Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who's Your Larry Murphy Now?

This post, like many others, is inspired by a comment on PensionPlanPuppets. From the Good Doctor Steve, who also writes an excellent blog at

Can we give Stajan the Larry Murphy treatment this year? Make it official and such?

I don't really agree with this statement and I'm not sure I agree with the whole idea. But it did get me thinking about who on the Leafs might be a worthy and legitimate target for our collective scorn if the team underwhelms and underperforms. Again, I'm not sure I agree with the whole principle of the concept, but nevertheless, here's my list of candidates:
Jason Blake
Best season: 2006-7; 40G 29A 69P
Last season: 25G 38A 63P
Salary: $4,000,000
Blake rebounded from a horrible first season with the Leafs to put up impressive numbers. He led the team in goals and points and provided a few highlight-reel moments as well. Still, it's hard to shake the perception that Blake carries a "me-first" attitude and there's no denying his sense of entitlement: "Here I am, a 10-year vet ... I just don't know what he's trying to do," he mused to reporters in response to his dust-up with teammate Grabovski during a practice in March. Blake was fortunate to find chemistry last year with Dominic Moore but this season he'll have to find new friends to razzle-dazzle with or his popularity could quickly plummet.
Jamal Mayers
Best season: 2007-8; 12G 15A 27P
Last season: 7G 9A 16P
Salary: $1,333,333
Jamal didn't impress much last season and really struggled to look comfortable, especially early on. He redeemed himself somewhat with the Kostopoulos fight and a decent second half, but overall his numbers were disappointing and his contribution uninspiring. With the recent addition of Primeau (not to mention Orr, Bozak, Wallin, and Hanson), it's hard to see where Mayers will fit into the bottom six this year. If he continues to look uncomfortable again this year and the team struggles early on, I doubt Leaf fans will have much patience for his ice-time when it could be going to a developing asset. Slow and worn-out is a dangerous thing to be on a losing team in Toronto.

Matt Stajan
Best season: 2008-9; 15G 40A 55P
Last season: 15G 40A 55P
Salary: $1,750,000
I don't really understand the hate that gets directed towards Matt Stajan. I suppose if you're from Port Credit and you happen to hate everything that's from Mississauga it makes sense, but otherwise it seems a bit unfair. At the beginning of last season I thought Stajan was a longshot to hit 25 assists. He finished the year with an astonishing 40, despite missing 6 games. I think the greatest knock against Stajan is the perception that he's soft, and certainly getting bounced out of the line-up by a soccer ball doesn't change that view much. Having rookies repeatedly coming to your rescue doesn't look so good either: "Luke’s been there for me... It seems like every time I get hit, he jumps in." It sure makes Schenn a popular guy, but I don't think it's all that flattering for Matty. Here's a serious suggestion for Stajan that'd be guaranteed to turn him from a zero to a hero in Leaf-Nation forever: Simply beat the crap out of Jason Spezza once and for all.

Lee Stempniak
Best season: 2006-7; 27G 25A 52P
Last season: 14G 30A 44P
Salary: $2,500,000
Lee seems to have been a diligent understudy to Matt Stajan's early "Invisible Man" act and is now running away with the lead role. Stempniak (or Suckniak as I call him, also known by others as Stempnisuck) needs to find his comfort level in Toronto and start producing consistently or I fear the patience of the Blue and White faithful will be very short. Maybe some fans just miss Carlo and Steen and find Stempniak's, er, lack of presence to be a haunting reminder of their absence. This year, I think Stempniak will be under a lot of pressure to make things happen right away.
Jeff Finger
Best season: 2008-9; 6G 17A 23P
Last season: 6G 17A 23P
Salary: 3,500,000
Last season's big free-agent splash may be feeling the squeeze on a crowded blueline and will need more then just a really impressive last name to distinguish himself. His enormous salary draws immediate negative attention and doesn't leave much room for sloppy play or indifference. Fortunately for Finger, he's yet to make a glaring error or stand out , but the new-look Leaf defence has added some serious moxy, mojo, and sandpaper, and some people might begin to wonder why we're paying 3.5 million for quiet consistency. One thing is for sure, being the least popular Leaf defender is not a comfortable ride.
Mike Komisarek
Best season: 2006-7; 4G 15A 19P
Last season: 2G 9A 11P
Salary: $4,500,000
Will it be difficult to accept a former rival wearing the Blue and White? Are expectations high for a free-agent defenceman earning 4.5 million? What happens if the Leafs go 3-7-2 in October and Komisarek bangs the puck into his own net to conclude another 3rd period collapse? Just wondering... I think Komisarek is a good signing and that the Leafs defence has improved but that doesn't mean I like him just yet. If he can help us forget Kubina, he should eventually find plenty of fan-support.

