August 1, 2008

Wake Me Up When September Ends

So what happens to be making the rounds these days? Sundin is still decisively indecisive? MLSE's ineptness is exposed even more with Bowman joining the Hawks? Carlo Colaiacovo tells us he'd prefer to be healthy? Howard Berger is being ripped at by all angles?

Perhaps it was a bad time to give blogging another go at it. When scouring for any Leaf related tidbit I can find, I wade through the obvious Bleacher Report nonsense only to follow it up with the odd "professional" journalist yet again remind me how long it has been since the Leafs won their last cup. And I suppose I shouldn't complain since it must be just as hard for everyone else to come up with material worth typing about. But then again, some of them are supposed to be making a living out of this.

This afternoon, Cliff Fletcher was on the phone at Hockey Central at Noon to basically yawn over the whole Sundin ordeal, claim that the whole McCabe fiasco will solve itself sometime next month or so, and that Jonas Frogren will be with the team come training camp despite the contract controversy. None of which I didn't know since the last time he said these words. So what was the point?

Now I completely understand that these are the dog days of summer, but this is Toronto, isn't it? Is there nothing better to talk about than the done-to-death topics of Sundin, McCabe, Bowman, Burke, former Stanley Cup wins and future grim playoff hopes? With all the men and women who make up this supposed "Hockey Media Mecca", you'd think that someone could actually wet the appetite of long standing fans with something more palatable than Colaiacovo hoping to play a full season next year. Why have we not been given some insight to the team from either new assistant coach, Tim Hunter or Rob Zettler? Why have we not been given an indepth biography of promising rookie, Nikolai Kulemin? How about a one on one with Ian White asking him all the hard questions about where he thinks he might fit in next season? Hell, photos of Niklas Hagman's wife would be better than this.

This is a team shaping up to have a very different look to it. Many of the new blood coming in, we know very little about. Yes, I understand that Ron Wilson likes to take the subway and Jeff Finger makes a lot of money, but is that all we're going to get?

Toronto... you disappoint me.

July 25, 2008

Stay Tuned...

Looking back at the job not-so-interim GM Cliff Fletcher has done to change the culture and the personnel of this team, we can begin to put some of the pieces of the puzzle back together. Niklas Hagman could very well be seen as a Darcy Tucker replacement, while Mikhail Grabovski can be slotted in Kyle Wellwood's old position. Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg pretty much take up the slack for the departed Chad Kilger and Wade Belak. And Curtis Joseph will obviously keep Andrew Raycroft's seat warm. But where do newcomers Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren fit in?

Given Finger's rather lucrative contract and the work that has been put forth to reel in Frogren from the other side of the globe, you have to expect that both of them are definitely pencilled in as regulars for next season. And I suppose you could make a case that one of these two stay-at-home types will fill in for the gentle giant Hal Gill. However, the 3.5 million dollar eye-opening deal to the former Av is more than likely going to earn him a top four position, leaving Frogren as a possible bottom pairing guy.

Though it may seem like eons ago, Anton Stralman was slated to be a Marlie coming out of camp. Due to injuries, he got his shot with the big club soon after, starting off the year bouncing back and forth from a #6 guy to a healthy scratch. It wasn't until the latter half of the season when his role increased. And considering how well he finished off the season, along with his play in the World Championships, you have to consider him not only a lock to play a regular role on this team, but perhaps even a lock for top four duty as well. Thus giving you 6 players (Kaberle, McCabe, Kubina, Finger, Stralman and White) to fill 4 spots.

Much has been said about Bryan McCabe not being in Fletcher's plans this year despite his NMC. And I have heard theories of Fletch asking him to stay home, to performing some form of ancient Chinese torture on him until he reconsiders his contract. But honestly, this is not the way I see this whole thing unfolding.

Yes, McCabe's agent tried to maximize his own client's value by declining to waive the infamous no-movement clause and instead insist that the Leafs buy him out instead. And obviously that was a valiant effort on his behalf, but there was no hope in the Leafs taking on that type of a hit. Especially for cap purposes. Both Bryan and his agent know full well how the fan base treated the can-opening prodigy back when the team apparently did have him in their plans last season. So does anyone expect more of a positive greeting this go around, should McCabe now be known as the guy that stood in the way of change? Highly doubtful. And considering that there is zero chance left that he will be paid to leave, you can expect a list of teams to finally be handed over to the Silver Fox, giving them the green light to deal him away. A change of scenery may perhaps be the only thing that would entitle Bryan to another crack at a decent contract once this current one expires. And if Wade Redden can score a 6.5 million dollar contract after having two bad seasons, one would expect a decent return for a defender who is merely coming off one bad year.

