Monday, November 15, 2010

Free Gunnar Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm seriously confused by this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me be clear about this:

Carl Gunnarsson, 9 games: even plus/minus.

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Grabbo Gonna Get Kessel Going

Mickey Grabbs is my choice for Leaf of the Week, one of only two Leafs that have stood out for me recently with solid performances (Kulemin is the other). Grabbo has been in on all 3 Leaf goals scored this week (yes, just 3 goals in 3 games for the entire team), scoring twice and assisting on the other. He's currently in a 3-way tie for 2nd in team scoring along with Kessel and Kulemin, each with 9 points after 15 games.
Grabovski's other de facto linemate, MacArthur is the team leader, jumping ahead of the pack by 3 points with 12. That Grabbo's line holds 3 of the top 4 spots in points clearly puts the responsibility for the team's scoring woes on the shoulders of Bozak and Versteeg. Bozak is currently on pace for less then a 30-point season.

Grabovski's real eyebrow-raising stat is his plus/minus. A most pleasing +7, Grabbo leads the team in that department and has only been on the negative side of the ledger once this season (minus 1 in the 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay).

Clarke MacArthur has the 2nd best plus/minus at +6, and in 3rd is, surprise surprise, Tomas Kaberle with a respectable +4. I noticed after the Leafs very depressing 4-1 loss to the Panthers, that Kaberle somehow escaped the night as a +1. Meanwhile, Kabby and Grabbo are now tied for the team lead in Assists with 7 each.

The Importance Of Scoring First

If the Leafs are going to make tracks in the standings, it's imperative that they get on the board first to give themselves the best possible chance of success. The team has scored the first goal of a game at just a 40% rate - 6 times in 15 games - not entirely terrible, but when they do score first, their record is 4-0-2. Ten of a possible 12 points and no losses in regulation.

When their opponents get the first goal, the Leafs are a dismal, and nearly hopeless, 1-7-1. Three of a possible 18 points.

The Importance Of Scoring In The 1st Period

The Leafs record when they score in the 1st period is identical to when they open the scoring. Nine times they've been shut-out through the opening 20 minutes and in those nine games their only victory came in the 4th game, a 4-3 overtime victory against the Rangers in which the Leafs dominated the 2nd period after giving up the opening goal in the 1st. In games when the Leafs do score in the opening period, again the Leafs are 4-0-2 without a loss in regulation.

On the other hand, in the 9 games that the Leafs have been held scoreless in the 1st, the Leafs have followed up that scoreless 1st period 6 times - a 66% ratio - by not scoring again in the 2nd. Awesome. Unbelievably, the Leafs have been shutout through 2 periods of play 6 times already in just 15 games (40%) and shutout completely 3 times (20%).

In the last 8 games, Leaf fans have agonized through scoring droughts that lasted 2 hours 27 minutes 40 seconds AND 2 hours 22 minutes 44 seconds.

The Importance Of Scoring At All

There's nothing more demoralizing then being shutout. Grabovski's latest tally, which broke our second longest shutout streak of the year, was welcome relief, even if it had no impact on the outcome. As bad as it was to lose back-to-back games in Florida, I imagine that without the Grabovski goal, the psychological distress of being blanked for two games in the sunshine state and coming home amidst what would have been a 149:19 run of impotence, might have been near-overwhelming for Wilson and his crew. That one goal, by Grabovski, coming in the 3rd period of a game well out of reach, allowed the Leafs to return from their Florida trip merely embarrassed, and not utterly humiliated.

It makes sense now for Wilson to pair Grabovski with Kessel in an attempt to get the latter going and back on the scoresheet. Because, while Bozak and Versteeg can largely be blamed for the team's offensive slump, it's Kessel's contribution, or lack of, that determines whether we win or lose. I wrote a post on this subject at the end of last season, and after having another look, I've updated my findings. Kessel's production is absolutely vital to the cause; behold:

In the last 41 games, half a season, going back to Feb. 2nd , the first game after acquiring Phaneuf and Giguere...

