Thursday, January 28, 2010

Have Fun, Go Young

I just wanted to show you something. It may not be realistic, but this is what I really hope the line-up looks like next year. The number beside the players names is their age.
Kadri - 19
D'Amigo - 19
Kessel - 22
Hanson - 23
Bozak - 23
Kulemin - 23
Stalberg - 24
Rosehill - 24
Grabovski - 26 on Sunday
Stajan - 26
Orr - 27

Schenn - 20
Gunnarsson - 23
White - 25
Komisarek - 28
Beauchemin - 29
Kaberle - 31

Gustavsson - 25

The average age of this line-up is 24.2 years old. I've only got 11 forwards, leaving a position open for Burke to sign the best UFA forward available that isn't looking for a 10-year term. Probably D'Amigo won't be ready for the NHL yet, so that could open up a second spot, but I'm really hoping Kadri is good to go next year and on the team.

The oldest player, and the only one over 30, is Kaberle. If you're gonna have only one player over 30 on your team, he's an excellent choice as an elder statesman. I'm also keeping Stajan over Poni because Stajan's 3 years younger, but has the experience and maturity of most veterans. Stajan and Colton Orr would then become the oldest forwards in the dressing room, while Beachemin and Komisarek add their individual dimensions to Kaberle's leadership on the blueline. There's also just one goaltender 'cause I have no idea what we need to do there - just anything but Toskala, of course.

I honestly like the defence the way it is, and if these guys could stay healthy, that's an excellent 6-man unit there. I don't think the Leafs defensive problems this year are a fault of the personnel (is it the coaching then?) and I don't think there needs to be big changes there. If you trade Kaberle then who's your sixth D-man? Finger or Exelby don't interest me much anymore. I suppose there's an outside shot that Van Ryn will attempt a comeback with the Leafs, otherwise you're left with Oreskovic or finding a defenceman on the UFA market. Seems easier to just keep Kaberle and say "we like the defence the way it is, now let's fix the goaltending and scoring issues".

Out: Mitchell(25), Stempniak(turning 27 next week), Exelby(28), Wallin(29), Ponikarovsky(29), Finger(30), Hagman(30), Toskala(32), Primeau(33), Mayers(35), Blake(36).

Some of these guys have no value and should just be let go or buried in the minors. Obviously, Stempniak, Hagman, and Ponikarovsky are not included in that group. They have value, and I hope the Leafs can maximize that value by getting a quality return for that trio.

Aside from Mitchell, age is definitely a major factor in crafting this line-up. I want the team to get younger, even if that means that they don't get better right away. Chemistry is something that takes time and needs to develop internally. Players that are past their prime, on their way out of town, just stopping through, or just hangin' on, are hard to connect with on a personal level and there's no room for spiritual growth or bonding. A player's relationship with the team is non-existent if he's beyond the ability to improve, yet unable to help others around him improve either.

After all, when you're 36, losing isn't a learning experience, it's a life experience.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

January Jobbers

This is a follow-up, sort of, to a post I wrote at the beginning of this month. The Leafs played their best hockey of the season in the first half of December but then things came apart for the team in the second half of the month as all of Toronto's forwards fell into a deep funk. As I noted in that earlier post, the Leafs most consistent forwards for the month of December were Jason Blake and Lee Stempniak, not exactly an auspicious scenario. As I also noted recently somewhere else, usually by the time I notice a statistical trend, it starts to go the other way.

Troubles Remain In Top-Six Town

Well, "completely the other way" is a good way to describe Jason Blake's play this month. One goal and one assist thus far. After having an excelent December, Blake has simply not shown up for January. As an example, his pathetic penalty-killing effort on Thursday directly led to Tampa Bay's first goal of the game. (Check the tape - 2:15) After losing his stick and failing to throw the puck out of the zone, Blake then stands absolutely still and watches as Lecavalier sets up Stamkos for an easy one-timer. Two points in 12 games for January. So watch for Blake to start feeling the heat from Wilson and then suddenly start running goaltenders and producing again.