Ian White
Best season: 2008-9; 10G 16A 26P
Last season: 10G 16A 26P
Salary: $850,000
Are there still Ian White detractors out there? White had a remarkable season last year but it still might not be enough to guarantee him a spot on the blue line in October. Some of the knocks against White are that he's small, he's not a fantastic playmaker, he's better as a forward, and that he hides his insecurities with facial hair. His effort is always solid but there's only so much a man with a mustache can do. Just talented enough to be a trade-able asset, but not so talented that we shouldn't be able to get something better in return. Funny how that works. My advice to Ian White: keep improving. Leaf fans are not always so subtle when it comes to a player and his diminishing trade value.

Vesa Toskala
Best season: 2006-7; 26-10-1 2.35 .908
Last season: 22-17-11 3.26 .891
Salary: $4,000,000
I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on Toskala right from the first drop of the puck to look sharp and focused. Save percentages around the .880 mark will not be tolerated for long with the Monster ready to step in. Last season was a mess for the Vesa as he struggled right out of the gate and all through December and January, and then just as he seemed to be finding his groove, had his season shut down in favour of a bio-technology upgrade. Will it all be worth it? I think of any Leaf on the team, Toskala has the most to lose or gain from this upcoming season, and I think he'll also be the most influential factor in determining our failure or success.

So there you go. If I've missed a Leaf on the roster that you think deserves to be the target of our organized wrath feel free to let me know in the comments. There's a good chance I'll make this topic my next poll in September. Hopefully we'll have a season with a lot of positive vibes and not too many negatives. It'd be nice to be without a McCabe or a Hollweg or Raycrap, a Wozniewski or Mike Craig, Jason Allison, or Larry Murphy. Just a Leaf team that we all love from top to bottom.
Still, if you had to choose one...?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Remember The Cat

You know who I suddenly really miss - out of the blue? Felix Potvin. The Cat. Suddenly I miss him a lot. He was a wonderful talent and a big part of the Leafs' back-to-back playoff runs to the Final Four in '93 and '94. Those teams had a lot of big names, like Dougie and Wendel, Andreychuk and Borschevsky, even Creepy Glenn Anderson and Leapin' Mike Foligno, not to mention the larger-then-life personality of head coach Pat Burns (nor the comedic wit of Bill Berg, and the stratospheric improvement of the legendary Todd Gill). Yet quietly Felix also sold a lot of jerseys and stole a few shows, and backstopped the Leafs brilliantly for several years. Of course, he also had a super-cool nickname.

Leaf goaltenders have had a history of really good nicknames. In my lifetime, there's been Bunny Larocque, Felix the Cat, Cujo, Eddie the Eagle, and "that bastard" Raycrap. The always enigmatic Toskala has found his most suitable nickname is simply his first name with the word "the" in front of it. The Vesa. It works because it's hilariously aloof and singularly vague. (Starting in January, I'm going to be referring to him as The Vesa-2010, but I don't expect anybody else to do that, it's just gonna be my thing, ok.) Now the Leafs have added Jonas the Monster from Sweden, which is another great nickname, but Felix still comes away with the best of the bunch. The Cat is cool, it's classy, and it reminds me of cats which I also like a lot.

Video time. Check this out:
This is one of my favorite Potvin saves. Watch during the replay (0:39) as Felix doesn't just block the shot with his leg while lying on his belly, he actually kicks out his pad to angle the rebound away from the Jets' Steen.