When Kessel tally’s a goal OR an assist, the Leafs record is:
When Kessel is held without a point, the Leafs record is:


Hopefully Grabovski and Kessel will find a way to put up points together and help turn this sinking ship around. The key to beating the Leafs is obviously to keep Phil Kessel off the scoreboard, so it's a smart move for Wilson right now to do anything he can to get Kessel back on it. And the sooner the better. A first period tally, an early lead, a point for Kessel, is all the Leafs need for there to be a much more positive outlook.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Off His Rocker

If you hadn't guessed, Ron Wilson's been getting on my nerves a bit recently. And it's not just the team's struggles that are bothering me, though that's where it begins and ends, but also the cold, cynical, sarcastic, snarky nature that Wilson employs when speaking, through the media, to the public.

I think Wilson forgets sometimes that he isn't just speaking to the reporters assembled, but to the masses. The people holding microphones and notepads are only there because Leaf fans are listening and reading. That's the audience. Reporters and journalists and columnists and even bloggers just record the things that are said and sometimes they flaunt their opinion to add or create context, but the conversation is with the audience, and a condescending attitude is a shtick that wears thin real quick.

For instance:

"We’re a .500 team and apparently we should be 1.000,”

Wrong. No one is suggesting we should still have a perfect record, but you know what? We could have been 1.000 after game 5, but instead Lebda took a goaltender interference penalty in overtime. Two people are responsible for that; Lebda and the coach. Also, .500 sucks. That's not a measure of success or acceptability. Please don't start talking that way. That's a losers attitude.

Ya, I know I'm being harsh but I'm tired of Wilson's preoccupation with his high horse keeping his clothes clean while the team and fans wallow in muck. Take some responsibility. For instance:

"I mean, it suddenly switched from Lindy Ruff to me overnight, and it’s always coming out of Toronto. There is some coach in the league that we’re talking about and I get asked not just about my own situation, but every other coach who is losing a couple of games and it always seems to come out of Toronto, not from the city where the coach is struggling a little bit.”

Are you joking? First of all, who won the game that night? Second, the always coming out of Toronto thing is a red herring. Of course you're going to get asked about your situation and others, and of course a greater percentage of the news-narrative will originate from Toronto, and aside from Ron Wilson, there are no other NHL head coaches working in Toronto so they have to be from somewhere else by default. It's enough to make me think he's gone off his rocker. For instance, from before the ill-fated loss to the Sabres:

“That’s half the problem with our society,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after the morning skate, leaping to the defense of his colleague. “You’re married to your wife, and you have a rough spot … ‘Oh, that’s it. I’m getting a new wife.’ We see that every damn day in our society. We just get rid of things.

“The one thing you don’t generally do is get rid of your kids.”


“I don’t think.”

More laughter.

“Not many people say, ‘That’s it. I’m trading my kids for a new set of kids,’ right?”

According to Nicholas J. Cotsonika, Wilson "leaped" to the defence of his Buffalo counterpart and seemingly got on a roll after only gentle prodding. This assumption is backed up by Sean Fitz-Gerald who wrote in the Post:

"Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Ron Wilson got on a roll during his pre-game briefing with reporters on Saturday, touching on everything from the status of the modern family to the continued development of Luke Schenn and the notion of the NHL adopting a system for coaches to challenge on-ice calls."

By the way, the quote from Wilson in which he ponders disposing of family members and exposes the root of half our society's damn habitual problems is one of the strangest tangents I've ever heard from a sports personality in Toronto. It's bizarre. I'd love to hear more from Ron Wilson about his bitter contempt for society and know what the other half of our problems are but I'm not sure why he's thinking about that and not about hockey. Who cares about Lindy Ruff? Or society?

But that was just the tail-end of his answer. It began a long ways back, according to the Post. Keep in mind this is only a "partial" transcript:

On whether rumours about job security – based on the speculation swirling around Sabres coach Lindy Ruff – can become a distraction:

“Well, I’ve had enough of that here. It happens most of the time. You lose two in a row, you should be fired or something. I don’t think that it’s a distraction to Lindy. How long has he been there? 13 years? So, along the way, if he’s been there 13 years, probably 30 times someone has said he should be fired.