Stempniak continues his curious and enigmatic play. He's currently on a 4-game pointless streak, his longest slump in 7 weeks. He has 3 goals and 3 assists, 6 points in 12 games for January, but he's also a minus 3 for the month so far, the lowest plus/minus of any of the Leafs current "top-six" forwards. Stempniak's work ethic and production this season has been fairly dependable and consistent, and his value to any team, while low, is easily measured. For that reason alone, I'd be very surprised if Lee isn't dealt before the trade deadline.

Hagman was a rock through the first half of the season but seems to have lost his game now. Just 2 goals and 3 assists so far for January, however 4 of those 5 points have come in the last 3 games previous to tonight's game in Florida. Hagman has just 7 points in his last 21 games, and prior to the victory against Nashville, January 18th, had just 3 points in a 17-game stretch. The absence of production from Hagman, now coupled with Grabovski's injury, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the rest of the team's forwards, especially Stajan, Poni, and Kessel.

Ponikarovsky is not doing much better. He has 6 points for January so far. 5 of those points are goals, the most of any Leafs forward this month, but he also has just one assist in his last 13 games. Recently, he took two penalties late in the game Thursday against Tampa, and while they may have been questionable calls, they also proved quite costly. I'm at the point now where I'm disappointed with Poni's production. I expected him to be leading the Leafs in at least one offensive category (currently he's tied with Hagman for the team lead in goals; 18), but he hasn't blossomed any further then he did at the end of last season, and I now think he's the most likely candidate to not be with the team come the second week of March.

Phil Kessel is finding ways to contribute again, even if his teammates aren't able to set him up with good scoring opportunities, and even as the opposition focuses their defence squarely on him. After being held off the scoresheet for the first four games of the month, Kessel was riding a 7-game point streak heading into Florida and has 8 points for January, second most among Leafs forwards. While he has just one goal this month, he has 7 assists, a few of which were beautifully slick passes that led to wide-open, easy tap-in goals for his teammates.

As he nearly did in November (10 points, 1 less then Kessel), and December (tied with Poni, 12 points each), Matt Stajan leads all Leafs forwards in points thus far for the month of January. With 4 goals and 5 assists for 9 points, Stajan is also a +1 in the New Year, and from my perspective, has been giving the Leafs exceptionally honest efforts. He had an awful slump in the last 2 weeks of December, but it's interesting to note that ALL the Leafs forwards, except Stempniak and Kulemin, struggled with poor play at that time. Otherwise, Stajan has been a consistent producer this season, and currently has had his name appear on the scoresheet 8 times in the last 12 games. He's second on the team in scoring, behind only Kaberle.
Kulemin, not really considered a "top-six" forward for most of this season, has been the Leafs best player in 2010, in my humble estimation. Beyond consistent, Kulemin seems to be improving greatly from one month to the next, and right now appears to be the Leafs most complete hockey player. Kulemin's skills have come together very nicely to produce a forward who forechecks tenaciously, backchecks relentlessly, throws body checks in all 3 zones on the ice, and has a keen sense for creating or finishing offensive chances. For January, Kulemin has 3 goals, 4 assists, for 7 points (equal to Kaberle's production, 1 less then Kessel, and more then either Poni, Hagman, Stempniak, or Blake), while he is also a surprising plus seven over the last 12 games.

