Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary Brian Burke!

It’s been two years since Brian Burke has taken charge of the Toronto Maple Leaf organization. At the time there was much optimism but that has since been replaced with the usual pessimism. Many scribers have already written off his tenure which is absurd. You can’t evaluate a rebuild while it’s in progress. In fact, this one is even more difficult to assess since we don’t even know what the plan is.

Here is how I see it. When Burke arrived it was with much fanfare and platitudes on his part. He stated that the team was too soft, too small, and with a culture of losing. He stated he hated losing and could not wait 5 year (out of the playoffs) to be competitive. His goal was to make the playoffs every season.

These are very lofty goals. Although he gave no timeframe, he was suggesting that the Leafs would be competitive again in a short period of time – perhaps 2 or 3 years? Thus he set himself up for failure by trying to shorten the typical rebuild timeline. It will likely still take 5 years to rebuild this team.

However, he tried nonetheless. To speed up the process, he decided to bypass the Entry Draft and use trades and free agent signings to stock the depleted lineup with quality players. As everyone knows he gave up valuable commodities in high draft picks for a NHL-ready scorer, Phil Kessel. He signed a number of U.S. college free agents (Christian Hanson, Tyler Bozak and Braydon Irwin). Highly sought after European free agent goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Jussi Rynnas were also signed. Toughness was enhanced by bringing in Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, Mike Brown and Colby Armstrong. Two trades unloaded a lot of deadwood for talented (though expensive) players, Dion Phanuef and J-S Giguere.

So where do we really stand right now? Well the Kessel trade isn’t the disaster it has been portrayed to be. It certainly is not comparable to the Kovalchuck deal as suggested by Mike Milbury last Saturday. The Leafs picked up a proven goal scorer who was only 21 years old. They gave up what turns out to be Tyler Seguin who is also talented but we do not know how good we will be yet. You can’t assess the other two picks but we know that the 2011 Entry Draft will be weaker which means the Bruins will not likely get a player of Seguin’s calibre.

The college free agents have been pretty much a bust so far. Only Bozak is with the Leafs but he is struggling under the pressure placed on him. To suggest that these players are equal to first round draft picks would quite a stretch. None of the other free agent signings have been significant and can be described as only role players. The days of making a "splash" in the free agent are over. GMs are reluctant to trade away high draft picks and tend to lock these players in for long term contracts at very young ages. When Burke suggests that July 1 is his team's draft is just a lot of hot air.

Goaltending and defense have been stabilized by a good blend of veterans and youth. The young core of Gustavsson and Rynnas in net and Scheen Gunnarsson, Phaneuf and Aulie on the blueline is something to build around. I can see some of the veterans being moved out

The offense is currently next to invisible. Aside from the 4th line, the forwards are quick but pretty small and having difficulty working the puck in the corners and in front of the net. I sense more changes are coming to balance speed and size. The average age of the Leaf forwards are the youngest in the NHL so they will get better. I'm not sure they will get good enough to compete. The Leafs lack quality centres and big wingers.

So this rebuild will continue for several years before the Leafs can compete despite Burke's efforts to accelerate the process. In fact, it could be argued that he may have slowed down that process by giving up draft picks. It is becoming obvious that quality players are rarely available through trades or free agency. The draft remains the best source of inexpensive quality players which are the most valued commodity in hockey today.

What Burke has never clearly articulated is his plan for rebuilding the Leafs. His moves do not suggest a clear strategy. Nor is his timeline clear. He states he values big bodies but brings in small players like Kessel, MacArthur, Kadri, Versteeg and Bozak. A priority was changing the culture but the new players tend to have bad starts to games much as the previous group.

Anyway, happy anniversary Brian! Keep smiling!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Carey Price proves all the critics wrong

I was sceptical when the Montreal Canadiens decided to trade Jaraslav Halak and hang onto Carey Price following Halak’s strong season and playoff performance last year. I also did not think that Price had the emotional intelligence needed to be an outstanding NHL goalie despite his great skills. Well it looks like I was wrong as well and thousands if not millions of hockey fans. Maybe the Canadiens management team knows what they are doing after all.

From management’s perspective Price was worth investing more time in considering what he has already accomplished in his short career. He is only 23. He was the 5th overall pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. That same year he was selected the CHL goaltender of the year. In 2007 he helped Canada win the gold medal at the World Junior Championships and was the Tournament MVP. As a 19 year old he carried the Hamilton Bulldogs to a Calder Cup Championship and was the playoff MVP. So it is understandable that management would give him enough time to develop at the NHL level.