Moving on to Pavel Kubina, who went from apparent doghouse-tenant back at the deadline, to glory boy in the offseason. You might recall Cliff Fletcher claiming that it would take a very enticing offer to coerce him into trading the big Czech, but then again... what do you expect a GM to say? "I'll trade my greatest moveable asset to the first person that offers me anything?" You'd have to think that the offer San Jose had in place last season looked a lot more like the deal they made to land Dan Boyle this summer, than the deal that managed to acquire Brian Campbell at the deadline. And if another deal comes along that can rival the one that fell through late last season, you have to expect that Fletcher would jump on it. There is simply no other player that could currently demand as much of a return as Kubina can right now.

Lastly, what does the future hold for Ian White or Carlo Colaiacovo? On the open market, despite their brief moments of promise, you're probably looking at a mid-range draft pick or a project with the potential of some upside to them (Suglobov, anyone?). Whether Fletcher is willing to give Cola another chance at staying healthy, or sees White as a competent bottom pairing guy, it remains to be seen. And If Luke Schenn is slotted to play another year in Juniors, the depth chart begins to appear very sparse after Steffan Kronwall. But if Kubina is kept on, I believe you can expect one of these guys dealt. More than likely White.

In the end, the retooling of this team is obviously not over with. Having both Kubina and McCabe on the block in search of suitors that may have missed out on this year's crop of marquis UFA defenders, could possibly land the team a couple of forwards with some decent offensive weaponry, or at the very least restore some of the future draft picks this team has been trading away to get where they are now.... and then of course, there is Mats Sundin.

Stay tuned...

July 24, 2008

Lines We Can Finally Read Between

Surprisingly, not much has been made out of Sundin's latest comments to a Swedish newspaper in the wake of a bogus rumor suggesting that a deal was signed, sealed and delivered to Vancouver.

In Sundin's own words (paraphrased for my own personal convenience), he was flattered by both the Canadiens and Canucks offers, but has not counted out the chance of rejoining the Leafs for a 14th season. A day later, we were told that his final answer would be made on August 1st.

Having gotten to know the large Swede over the course of a decade, there are few NHLers that are as calculated when they get behind a microphone. Sundin has always been very good at keeping with his enigmatic persona, giving a bloodthirsty media little room to find anything noteworthy between the lines in which he is quoted. But having obviously felt a little obligated to address the ongoing rumors that must have Canuck fans in knots right now, we may have finally found a chink in Sundin's armor. And ironically enough, all the big shots here in Toronto seem to have missed it completely.

I personally found two things that were rather telling about Sundin's statements to Aftonbladet. One was the singling out of him not counting out the Leafs, while merely saying that the other two offers were "flattering". Secondly, was revealing that he felt the Toronto offer was "very good".

As much as Leaf fans may feel that they know their Captain, Mats knows the Toronto fans even more. The good people of Toronto do not hold their opinions close to their vests, as he prefers to. So then why go that extra distance to not count out the Leafs? Is he so evil that he would give Toronto false hope just weeks before his decision is final? It would have taken him no effort on his part to simply say that he has not yet decided if he wants to continue his career at all and leave it at that. But to openly acknowledge that the Leafs are still very much in the hunt of all of this? These are the words of a Captain that is at extreme odds with the idea of abandoning his ship.

Secondly, the one thing Mats Sundin has repeated many times before his widely documented fishing trip, was that he was looking for a sign that the new Leafs management had him in their future plans to begin with. I believe he referred to it as "showing interest in him". So when he goes on record saying something to the effect of, "I got a very good offer from (the Leafs), too, and also from Montreal," is he not disclosing that they have done what he asked and showed interest in him? Having matched the offer of the team they traded his negotiating rights to prior to July 1st, pretty much rules out the conspiracy theories that have been floating around that suggest Cliff Fletcher is merely in the bidding for PR reasons.

True enough, nothing can actually be guaranteed until the pen hits the paper. However, since this article made the rounds, the odds of Sundin returning to the Leafs and not retiring or signing with anyone else, appear to be much greater than they were a week ago.

December 9, 2007

Man Disadvantage

In a game where special teams could have meant everything, the Leafs had a power outage rather than a power play.

Quite often when the Leafs play a team like the Senators, you'll hear from the announcers, or the staff and players in between periods speak of how the buds simply can not trade chance for chance, or play 'run and gun' with an offensive force. But last night against the Boston Bruins it was more of a 'crawl and trap' game the Leafs could ill afford to take part in. Alas, when the opposition is set on clogging up the neutral zone, there isn't a whole lot left to do other than playing a dump and chase game.