How good was the Cat? I learned the word "larcenous" from hearing Joe Bowen calling saves like this one:

Absolutely larcenous.

Here's the Cat in the playoffs, making Leaf-history by, stopping a penalty shot:

First Leaf netminder to do that in a playoff game. Save number 42. And a great quote from Harry Neale:

"I think they could give a 2-on-nothing and Potvin wouldn't let it in. If he doesn't get all 3 stars tonight then we are not being fair because he has been absolutely phenomenal."

When do we get to see the Potvin-Hextall fight? Yes we'll get to it, but first let's look at an important moment that came long before that. Felix often made me proud with his defiance and I think this was the first time and the most surprising:

Check the video specifically from 1:37 to 1:52. I could watch those 15 seconds over and over again for 15 years. Amazingly, that's about how long it's been since those 15 seconds took place. Hard to believe. Some things are timeless. Like a great song or a really good movie, a political idea or a religious belief, some things just never lose their ability to ignite people's spirit and passion.

For instance, Potvin vs. Hextall:

Beautiful. Timeless.

Other things you should know about the Cat

*1996-7, the first year the Leafs missed the playoffs after 4 straight appearances, Potvin set an NHL record for most shots faced in a season (2,438). 

*Two All-Star Game appearances. Hard to believe, but he was the first Leaf ever voted to the starting line up of the All-Star Game.

*1993-4, in the first round against Chicago, Potvin had 3 shut-outs, all by a score of 1-0, over Eddie Belfour and the Blackhawks.

*His 3rd shut-out in the series eliminating the Hawks in game 6, closed a chapter in the NHL history books, with Felix as the winning goaltender of record for the last game ever played at the old Chicago Stadium.

*Felix is currently a goaltending coach for the AAA Magog Cantonniers in Quebec.

So don't forget the Cat. He was a wonderful goalie whose star dimmed a little too quickly. Cool, feisty, defiant - an excellent model for the Vesa and the Monster to emulate this season. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

From Post To Post And Pole to Poll: Horse Racing And Hockey

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Horse Racing. Seems to be an odd recurring theme as I sift through Google Images. Not much goin' on these days, so for entertainment I've decided to compile all the pictures I could find of Leafs at the racetrack and put them all together, in case there was somebody, anybody, who found this amusing or interesting. It's not, really, but Burke is gone fishin', so we might as well go sightseeing at the track. 
Here's a great picture of popular former Leaf and Dream Team member, Alyn McCauley. You'll notice in the next 2 photos Brian Burke and Darcy Tucker holding the same trophy, but for some reason, Alyn is only allowed to meekly place his left hand on top of the trophy while someone holds it for him. What gives? Alyn seemed like a really cool guy and I'm really jealous of PPP for his run in with him in Montreal. I'll never forget the way he came through for us against Ottawa.
You never really realize how small jockeys are until you see them standing beside hockey players. Here's a picture of Super-Psycho Shane Corson along with his chaperon for the day, Darcy Tucker. Anytime you can make the guy they call "bat-shit crazy" appear to be the normal one, it's a warning sign that you have serious problems.
Here's Brain Burke as the drawmaster at Mohawk Raceway earlier this summer, taking charge of the proceedings by lifting the trophy right out of the official's hands, and then letting people know straight up which horses they should be putting their money on. There's only one way to do things when Brian is around, and that's his way.
Just like Brian Burke, Ron Wilson's first official duty in Toronto was to be a drawmaster for a horse race. Still visible in this photo is the look of obvious culture shock that anyone wears when traveling from California to Ontario. The trophy beside Wilson is the nicest one in all of these pictures.
Who can forget the time that Tie Domi stabbed a guy in the neck with 2 horseshoes just to make a room full of people laugh? Also amusing is the fact that the trophy and Domi's head are exactly the same size.
Then there was the year that Curtis Joseph actually won the Queen's Plate. A surprise disqualification minutes before the start saw the always competitive Cujo enter the race as an incredible 375 to 1 longshot. Joseph then stunned the competition and the crowd, winning the Queen's Plate by a length and a half, all the while carrying 120-pound jockey Oleg Borschevsky (Nikolai's lesser known younger half-brother) around the track on his back. A somewhat embarrassed Joseph was rewarded for his "un-bee-lee-ba-ba" performance with the smallest trophy they could find and then they hung a wreath of flowers around his neck.
Here's an extremely rare photo of Mr. Fletcher accompanied by the elite group of assistants he employs, known only as Cliff's Angels. These 3 fabulous stereotypes are Cliff's ultra-secret team of highly trained international agents, using the latest skills in martial arts, weaponry, and seduction to track down the most dangerous and sought-after prospects from around the globe and then bring them to Toronto. Originally assigned as high-level liaison operatives for Central European Scouting 2 years ago, their latest mission to Farjestads, Sweden has been a notable success.