So how have the two goalies matched up so far this season:















Well as good as a season as Halak is having, Price’s has been having an even better one. So the faith shown in him by management is paying off and the near hysteria from their fan base has disappeared. The Canadiens are a Stanley Cup contender and Price is the latest saviour. All is good in Montreal.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mike Komisarek will be paid $6 million this season

Shocking isn't it? When it comes to the most overpaid players in the NHL, Mike has to be near the top of the list. I remember how critical people were of the Jason Blake free agent signing but this one is maybe worse. One of the blustery comments made by Brian Burke in regards to the NHL Entry Draft was that July 1st is our draft. Well looks like you draft yourself another PAtrik Stefan.

Although Komisarek's pay cheques will total $6 million this season, his cap hit is $4.5 million. Do you want to know what $4.5 million can buy you in this league?

Shea Weber - $4.5 million
Dan Hamhuis - $4.5 million
Anton Volchenkov - $4.25 million
Robyn Regher - $4.2 million
Keith Ballard - $4.2 million
John-Michael Liles - $4.2 million
Joni Pitkanen - $4.0 million
Ryan Whitney - $4.0 million
Marc Staal - $3.975 million
Dennis Wideman - $3.875 million
Brooks Orpik - $3.75 million
Brad Stuart - $3.75 million
Mattias Ohland - $3.607 million
Brent Seabrook - $3.5 million
Kris Letang - $3.5 million
Brent Burns - $3.455 million
Niklas Kronwall - $3.0 million

Mike Brown has the best mustache in the NHL

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Leafs favourite number must be zero

For the fifth time this season an opposition goalie left the rink with a big smile on his face. In three of those five games the Leafs actually outshot their opponents yet could buy a goal. But shots on net is not a very good indicator on how well a team has played. Most people agree that the number of scoring changes is a much more reliable indicator. That's because shots from 40 or 50 feet out are not considered scoring chances because the rarely find the back of the net.

The Maple Leafs take a lot of shots from 50 feet out or from along the boards. NHL goalies typically stop shots from that distance as long as they can see them. That's why Vesa Toskala is no longer playing in the NHL - he didn't stop these shots on a frequent enough basis. Leaf fans often are under the impression that the Leafs have outplayed their opponents but either run into a hot goalie or have bad luck. The reality is that the Leafs typically have far fewer scoring chances in a game than the opposition. It's like having 9 Jason Blakes on your team. Lots of nice skating but you never get close enough to the opposition goalie to ever be on a first name basis with him.

The same problem exists on the powerplay because you will rarely see a Leaf player in the heavy traffice region in front of the opposition net. Most shots are taken from the point or the perimeter which explains why so many shots are blocked.

This problem will not be resolved until the Leafs develop some big-bodied, skilled forwards. Luca Caputi has the size but he has yet to show that he can be a NHL regular. Christian Hanson has the size too but does not appear to have the skating ability or the hands to be a offensive player in the NHL. Viktor Stulberg and Alexei Ponikarovsky had the size but both were shipped out.

So until the Leaf top 9 forwards grow taller and become more truculent, the offensive will likely struggle.

Saturday's Ice Girls: Dallas Stars

Gustavsson hung out to dry again

Once again the Maple Leafs didn't show up for the first period in their game against the Buffalo Sabres last night and that was the difference in the game. The Leafs were out shot 16-5 in the first period and although they woke up for the second period to out shoot the Sabres 31-12 in the final 40 minutes, it was already too late.

Everything about the Leafs was bad in the first period with the exception of Gustavsson who let in 2 goals but kept the game close. The Sabres could have easily had another 2 or 3 as they were either left standing in front of the Leaf net or handed the puck over by generous defenders. There were dumb penalties by Orr and Versteeg that led to Sabre goals. The Versteeg penalty was so stupid and pointless that I am prepared to hand over to him the Tie Domi Cementhead Award for 2010-11 despite the season only being 1/4 completed. Versteeg elbowed Nathan Gerbe which gave Buffalo a 5-on-3 advantage 16 seconds after Jordan Leopold made the score 1-0 and lead to a second powerplay goal. That preceded Orr's poorly-timed attack on Paul Gaustad that led to a triple minor for roughing, I can't remember ever seeing that penalty called. The Leafs played better but the combination of weak offense and great goaltending by Ryan Miller made for a failied comeback. Their powerplay was again 0 for 6.