Clearly a dump and chase game is about as foreign to the Leafs as a defensive system. For when you've spent half of your cap on transition generating defencemen, dumping a puck is like asking a fish to fly. So the best thing to do, would be to continue preaching a puck possession game with some speed behind it in order to draw a penalty or two between the bluelines. And of course this plan can only work when you have a powerplay worth playing in hopes to acquire more than 2 shots every 4 man advantages.

Perhaps the biggest fault of Maurice's to date, is that he does not grasp the 'what have you done for me lately?' method. There has been little reason to put faith in last season's crew as Wellwood has yet to successfully deliver a puck cross crease to Tucker. And the duo of McCabe and Kaberle fail to utilize the positioning which game them much success in the past. Jason Blake continues to get PP assignments as well as extra attacker duties in the final minutes, but more often than not his shots result in easy whistles rather than scoring chances. True he did manage the only Leaf goal of the night, but let's face it. Auld should have stopped that and earned himself a rather easy shutout.

The Leafs should really try and shake things up with it's man advantage. Say goodbye to Blake, Tucker and Wellwood and maybe add a 3rd D man like White into the mix.

Picture the umbrella formation with Kaberle on the blueline midway across the rink. McCabe with his shot on one side with White on the other. This way you force two of the opposition's penalty killers to stay up past the hash marks to keep with in the defensive passing lanes while leaving the other two killers on their own down low to handle guys like Sundin and Antropov.

Now I am not guaranteeing that this rather unorthodox PP unit would pay off. But what it would do, is force the opposition to think a little. Something the Bruins didn't have to do much of last night.

Feel free to give me your own PP saving methods.

November 22, 2007

What Are They Waiting For?

Now that the Leafs have officially succumbed to possibly the greatest prospect they had and gave away, exactly what is keeping the inevitable pink slip from reaching JFJ's office door?

I suppose the camouflaging of 5 overtime losses has helped somewhat, but let's not be fooled here. The Leafs aren't 1 game under .500 (which is already unacceptable in his 4th season), but they happen to be 6 games below .500.

In a perfect world, the Teachers either through Peddie or Tanenbaum, should have given the Leafs an ultimatum on Tuesday night. Beat the rookie Rask and allow the franchise to save face, or else clean out your lockers. And two days later, not a sound other than the wringing of Sundin's voice questioning the identity of this club.

When JFJ took over for Pat Quinn, his apparent goal was to restore the farm team and stockpile the youth system by not giving up on his prospects and picks. Which is why facing and losing to Rask should have been the catalyst to Ferguson's tenure as Leaf boss.

Having given up the most goals against in the entire league after spending so much on defensemen and making two separate panic moves to acquire their two supposed best goaltenders, only the Marlies seem to be going according to plan this season. In short, every move Ferguson has made thus far has ended up with egg on his face.

Perhaps the failed attempt to acquire a senior executive, or a co-general manager to JFJ this past offseason is keeping the brass from making the one move every radio analyst and every phone-in caller in the southern Ontario region has been asking for in agreement 2 years straight. If a senior consultant is that hard to find, how hard would it be to successfully land a successor? And when you consider that in all the entire Leaf media structure, the only name to be mentioned lately is Glen Healy, there is a serious problem here. But what of Neil Smith?

What the Leafs can ill afford to do, is hire a second straight rookie GM. Especially in the wake of the MLSE's decision to put in veteran GM Colangelo to front it's basketball team. And there is no telling how well the former goaltender can perform under these dire circumstances. All you have to do is listen for a few minutes on TSN or CBC to hear him glow in admiration of Captain Mats Sundin. And although I do not disagree with his sentiments in this specific player, I cannot fathom him being able to trade Sundin away to regain some futures. Even despite his no trade clause.

Beyond having traded for two enigmatic goaltenders and locking up a team of underachievers for far too much money, the Leafs biggest problem is not having the ability to maximize theis assets while they still have them. When the team chose to give up on players such as Roberts, Niewendyk, Belfour, and even Allison and O'Neill, they did not give them up at the deadline to teams wishing to make a post season push. They were merely given away for nothing with nothing to show for them other than some cap space that was later filled with someone elses cast offs.

What MLSE must do, is give up on their few bright lights. Trade away the Kaberles, Antropovs and Sundins while they can get a return for them. And it doesn't really take 10 years to successfully rebuild a team as the Flyers demonstrated last season. Perhaps all it would take is the rest of this season.

Right now, only Smith seems capable of pushing this reality pill down the throats of our owners.

November 20, 2007

The Wrath Of Rask?

Tonight the Toronto Maple Leafs will meet the kid they gave up on to acquire Andrew Raycroft for the first time. And unfortunately for the Bruins, they won't be facing the same guy they annihilated just a week ago.