After tonight's 2-0 shutout to the lowly Panthers, it seems the offensive woes of the Leafs forwards will continue. While Bozak tallied 5 points in his first 5 NHL games, he too is getting a taste at the fountain of futility now with his third consecutive game without a point. Take it easy on the kid though, eh, he's doin' fine. I wouldn't put any more weight on his shoulders then there already is, anymore then I'd expect Wallin to step up and contribute when Grabovski gets injured, or Mitchell to lift his game when Hagman struggles, or anyone to do anything if Stajan has an off-night 'cause he gets hit in the face with the puck on his first shift. Expectations have to be realistic and achievable in order for them to be helpful, y'know?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ten Overtime Losses

The Leafs lost again last night and are now sporting an atrocious 1-10 record when the game goes into extra-time. No other way to slice it - that's just horrible. When the stakes are high, and the money's on the line, this team rises to the challenge and comes away heroic and victorious at a 1 to 10 ratio. Oooouuuuchhhh. How did it get to be this bad? How does failure of this magnitude occur? I know a fun idea - let's take a look back and review this season's 10 overtime losses;

October 1st, vs. Montreal in Toronto. OTL 3-4. The season-opener. Leafs appear to have the game in hand on the strength of Matt Stajan's 2 powerplay goals, but with under 5 minutes left to play Komisarek is called for elbowing and Montreal scores on the powerplay to tie the game. The Leafs fire 42 shots at Carey Price in regulation and 4 more in OT but it's Montreal's 27th shot of the game that ends it with 13 seconds left on the clock. Josh Gorges gets the winner, setting the tone early for his illustrious 3-goal campaign.

October 28th, vs. the Stars, in Dallas. OTL 3-4. The game after our first victory, and the third game of a 5-game road trip. Kulemin scores a pair and Jason Blake has 3 assists, giving the Leafs a 3-2 3rd period lead again, but with 2 minutes 45 seconds to go, Ribeiro ties it up. Dallas peppers Gustavsson with 6 shots in 3 minutes of OT, James Neal finally scoring the goal. Final shots are 36-36, but Dallas outshoots Toronto 20-11 in the 3rd period and extra time.

October 30th, vs. the Sabres, in Buffalo. OTL 2-3. The very next game, 2 days later. Gustavsson in goal again. Things look bleak late in the 3rd with the Leafs trailing 2-1 when Matt Stajan is sent off for interference. However, 18 seconds later, Grabovski miraculously scores shorthanded to tie the game in the final minute, sending it into extra-time. Doesn't take long, though. On the same powerplay, 1:04 into OT, with 2 seconds left on Stajan's penalty, Buffalo scores, Connolly's second goal of the game.

October 31st, vs. the Canadiens, in Montreal. SOL 4-5. The very next game, the very next night. Last game of a 5-game road trip. Holloween. Toskala in net. The Leafs score twice in the 3rd to tie the game at 4. First Kaberle and White assist on Ponikarovsky's goal, then Kaberle scores inside the final minute to send the game to OT. Montreal outshoots Toronto 4-1 in the extra time, 39-30 overall, but this game goes to a shootout. Cammalleri, goal. Stempniak, miss. Gomez, goal. Kaberle miss. Game over.

November 3rd, vs. Tampa Bay, in Toronto. OTL 1-2. The very next game, their 4th overtime game in a row. Ian White scores the only Leafs goal, on the powerplay in the third period. Toronto outshoots Tampa in this contest 41-32, but it's Ryan Malone scoring the winner past Gustavsson, 2 minutes, 21 seconds into the extra period.

November 19th, vs. the Hurricanes, in Carolina. SOL 5-6. Possibly the most frustrating and painful loss of the season. It certainly felt like rock-bottom at the end. The Leafs allowed a 3-0 1st period lead to evaporate to 3-2 in the second, and then saw their 4-2 lead equalized by a pair of Tim Gleason goals in the 3rd. Finally, the Leafs then totally spoiled Ian White's heroic effort to restore the lead with just 30 seconds remaining, when Eric Cole beat Gustavsson with just 3 seconds left on the clock. Tied at 5, the game went to OT and then to a shootout. Final shots were 45-32 in favour of Carolina. Ruutu, goal. Kessel, miss. Jokinen, goal. Stempniak, miss. Game over.