But the worst part of the game is how Gustavsson has been hung out to dry. The Leafs lead the league in turnovers and my guess is that Mike Komisarek is the worst offender. Although last night even steady Luke Schenn was a repeat offender. Then the offense is unable to compensate by getting the team back in the game. One goal late in the third just isn't good enough. Gustavsson has a mediocre 3-5-1 record despite a decent .919 save percentage.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Are the ACC crowds too quiet?

There was an amusing blog post on the Toronto Star site on the ACC crowds. The premise was that if Maple Leaf fans were more vocal, like those in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, they would lift the team up and act as a “sixth skater”. The blogger goes on to suggest some interesting (though hardly realistic) ideas like moving the real fans in the purples to the lower bowl or recruiting the loudest and craziest Leaf fans in the city and give them season tickets.

I was at the game on Monday and there were long stretches of absolute silence. Those stretches coincided with long stretches of boring hockey - pucks constantly turning over in the neutral zone, dump ins, and pointless cycling along the boards. However, when the action picked up, like when the home side actually skated hard, the crowded got louder. It may be a chicken or egg analogy but I think the team gets the crowd into the game by creating scoring chances. The visiting teams know that the best way to neutralize the crowd is to get one or two early goals.

You can’t artificially generate noise. Like when the team flashes on the big video screen to make noise. There are a few thousand lemmings in the crowd that will scream for 30 seconds but then the place dies right down again. I've been in the ACC when the place is electric. It's actually not very difficult to get Toronto fans excited. Just play some decent hockey. However, most nights the t-shirt toss during a break gets more of a buzz than the hockey team.

Maple Leafs pass on Patrick O'Sullivan

I’m just wondering why the Maple Leafs didn’t put in a claim for Patrick O’Sullivan who was put on waivers this week by Carolina. O’Sullivan was picked up by Minnesota which means the Leafs who are lower in the standing would have passed on him.

O’Sullivan appears to be the type of player that the Leafs would take a chance on. He saw very little action with Carolina which is why they put him up for grabs after signing him as a free agent this fall. He is only 25 and therefore young enough to invest in for ¾ of a season. O’Sullivan would have been a cap hit of $448,000 which is less than half of what they are paying Darcy Tucker to sit at home and play with his kids.

O’Sullivan has a similar history to Clark MacArthur who the Leafs signed for $1.1 million this season. O’Sullivan was the 56th pick in 2003 while MacArthur was the 74th. MacArthur has played 228 games in the NHL and accumulated 51 goals and 55 assists. While O’Sullivan has played 290 games and scored 55 goals and 95 assists. O’Sullivan had a bit of a breakout season in 2007-08 when he scored 22 goals so he has some offensive potential which is in great need these days in Toronto. However, like MacArthur, he is on the smallish side and not strong defensively. But at this price, why not?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Maple Leafs first term report cards

Well, I tried hard to hold off critiquing this team too much until the 20 game mark and here we are. Their record is 8-9-3 which places them 11th in their conference and just 2 points out of a playoff spot. Considering their recent 7 game losing streak they are fortunate to be that close although it also reflects the weakness of the Eastern Conference. It also means that they are not in a position for a lottery pick, or should I say the Bruins.

This is the youngest team in the NHL so I expect they will get better. In fact they should be better in March than they are right now. As well, there are just 8 players who were with the team at the start of last season so this lineup has yet to jell properly. Definitely a work in progress.

Here is how I grade the lineup:

Luke Schenn - best player on the team over the first 20 games
Tomas Kaberle - consistent moves the puck out of his end and has matched well with Schenn
Jonas Gustavsson - has been very solid in the few starts he has had

Clark MacArthur - fast start but as in the past has no cooled off, not very responsible in his end
Mikhail Grabovsky - very creative with the puck and also too casual with the puck
Phil Kessel - Coach wants him to be a more complete player and so far has not met that challenge
Nik Kulemin - slow start but has begun to use his size to get to the net, always works hard on his defensive game
Mike Brown - has used his body and fists well and been a good penalty killer
Fredrik Sjostrom - quick in both ends of the rink but too bad he can't be better at putting puck in the net