Although the head to head matchup of traded goaltenders would have been a great story for a quiet game in late November, this is the next best thing. With the memory of of Raycroft being beat just 19 seconds into the previous matchup between these two clubs fresh on Leaf fans minds, we provide the measuring stick. For wouldn't the Leafs need to score well more than 5 goals tonight to save face in it's latest evaluation mishap controversy?

Quietly, MLSE can push back the other notable goaltender they valued more than the young Fin in Justin Pogge. Who in his second stint in the AHL is still struggling to get his save percentage over .900. Not to mention that he currently sits 4th in the much maligned Leaf goaltender depth rating. However, the comparing between Rask and Raycroft himself is something that will be talked about for much of the rest of this week. That much is confirmed.

Tuuka Rask has played in just 9 games on North American soil. All being with the Providence Bruins in the AHL. He sports a 7 and 2 record while putting up a 2.10 GAA. While North American born goaltenders Pogge and Raycroft acheived 3.03 and 3.37 GAAs respectively in their first professional years in the 'A'.

If there was one thing that could quickly take over the good feelings that a 3 to nothing win over the rival Senators gave Toronto, it would be a defeat to the one bright goaltending prospect they once had and gave away for practically nothing.

Stay tuned...

November 19, 2007

Blake Misses Practice

Apparently in the one game where Leaf forwards spend 60 complete minutes in an unorthodox two-way style that still has the Leaf faithful' jaws dropped, a sign appeared from the diligent backchecking as Jason Blake was noticeably missing from this morning's practice. We've been told that he is resting some wear and tear due to a Volchenkov-like shot block on Saturday night.

Leaf media was after it's obligatory interview with the plain-clothed Blake, but instead received a blank stare before he stormed past them briefly mentioning that he had to pick up his son.

Back in the offseason, we probably expected this to be big time news. Even the possibility of missing Blake for a regular season game due to injury would have us wondering how the Leafs would get around this huge lack of offensive power. Especially on the powerplay. But in reality, Blake's 2 goals (neither on the PP) at the quarter point of the season is hardly something to lose sleep over.

Quite frankly, I do not recall this game saving shot block that the Leaf's free agent forward supposedly displayed in the big win against Ottawa. What I do remember from that game was his two lap skate around the Ottawa zone which inevitably ended in not having a scoring chance. It wasn't the first time I asked myself what the hell was he doing this season.

Despite having zero chemistry on the top line with Sundin and Ponikarovsky, Blake continues to get Jonas Hoglund-like minutes without putting up Jonas Hoglund-like points. And before the bleeding hearts out there quickly point out his recent bout with Leukemia, lets keep in mind that his form of cancer is currently being treated with just one pill a day.

Last Saturday night, Blake continued giving away powerplay minutes to the disappointing Darcy Tucker who managed to record his first goal of the year while on the man advantage. And as Bryan McCabe skated out onto the ice earning a first star of the game, it reminded me just how harshly he was booed for not playing up to his contract.

If there was a player deserving of these boo birds, it would be the Dmitri Khristich reincarnate... Jason Blake.

November 18, 2007

Prolonging The Inevitable

As proud as Leaf fans must have felt last night in the wake of a 3 to 0 shutout win against the powerhouse Senators, it happened to be exactly what LeafNation did not need. Providing us with mere window dressing that will allow incompetent GM JFJ another day, week, or even month of breathing space.

With images of coach Maurice and 'Handlebars' McCabe having a little one on one meeting at center ice during that morning's practice, flashing on the screen over and over during Hockey Night In Canada, the consensus today was predictable. "Maurice has finally grabbed the reigns of this team and they have bought into his defensive system once and for all!" Now, I've been accused of looking at the glass half empty many times in the past, but it isn't the amount that remains in the cup that has my interest. It is the amount that is leaking out from the bottom.

A win like last night's might have been suitable for Maurice's 2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes, but does not fit in with the current Leafs' philosophy. Clogging up the neutral zone doesn't exactly exemplify the league's most expensive defensive core, theoretically built for a transition game. And especially considering that defender's #5 and #6 were used so sparingly.

Nor does utilizing just one forechecker. The Leafs 6'4"+ crew of Neanderthals aren't terribly known for their two way games, nor their open ice wizardry. The opposing boards is their bread and butter. Or at least, that was the original plan.

About the only thing on paper that does seem to be going somewhat to plan, is the dynamic duo between the pipes each notching a shutout in the past 8 games. However, this does not fool many while they continue to allow almost 4 goals against each game.

Now, it is not my intention to suggest that the Leafs should choose a game plan better suited to their initial philosophies over the one they ultimately chose last night. For obviously those game plans exposed more weaknesses than strengths. What I am suggesting here, is that a 3 to 0 defeat of the hottest team in the league should be nothing for the general manager to hang his hat on. Not when the head coach had to scrap the original blueprints and instead hold his fort together with mud and clay.