Well, that's it. I didn't do any research for this at all. Maybe I should have, but actually, this post was just an excuse to tell people that I have a new poll at the bottom of the page to keep us excited through the summer. Who is your favorite "new" Leaf that Burke has added to the team so far? Beauchemin, Exelby, Gustavsson, Hanson, Kadri, Komisarek, Orr, Stuart, or Wallin? The poll will be open until September 1st.

Until then, see you at the track, everybody.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

My Wife Thinks I Talk About Tomas Kaberle Too Much

Just look.
Look at this beautiful man. Look at the cool confidence he exudes, his poise and calm determination, his natural competitive intensity. He is the total package of skill and grace - casual, in control, ready to win. And this guy doesn't even play volleyball! He plays hockey. For us. The Toronto Maple Leafs. At least, for now he does, as long as nothing dramatic happens this summer.

Ah, but this post isn't just about the way he looks in a sexy, black, sleeveless t-shirt (though, it could be). Let's look at the way he plays... goalie.

Not bad.

How about we watch one of the league's best passers win the Shooting Accuracy contest at the NHL Skills Competition?

Awesome. And a little sad, too. This moment is the happiest I've seen Tomas in 3 years. The past 2 seasons Kaberle has been suffering from what I like to call "a startling non-commitment to execution", also known as "uninspired hockey". Still, after surviving the deconstruction of a terrible, dysfunctional team, plus a slow, painful year of rebuilding, Kaberle remains a Leaf (for now) and maintains his commitment to the uniform:

"I don't know how many times I have to tell people," Kaberle said at the time. "I want to be a Toronto Maple Leaf."

"My thing never changed. I signed here because I love to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That never changed. Let's leave it at that." Kaberle.

"My main focus is being a Leaf," said Kaberle. "I love being a Leaf. That's how it stands. I want to do my best here."

Love. Wow.
You wanna know the stats? Let's do it: 10 seasons, all with the Maple Leafs. The longest serving Maple Leaf by far right now with 738 games (12th all time, one behind Bob Baun, 39 behind Domi). 433 points, good for 16th all-time, one ahead of Syl Apps and likely to pass Wendel Clark(441), Doug Gilmour(452), Tim Horton(458), and Lanny McDonald(459) this season to move up to 12th. When he reaches 459 and ties Lanny, he'll move one ahead of Horton and become the Leafs' 2nd highest scoring defenceman ever, behind only the legendary Salming. 73 goals, 28 on the powerplay, 14 game winning goals, 360 assists (6th all-time, 2nd for defenceman), and an impressive plus 43. Also, the 2nd last Leaf player to score an overtime goal in the playoffs:

That was from Game 3, 2003, against the Flyers. Travis Green would actually score the Leafs' last overtime playoff goal that same series in Game Six but that's the kind of thing someone like me could easily overlook.

PPP mentioned this excellent quote once in a Game Thread and I actually just found it in a great little piece by Paul Hunter from January 2007:

Everything proceeded according to script until the new coach hit upon the subject of the power-play breakout. "They all looked at me like I had three heads... We give it to him," the players said, almost in unison, motioning toward defenceman Tomas Kaberle. "They were serious," continued Maurice. "It's the Kaberle breakout. Give it to Tomas, let him bring the puck up-ice and we'll set it up from there."