Kris Versteeg - has been a disappointment but recent demotion to 3rd line seems to have lifted a huge weight off his shoulders
Francois Beauchemin - takes too many chances in a game and loses too many of those gambles
Dion Phaneuf - has struggled to find his comfort zone
Colton Orr - seems to be picking his battles or perhaps opponents are getting harder to find
Carl Gunnarsson - definitely finding his sophomore year more of a challenge
J-S Giguere - been very ordinary and has given up a few "Toskala goals"


Tyler Bozak - too much pressure put on this inexperienced player but I expect him to get better
Mike Komisarek - has been awful, might be colour blind considering the number of passes that land on opposition sticks
Tim Brent - his early enthusiastic play seems to have evaporated
John Mitchell - no work ethic
Brett Lebda - looked better as a Red Wing

Nazem Kadri - great skill set but too early to judge
Colby Armstrong - only played 8 games but I thought he could play on a higher line
Keith Aulie - solid young player with a future in the NHL

Matt Stajan gets crushed

Jonas Gustavsson about to steal the starting job

Jonas Gustavsson may have quietly pulled the rug from under J-S Giguere. After last night's tidy win, his season numbers are: 2.30 GAA (12th overall) and .922 SAV% (13th overall). In addition, the Leafs have now won 3 out of past 4 games and he has allowed just 4 goals in 10 periods during that stretch.

I was at last night's game against Dallas and although he did not steal the game, his play was solid. It will be interesting to see how Coach Wilson handles his goalies when Giguere is healthy. Before Giguere's injury, based on the number of starts he was getting, Gustavsson would have only played about 25 games. If he stays healthy that might increase to 45-50.

As for the rest of the team, they continue to confuse me. Although most fans calling Andy Frost after last night's game were typically bubbling with optimism (which always follows a win) I was not that impressed. The Stars looked very flat and for long stretches the Leafs played at that same level. In fact it was an extremely boring game. However, there were short stretches where the turned on the jets and overpowered the Stars. If they had played the game with a high level of intensity it would have been a blow out.

But this is a young team, youngest in the NHL and so you have to assume their is lots of room for growth.

Monday, November 22, 2010

From Russia With Love: Battle of the Blades winners

Well the Russians have been developing great skating pairs well before Ekaterina Gordeeva began skating with her future husband Sergei Grinkov. So it should come as no surprise that Gordeeva and Valeri Bure won season 2 of Battle of the Blades. Though it wasn't a sure thing since they never got a lot of support from viewers and finished in the bottom two on three separate occasions despite raving reviews from the judges. In the end Canada stopped voting with their heart and voted for the best skaters.

What a way to finish. The always graceful Katia dropped the crystal trophy as the show closed and it shattered on the ice(at the 2:00 mark).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Battle of the Blades - week 8

There is no question that all three pairs belong to be here this week. Early on I thought for sure Theo Fluery and Jamie Sale would make it to the final week. Jamie was the reigning champion while Theo had been working out all summer for this. I knew the Russians would likely make the finals because both are such slick skaters and immediately showed chemistry. I thought Shae-Lynn Bourne would return to the finals with Ptrice Brisebois because she is just such an outstanding performer that she could make a 90-year old in a walker look graceful. The surprise was Isabelle Brasseur and Todd Warriner. They just came on like gangbusters over the past few weeks and by week 7 they looked like the team to beat.

This week's guest judge is the legendary British ice dancer Christopher Dean who with partner Jayne Torville were perhaps the greatest ice dance team in the history of the sport. At the 1984 Olympics they skated to Bolero and won the gold with a perfect score of 6.0 from each judge. It was an incredible performance. Christopher Dean was the complete opposite of Toller Cranston who was typically critical of each performance. Dean was the charming Englishman who marveled at the skating quality of men.

This week each pair skates a new program and does a repeat performance from a previous week.

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Valeri Bure

The skaters have selected Stereo Love by Edward Maya & Mia Martina. As was the case over the past few weeks they skate with tremendous speed, elaborate footwork and excellent lifts. Absolutely nothing to be critical about. Their repeat performance was From Russia With Love from week 6 where they had picked up a couple of 6.0s from the judges. This was definitely their past program of the season and it struck me only this week the significance of the music they had chosen since they are both from Russia.