November 23rd, vs. NY Islanders, in Toronto. OTL 5-6. As bizarre a game as you'll ever see. 40-year old goaltender, Dwayne Roloson stops 58 shots, every single one of them along the ice. The Islanders explode for 3 goals in the 2nd period when Toskala suddenly and abruptly pulls himself from the hockey game with what would later be termed as "an injury". But the Leafs battled back with Gustavsson in the net on goals by Kessel, Primeau, and Hagman, with Stajan and Kaberle contributing a pair of assists each to the comeback effort. In the end however, 61 shots was not enough as Josh Bailey scored with 43 seconds left in extra time to give the Islanders the OT win.

December 21st, vs. Buffalo, in Toronto. OTL 2-3. Leafs have a 2-1 lead after 2 on goals by Stalberg and White, but Hecht ties the game with 7:01 left in the 3rd, despite the Leafs outshooting Buffalo 12-6 in the final period. With 1 minute 25 seconds left in overtime, Derek Roy beats Gustavsson to give Buffalo the win, and the Leafs their 8th overtime loss.

December 26th, vs. Montreal, in Toronto. OTL 2-3. Boxing Day. Gustavsson in goal again. Montreal gets out to an early 2-0 lead in the first 5 minutes but the Leafs battle back and eventually tie the game on Ian White's goal late in the 2nd and Jason Blake's goal early in the 3rd. Shots heading into the extra-frame are 49-22 for the Leafs, yet it's the only shot in OT- Montreal's 23rd - that ends the game. Andre Kostitsyn, 34 seconds in. The win for Montreal is their 10th OT win of the season. What wonders.

January 21st, vs. the Lightning, in Tampa Bay. OTL 2-3. Just another Ugh experience. Gustavsson in goal again. Stajan and White score but the Leafs can't hold a 3rd period lead and with less then 5 minutes to go Tampa ties the game on the powerplay. In overtime, a too many men on the ice penalty puts the Leafs down a man again, and this time it's Martin St. Louis finishing the game with just 10 seconds left before the shootout, not that it would have made any difference.

The Leafs only Overtime victory this season came on November 21st, vs. Washington, sandwiched inbetween the shootout loss to Carolina and the OT loss to the NY Islanders. A 1-1 tie goes into a shootout and the Leafs show some camaraderie and team-spirit for the first time this season (not to mention, an open-belief in superstition) by flipping their helmets upside down on the bench. The rally caps do the trick as Kessel and Hagman score while Toskala stops Fehr and Ovechkin, and the Leafs get a rare - I mean extremely rare - extra point for winning in OT.

I guess the most frustrating thing from all this, aside from the crushing disappointment of losing games that could easily have been won, is that if the Leafs had a normal OT record, say a modest 6 wins and 5 losses, then they'd be just 5 points out - within striking distance, at least - of the playoffs. Furthermore, if we wanted to cherry-pick who those additional victories came against, Montreal (twice), Tampa Bay (twice), and the Islanders would have fewer points in the standings.

It'd just be so much more exciting and interesting if we won meaningful games more then once in a while. Some of the time would be nice for starters. I'm really tired of almost never.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Furious Outrage And Passionate Indignation

I haven't written many angry posts this year. I've tried not to. I wrote a bunch last year and I found they're not as fun for me to read afterwards, but blurr once said that he liked me better when I was angry, and ironically that made me feel happy. So be forewarned Maple Leafs Lovers, I'm getting really angry, and any minute now I'm gonna start writing. Okay?

I'M ANGRY!!!!!!1

You know who doesn't want to be a Leafs fan right now? Everybody. But like some sort of horrible swarm of infatuated flying magnetic monkey-sheep, many of us cling misguidedly to an optimistic outcome of a love that will last forever. Loyalty can be forever but blood pressure has a lethal limit, y'know. Sometimes forever means you're dead now. Nobody wants to be associated with a loser. Nobody wants to be laughed at derisively. Derisive is a beautiful word and it sounds poetic but it's actually a horrible experience, especially when it comes from people who don't watch hockey and think Tie Domi still plays for the Leafs. Does any of this make sense? Maybe let's take a pause from being angry for a second.

