shut it down. Two nights later, seven goals against that unfortunate bastard Raycrap, and all I could feel was a mild, slightly comical, mock indignation, surprised at having been surprised, but no, not really. Rather then joy and celebration, that 7-4 victory over Colorado, and the 5-4 "thriller" over the Penguins actually annoyed me. Not for the four points that undermined our draft position, but because I've finally reached a comfortable stage of apathy, and I like it there, but I know that if the Leafs just win their next game against Florida, and make it 3 in a row, I'll only end up caring all over again...
So the Leafs then carried a 3-1 lead into the 3rd period against the Panthers, and lost, 4-3 in overtime. Bryan McCabe scored the winner.
I hate the Leafs. I hate them. I hate them. I hate them.

No, I don't. Apathy. Total apathy. Mock them. Tavares.

That's better. The very next night the Leafs lost to Buffalo, 5-0. Total apathy. Happy, blissful apathy.

Thank goodness for PensionPlanPuppets, for their audience and their insight. Below are comments that I read that summed up near exactly how I was feeling about this team, better then I could be bothered to attempt to express myself, let alone type.

"I have come to the conclusion that the Leafs are much more terrible than I previously imagined. Last night was all kinds of embarrassing... Perhaps the upcoming deadline and possibility of new addresses has encouraged some players (cough, Antropov, cough) to mentally check out."

"...they’re really now playing for nothing, there will be more and more of these from here on in. Good from a draft perspective, bad for those who actually like watching a team that tries."

"What the hell happened to the plucky team that was super entertaining to watch?"

And then I read this over here, written by this person, and I felt a connection of total agreement:

"I stopped caring about how terrible the fucking Maple Leafs were. Or at least, learned to admit that yes, they suck. Oh my God I can’t believe how bad they suck. They suck so hard that sometimes they trick me into believing they are good, just so they can shock me anew with their ability to suck."

Yup. Thank you Mizzo, and welcome if you ever drop by. That's it, exactly.

Those quotes are all from a week ago, when I began this post but didn't have the heart to finish it. Since then, the Leafs managed to beat Montreal, 5-2, on Saturday, only to lose to Florida again on Tuesday, giving up a 4-1 lead in the 3rd period, losing 5-4 in overtime.

The Maple Leafs are an embarrassing joke (again) and there's still 28 games to go.
I'm not sure I want to contribute to tricking people into believing the Leafs don't suck. That would be wrong. At the same time, I don't want this blog to be the home of the angry-ranting-furious-hate-fan. That's not so much fun and it's not really me. So I'm not sure how much posting I'm gonna do from now until the end of the season. I had a nice pace going of 10 posts a month for a while, and I'd like to thank my regular readers and those that left comments, and apologize for the abrupt slowdown in production. If I think of something especially funny, or really clever and insightful, or just feel inspired to voice an opinion on something Leaf-related, then certainly I'll post it here. This isn't my last post, far from it, but consistency and frequency aren't going to be concerns anymore.
I've lost my motivation to support this team. I'll only cheer for the handful of players that have represented the Blue and White proudly this season; Jason Blake, Dominic Moore, and of course, Luke Schenn. There's a few other players that don't completely suck, but there's no character nor camaraderie, no collective desire to win, only individual efforts to stay out of the "doghouse" and out of the spotlight, and a fundamental lack of team spirit - a distinct lack of enthusiasm for success that mirrors the personality of the coach, the management, the ownership, and even the fans.