“To take on a job of this magnitude, you have to have a fairly thick skin. And you have to believe in yourself. And over time, Lindy’s done a great job. They’ve been in this same spot four or five times along the way. You just have to be patient.”

On the importance of trust and support between a coach and a general manager:

“I don’t know what’s going on in the Buffalo organization, but coming in (the media room), I hate to say this, but your opinions don’t really matter in the board room or in the locker room. You guys have your opinions. And whatever’s going on in Buffalo, I guarantee you they’ve got their finger on the pulse.”

"They’re just going through a rough time right now. You go through a rough time in your life."

And then Wilson launches into his tirade against the North American way of life. These aren't answers to questions. This is just him going off. Finally he wraps it up with a cryptic comment that sounds more like he's talking about his own situation then anything to do with Lindy Ruff:

“You’re going to have rocky times. You stick in there. You battle through it. Don’t take the easy way out. You’ll be better off for it in the long run.”

So it seems to me that Wilson was far from bombarded with questions he didn't want to answer about his well-respected colleague but was quite happy to jump in there and lead the conversation, and then unwittingly turned it in his direction when he put himself in the scenario and projected the outcome. You're going to have rocky times. You stick in there. You battle through it. Don't take the easy way out. Who's he talking about? Lindy Ruff still? He's gone existential on us, just like Paul Maurice did.

It's interesting to me that Wilson hasn't had stronger words for the team's performance but instead found a way to praise them while appraising his own work:

"Defensively, with a couple of exceptions, we’ve played very well, we’ve kept the shots down. Our penalty killing, except for two games last week, has been excellent, we’ve really improved in that area … at some point it’s all going to click in, and we’ll start to see the results we expect.”

I like that part at the end. Finally, some optimism and encouragement. I can't wait until "some point" comes, and I'm sure that when it does and people say what a great job the Leafs coaching staff have done to turn things around, Wilson will have none of that and will deflect credit to the players who overachieved their talent and finally caught up to his coaching ability.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Money In The Bank

Mike Komisarek is my choice for Leaf of the Week based on the last 4 games. I believe he's the most improved Leafs player since the start of the season, but maybe that was to be expected for a player coming back from a long layoff. The last 2 games he's been arguably the best Leaf on the ice. This past week he's seen his ice-time climb from 11:01 in Boston last Thursday, to 26:02 Wednesday night in Washington.

And this pass Komi lays out to Versteeg to send him in for the tying goal is an absolute beauty:

Captain Overboard

Of course, the rise in Komi's ice-time is entirely related to the tragic circumstance of filling in for the injured Captain. A deserved reflection of Komi's improved play, but not by design.

"The bottom line is that Dion has wrought a considerable culture change with our team and he's done it almost singlehandedly."

Dripping with irony, this statement becomes an unintended challenge to every member of the team to make their mark and prove their worth in the absence of Phaneuf.

Luke Schenn has been awesome this year, looks like a future Captain, and played another outstanding game on Wednesday. But I also thought Komisarek, Beauchemin, and Kaberle - all 3 wearing the familiar A on their sweaters - stood out for playing an intense spirited game, especially in the 3rd period. As much as Gustavsson deserves credit for stealing a point with some unbelievable stops, so too do the Leafs top four defenders for their inspiring efforts.

Hard Times

1-5-2 after a 4-0-0 start, yet this team showed remarkable character in the 3rd period against Washington to steal a point, and nearly two. Now they'll have to continue building that character in the absence of Phaneuf over the next four weeks and somehow establish a team identity and a winning attitude without the larger-then-life personage of Dion to guide them.

I'm hoping the competitiveness and confidence of the rest of the players is as underrated as Phaneuf's leadership is overrated. Otherwise...

I think we've overdrawn on our deposit.

"This is money in the bank for us when we hit hard times."

That didn't take long. One win in our last 8 games. With or without a Captain, we can't afford to prolong our tail-spin.

I was all set to write an angry post demanding an end to Wilson's run behind the bench, and who knows - it might still be coming, but the Leafs made a truly startling turnaround in the 3rd period, and as mentioned, key players gave inspirational performances and elevated their game.

I don't know where that inspiration came from, could've been behind the bench, so we give Wilson the benefit of the doubt for one more game perhaps. Because it was a truly stunning comeback, even if we didn't hold on for the win.