That's right. Nobody takes the puck from blue line to blue line like Tomas Kaberle. Nobody. And of course, the man makes a cross-ice pass like you wouldn't believe.

Interestingly, from the same article is another good quote from that terrible coach:

"I also think that most of the defencemen that get the recognition have... played on great defensive teams. I don't think Toronto has ever had that handle of being a shutdown defensive team."

Hmmm... I wonder what kind of team Burke wants us to be this year? A shutdown defensive team, maybe? Is this the year Kaberle finally gets the recognition he deserves? The point is, I think, that maybe with the right elements in place (Komisarek, Beauchemin, Exelby, Orr) protecting the goal and their teammates, Kaberle should be free to do what he does best, with a renewed commitment to execution.

"Do something with the puck; whenever I get the chance I try to do it. It's my comfort level. That's the way I always play," Kaberle said. "That's probably my game, if someone would talk about it."

Well, I don't mind talking about it, but my wife is bored to tears. Not that she thinks Burke should trade Kabby, but she fails to appreciate that one of the most talented Leafs of our generation is also one of the most charming and modest hockey players around as well. She also doesn't care about hockey at all.

Kaberle cares.

"I'm happiest when I make a nice pass for a goal".

Says it all right there.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

I Don't See Why The Other Team's Trainer Deserves A Night Off

I guess you could say I was a little confused.

It wasn't that long ago when I concluded that a certain Leaf defender wasn't for sale, in a brilliantly prophetic post entitled, "Burke Won't Trade Kubina". Turned out to be complete nonsense.

So after regrettably leading my readers astray, I'm now trying to sort out where my assessment missed its mark. Not that I feel a little hoodwinked, but it was Burke's own words that seemed to indicate a preference for players who could survive and endure the NHL schedule, game in, game out, without setback. On the day the Leafs were officially eliminated from the playoffs, Burke declared:

"We were plagued by injuries. I don't make excuses, but playing without half your defence for a good chunk of the year...We have to find a defence that can stay intact. ... We have to figure out how we can get more games out of the guys we have or we have to get more durable people back there. I think that was our biggest problem."

I didn't say these things. DownGoesBrown didn't say these things. It was the real Brian Burke, actually speaking out loud in front of a reporter, something we know he rarely does.
Pavel Kubina played 82 games last year. He and Ponikarovsky were the only two Leafs to not miss a single game all season. Kubina led the team in overall ice time, totalling over 1,800 minutes. That's 22 minutes a game removed from a defence that can't stay intact and from a line-up that needs to get 82 "more games out of the guys we have" left.

Exactly a week ago, Burke re-enforced his intention to add toughness and durability:

"I like a lot of hitting. I like a lot of fighting. We have a passive group. All year long, when a trainer was on the ice – it was always our trainer– that really bothered me. It will be a more hostile group in the fall."

Maybe I was lookin' at it all wrong. Maybe it's Kubina's belligerence that isn't as truculent as it should be, an approach that keeps Kubina safe from injury, but doesn't discourage opponents from illegal runs at Van Ryn, Schenn, Kaberle, Finger, and Frogren. If only one defender is injured all year, then fine, look at that injury and that player to see why it happened, but if nearly all the defenders are injured at some point in a season, maybe it isn't so counter-intuitive to be looking at the one player who somehow remained healthy. Get it? Komisarek, Exelby, and Orr will take on the task of ensuring the defence stays intact, or at least, if somebody does get hurt, there'll be more then just one team's trainer on the ice.

Still, let's not forget who we gave up here. The leader for the Leafs in overall ice-time, Kubina also led the team with 9 powerplay goals, and was 2nd in game-winning goals with 4. A towering presence on the blueline (6'4", 244 pounds, 91 hits, 133 blocked shots, 94 PIMs), Kubina also seemed to wear the "A" more effectively then Kaberle. Though he was the Leafs' highest paid player, I rarely heard his value questioned. Kubina was one of the Leafs' most talented players, and also the most durable and consistent.