What's in the paper, I wonder? Main section is kinda depressing... Hey, let's check the Burke's Thought of the Day. There it is, right above the Family Circus cartoon and below my horoscope.

"Our fans have to understand I'm as frustrated as they are. Way more so."

Wrong. Complete factual error. Not possible.

In all due respect, Mr. Burke, you're only just beginning to get frustrated with this team. You weren't here for Maurice/JFJ. You were winning Stanley Cups and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood fashionistas in sunny California. Of course you're disappointed with ToskaLMFAO but we're still sorry over Raycrap. I remember a year when we had a coach named Murphy AND a defenceman named Murphy and I hated them both. Did you know Dougie was high-sticked on that play? And did you know that there's a scar that won't heal, and a score that can't be settled until Toronto finally wins the Stanley Cup? It takes intense discipline to cultivate frustration of this magnitude without setting fire to things. This isn't Montreal. This is Frustration Nation.

Anyways, just a week ago, Mr. Burke, didn't you say something like:

"If you took out the first seven games, it's been a successful season, but you can't do that... We dug a deep hole. We worked very, very hard (to get out of it). I'm proud of that."

I'm not saying that I think these statements are necessarily hypocritical and contradictory, but they come off like hot air and hollow proclamations. I want names. Who are we proud of? Who are we frustrated with? And most importantly - WHAT are we going to do about it? And then my last question is, why didn't we do it sooner?

Let's survey the damage:

A .424 winning percentage after 46 games, 14th in the East, 28th in the NHL. 0-7-1 to begin the season. Surrendered the first goal 33 times in 46 games. Tied for 27th in 1st-period goals-for, while having the highest total of 1st-period goals-against. Outscored in the 1st-period 47-28. An OT/shoot-out record of 1 win and 9 losses. The worst goals-against average in the league. Outscored 7-0 in 4-on-4 situations. The worst penalty-kill in the league, possibly the worst ever seen - just 68.3%. (The 1979-80 Los Angeles Kings have the NHL's worst recorded penalty-kill at 67.7%) Mindboggling.

Wilson's status as head coach?

"100 per cent safe."

An 0-7-1 start to the season, scoring the first goal only 13 times in 46 games, and being outscored in the 1st-period by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, indicates a team that is either completely unmotivated or completely ill-prepared.

"100 per cent safe."

Outscored 7-0 in 4-on-4 situations, and a 1-9 record in extra-time indicates a total absence of any team chemistry within the group, or confidence as a whole.

"100 per cent safe."

The worst penalty-kill in the league, and easily the worst in 2 decades (seriously). Says Leafs assistant coach, Tim Hunter:

"It’s not one guy. It’s not the goalie. It’s not the defencemen. It’s not the forwards. It’s everybody... If you don’t have guys willing to compete it doesn’t matter."

"Not willing to compete" is a puzzling way of describing "everybody" on the roster. Why can't the coaches get the players to "compete" the way they're supposed to? What happens when the team loses total confidence in the penalty-kill? How wise is it to be playing aggressive and on the edge when powerplay goals against come at a 30% clip? I'm askin' you, Tomas Kaberle:

"We can’t take penalties, if we can’t kill them.”

You got it, Kabby, except that it doesn't seem like a very truculent attitude, though it is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, it seems this Leafs team is either unwilling, or more likely, entirely unable to carry out the coach's directions, and the coach is therefore unable to execute the strategy that the GM had designed for the team to specifically follow.This image above is what Truculence looks like. This is Fedotenko taking a blatant boarding penalty on Ian White for retaliation against a hit on a Pittsburgh player, shortly after taking a commanding 3-goal lead in the 3rd-period. The Penguins then easily killed off the Leafs' powerplay. The message sent by the Fedotenko hit far outweighed any momentum gained from the unsuccessful man-advantage. That's the way it's supposed to work, but the Leafs' weapons of security and justice have been systematically disabled and disarmed, leaving them vulnerable and impotent.