Isabelle Brasseur and Tood Wariner

Their new program was skated to Black Betty by Ram Jam and the pair continued from where they had left off last week. Their speed has improved and like last week had developed some very interesting spins to their program they made you hold your breath. Issy is one very brave skater and has a lot of trust in her partner. Their repeat performance was the dazzling skate to Dynamite by Taio Cruz from week 7. Their spins and lifts were again breath taking and perfect. This team is now on par to the other two remaining pairs.

Shae-Lynn Bourne and Patrice Brisebois

My favourite pair in the competition. I could watch Shae skate all day. Patrice who I thought initially looked awkward has also grown as a skater. He had to be urged by his daughters to enter this competition. The new program was another high energy routine to Let's Get It Started by the Black Eyed Peas. It was filled with the usual slick elements and terrific footwork. The speed was there and acknowledged by the judges. Their repeat program may have surprised some people after the highly entertaining Zombie number in week 5 but I thought they would repeat the beautiful dance number from week 3. And that is what they did - L.O.V.E. by Michael Bublé. I remember it was a risky number because it a ballroom dance number and Patrice is not an ice dancer yet it also plays into Shae-Lynn's strength. It was skated flawlessly.

I wouldn't know who to select as a winner. They are all so good. Compared to season 1, this group is at a totally different level. Can't wait for Monday night.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Leafs done in by their special teams again

Well the Maple Leafs stretch of good hockey is now 4 games although they are just 2-2 in those games. However, when you're rebuilding it's one step at a time.

Jonas Gustavsson was once terrific tonight stopping 37 of 39 shots but was out played by Carey Price . Some of the saves by the Monster were in the difficult variety as the defense continues to cough up the puck. During the CBC broadcast it was mentioned that the Leafs lead the NHL in turnovers which only reinforces my opinion of the Toronto defense - over-rated.

The two Montreal goals clearly underscore Toronto's weaknesses. On the first goal midway through the second period, a shorthanded goal by Jeff Halpern, Mikhail Grabovski let Halpern go after being beaten on a faceoff in the Toronto zone, and then Tomas Kaberle neglected to cover Halpern going to net, leaving Halpern all alone to deflect Jaroslav Spacek’s point shot. On the second goal Mike Cammalleri buried a perfect pass from a blind backhand feed from Mike Komisarek on a penalty kill.

As long as the Leaf powerplay and penalty kill struggle, wins will continue to be hard to come by.

That's was a very nice tribute at the Bell Centre for Pat Burns. I wonder if they will do something similar on Monday night at the ACC.

Saturday's Ice Girls: Boston Bruins

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gustavsson's chance to shine is now

With J-S Giguere out the next three to six games with a groin injury, it'll be time to see what, exactly, Jonas Gustavsson can give the Toronto Maple Leafs in goal. Ron Wilson has told the media that he already knows what the Monster can do. But who would expect Wilson to ever agree with the media? The reality is that Gustavsson has not been given a long stretch of games to play in since his arrival in Toronto. These next few weeks will tell management whether this is a future starter or whether they need a contingency plan for next season. Afterall he is 26 years old and not getting younger.

Let's face it although the Leaf goaltending has been better this season, it would be a stretch to say it was good. Statistically they are in the bottom one-third in almost every statistical categories. Until tonight, you could safely say that neither goalie has stolen a win for the Leafs.

So far so good. The Leafs won their first game with Gustavsson as their #1 starter and he was the first star of the game. He looked particularly sharp in third period when the Devils were pressing. He may get a string of up to ten consecutive starts so lets see what he can do.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

NHL Power Ranking - Week 6

The Maple Leaf's losing streak has had a dramatic impact on their ranking. The average ranking for this week was 28th compared to 23rd last week and 19th two weeks ago.

Chicago Tribune - 25th (-5)
Hockey News - 26th (-4)
Yahoo - 28th (-14)
National Post - 28th
TSN - 28th (-6)
Sportsnet - 28th (-5)
CBC - 28th
ESPN - 28th (+2)
CBS - 28th (-2)

Have the Leaf players quit on Ron Wilson?