One thing I am concerned about with this team is the motivation factor. They'd better learn to play for themselves and for each other, 'cause it's obvious that they don't play for the coach. Wilson comes across as a firm no-nonsense straightshooter, but also as a horrible motivator. Seems to only lead with the stick and never the carrot. The focus seems to be on positioning, not passion. Diligence, and not drive. Jobs, but not joy.

I honestly can't imagine any group of players rallying around coach Wilson like they would for Scotty Bowman or Pat Burns. It may be that it's not necessary for players to like their coach or agree with their decisions, but I'm not so sure. I think it helps a little.

Wilson's style is very demanding and requires the players work hard, and skate hard, continuously. For the most part, the effort and execution is there, sometimes stubbornly so, as even when it's not succeeding the Leafs rarely abandon the game plan and rigidly maintain their system. The players have bought into a determined, disciplined style of play but are not seeing much in the way of rewards or success.

Individually, players have grown and learned, but collectively there's a lack of spirit and chemistry. Mostly what alerts me to the fact that this isn't a happy group is the lack of enthusiasm towards winning and scoring from Toronto's key offensive contributors. Versteeg, Kessel, and most alarmingly, Grabovski, appear to be missing that sparkle-magic in their eyes and flare in their step. Now, I'm not asking for anyone to pretend their stick is blazing like Jimi Hendrix' guitar, but after back-to-back shutouts, it'd be nice to see 3rd period outbursts greeted with some genuine excitement and emotion from the players.

They seem too uptight for celebration. My concern is that Wilson's snarky, grey, miserable demeanor, while beneficial in producing a sound, disciplined and tireless, defensive approach, lacks the motivational thrust needed to get the players to elevate their game, and does nothing to encourage their enthusiasm for success.


I still believe in the rest of this team. Even Lebda. But no amount of coaching is going to fix John Mitchell. His poor clearing attempt on the PK, already much lamented, led to the Capitals tying goal, yet it's everything Mitchell does AFTER the weak clear that I find so appalling.

A one-goal lead, with less then 6 minutes to go in the 3rd period:
First off, Mitchell's angle is all wrong. He's skating directly towards the shooter when really he should be skating towards a point between the shooter and his target and then from there close the distance between himself and the shooter.Mitchell then attempts to block the shot with his outstretched stick and not with his body and the result is predictable. The puck slices right through the shaft of Mitchell's stick and continues towards the net at an uncertain trajectory and velocity.As the puck miraculously bounces through the crease and wide, Mitchell drops the broken stick and appears to give up on the play. For the next 2 seconds, Mitchell goes into zombie-mode. As Gustavsson, Beauchemin and Komisarek scramble in the crease, check out Mitchell's body language as he watches Semin coral the puck at the side of the goal. Arms down at his side, back upright, feet not moving at all, legs are shoulder-width apart as if taking a practice glide and preparing to stop. Zero intensity. Despite being the closest Maple Leaf with an unobstructed path to the goalscorer, Mitchell is doing nothing to pressure or hurry Semin's attempt. There's no sense of urgency coming from Mitchell, only defeat.Sure, Mitchell likely wouldn't have made it in time even if he'd tried, but the point is entirely that he didn't even try. If Beauchemin had somehow managed to get a shinpad in the way and blocked the first attempt, Semin easily would've had time for a second and third whack.

Notice how quickly Sjostrom comes into view coming back on the other side, and if you watch the video carefully, compare the body language of Sjostrom and Mitchell immediately after the referee signals the goal (0:07).

It may be time for Mitchell to have a fresh start somewhere else where he can try to find his game under less pressure and scrutiny. For now, Wilson is the one who gets the general reprieve, but only as long as the Leafs top defenders - those with a letter on their chests - continue to lead and inspire. As for the offensive woes, it may be that Bozak, Versteeg, and Grabbo are going to have to figure things out on their own and find their smiles without the Captain's cultural influence, and without resorting to throwing tennis balls at each other either. And soon.

Wow, this was like 4 posts in one! If you made it all the way through, thanks for dropping by, and Go Leafs Go!