"100 per cent safe."

The last word in this angry post goes to MLSE president, Richard Peddie, probably the only time I'll ever quote him, ever:

"We understand the fan unrest. It also says they really care."

So there you go - it's okay to be angry. Go for it. Our unrest will be a measure of our love.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Top-Six Troubles, The Monster's Making Progress, And Burke Goes Out To Lunch

After winning 6 out of 8 to start December, fooling many of us into thinking that this team had a legitimate shot at the post-season, the Leafs have now won just 2 of their last 9 games. They sit 6 points behind the NY Rangers for the 8th spot, with 5 teams inbetween. At the half-way point of the season, they are on pace for just 74 points, their lowest total in 11 seasons.

The Top-Six Forwards Have Dropped Off The Face Of The Earth

Stajan: 1 point in the last 8 games. Minus 5 in that stretch. Zero shots on goal for the last 2 consecutive games. Had not been held without a shot previously this season.

Poni: 2 points in his last 8 games, both of them assists coming in the same game, in fact, the same period, December 27th against Pittsburgh. Usually one of the Leafs best 2-way players, Poni is a minus 6 over the last 8 games.

Hagman: 2 points in his last 10 games. Minus 2. Had 2 terrible back-to-back games against Phoenix and Buffalo in the middle of December for which he was a combined minus 5. Otherwise his play has been respectable, however nonthreatening. Doesn't seem to be the dangerous difference-maker that he appeared to be at the end of November when he had 6 goals in 4 games. He's had 3 in 18 games since.

Grabbo: 2 points in his last 10 games. Minus 4 in that stretch. Now out six weeks with a broken wrist.

Kessel: 1 point in the last 8 games. A disturbing minus 8.Blake And Stempniak Have Been The Leafs Most Consistent Forwards For Some Time Now. I somehow find this even more disturbing then Kessel's minus 8 in 8 games.

Blake: has 3 points in his last 4 games, 4 in his last 7, 6 in the last 10, 8 in 13, and 11 points in the last 17 games going back to the start of December. Has not gone more then 2 consecutive games without a point in that stretch.

Stempniak: Perhaps moving into the top-six in Grabovski's absence will be Lee Stempniak, who also has 11 points in 17 games since the start of December, and who, like Blake, hasn't been held pointless for more then 2 consecutive games in over a month. Stempniak has 6 points in his last 8 games and is a plus 2 in that span.

The Monster Is Making Progress

This is really good news, and it's really easy to demonstrate. Gustavsson keeps getting better:

Currently: .907 SV%
October: 139 shots, 124 saves = .892 Sv%
November: 282 shots, 254 saves = .901 SV%
Combined for Oct-Nov: 421 shots, 378 saves = .898 SV%
Since October: 441 shots, 402 saves = .912 SV%
Dec. 1st to today: 159 shots, 148 saves = .928 SV%

The Leafs are getting solid goaltending from the Monster, but have failed to score 3 goals in any of Gustavsson's last 5 starts. Hard to win when your offence only scores 2 or less, but Gustavsson did pick up 4 points in those 5 games, losing only 2 in regulation.

Carry On, Carry On, 'Cause It Doesn't Really Matter...

So, I realize I'm not posting enough, but the Leafs aren't winning enough either. Sadly, I now think that the Leafs don't have any reasonable expectation of making the playoffs this year. Then again, I fully expect the Leafs top point-producing forwards to break out all of a sudden and go on a terrific run, led by Kessel, and put together another stretch of 6 wins in 8 games.

"If you took out the first seven games, it's been a successful season, but you can't do that," said Burke.

If you took out the first 7 games, the Leafs would still have only 14 wins and 21 losses after 35 games. I don't see how that's even close to being a successful season, but whatever. What I really don't like about this statement from Burke is that it sounds like resignation and acceptance. It sounds like an invitation for the players to stop trying or caring. Oh well. Maybe next year, eh. Not that many of the guys in the top-six will still be here.