Last night's game against Nashville was a strange one. The Leafs who were desperate for a win began the game with little energy or discipline. It looked like they wanted to lose. Then Nashville hit a stretch of very undisciplined play that lead to 6 straight minor penalties including three 5 on 3 powerplays. Nashville coach Barry Trotz quickly came out and blamed his players and not the game officials. Despite holding a 4-1 lead, the Predators handed to momentum and the game to the Leafs.
In the end there were some positives coming out of the game besides the win. Luke Schenn once again stepped it up and actually started the comeback. He was a +1 while the other five defensemen were collectively -7. The powerplay came alive. Over the past three weeks they couldn't even score with a two-man advantage. Also Kris Versteeg had his best game as a Leaf and looked very effective playing the point on the powerplay. Finally, Jonas Gustavsson made some big saves when he was sent in the fill in for an injured Giguere.

The game epitomizes the season for the Maple Leafs. Stretches of bad and good hockey have confused everyone. Somehow I think that just maybe some of the Leaf woes are the result of wall between Ron Wilson and his players. We really don't know what goes on in the dressing room but a few things we do know. Wilson continually publicly calls out his players. Now no one likes being thrown under the bus - it leads to resentment. I know when I screw up at work I wouldn't appreciate my boss calling a meeting to tell all the staff about my faux pas. Wilson has a history of doing this and subsequently losing the dressing room. Players will not play full out for a guy they don't like. When the media began asking about how secure Wilson's job was, I noticed that Brian Burke supported his coach but I don't recall a single player standing up for Wilson.

That's why I wonder if replacing the coach might be the best move that Burke can make at this time?

Sean Avery is still a cheap shot artest

Here is an example of why Sean Avery is one of the most hated players in the NHL. After Avery hit Colin Fraser during a weekend game with the Oilers, Edmonton defender Ladislav Smid exchanged a few words with Avery and skated off when he was apparently rebuffed. But it seems Avery had a change of heart the moment Smid skated away, and decided to sucker punch Smid when he had his defenses down. Apparently Smid asked Avery to fight three times. and he said ‘next shift' before sucker punching him.

The benches-clearing brawl that ensued resulted in penalties for eight players adding up to 126 minutes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Battle of the Blades - week 7

Maybe it was the pressure of being in the final four or because the teams have really begun to ramp up the difficulty of their programs but there were numerous stumbles, slips and outright falls on Sunday's episode of Battle of the Blades. It would be more of what you expect on the first few weeks but the programs have already been exceeding last season’s best.

Even the guest judges have been upgraded this season. This week we saw the return of Don Cherry as a guest judge but Grapes once again appeared to be a little uncomfortable critiquing figure skating. If only a fight had broken out.

Week 7 had its share of surprises. I was sure that this competition would come down to Shae-Lynn and Patrice vs. the Russians but the other two pairs really stepped it up. What made this week really challenging is that each hockey player had to do a 30 second solo program. They could no longer hide behind their partners razzle dazzle which has been Shae-Lynn’s strength.

Isabelle Brasseur and Todd Warriner

Todd and Izzy skated to ‘Dynamite’ by Taio Cruz and their program was loaded with interesting and tough elements such as a one-hand overhead lift, shoot the duck (ok not that tough since I’ve seen 5 years do it) and a spin in which Izzy hangs upside down with her legs around Todd’s neck. That spin made me cringe and just shows how fearless those skaters are. The judges were thoroughly impressed. Don Cherry said he was scared the whole time. The scores totaled 17.7 – their best to date.

Shae-Lynn Bourne and Patrice Brisebois

Shae-Lynn was as cute as a button with her roller-disco outfit as the team skated to KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘Boogie Shoes’. Patrice landed what something that Sandra Bezic referred to as a stag jump (actually two of them). I actually thought they were flawed toe loops. However, the program lacked the flow and intensity that was there over the past two weeks. Perhaps they were due for a letdown. Maybe it was because Patrice’s solo was pretty wobbly and he stumbled though he did not fall. It’s pretty hard to match that zombie program from two weeks ago. Jeremy Roenick noted that Canada loved this pair and he was right. Despite the mistakes they made it to the final three.

Ekaterina Gordeeva and Valerie Bure

The shocker had to be the Russians this week. I’m pretty sure their flawed performance had more to do with Katia’s absence during the week. The team had less time to prepare and the very confident Valerie looked shaky. Katia’s is one of the all-time great figure skaters so less practice time is not going to impact on her very much. Val completely lost his footing in their routine to Queen's ‘My Best Friend’. He fell on one knee and recovered — but not completely. They actually had the lowest scores of the week (just 16.9) and the lowest they have received all season. Sure enough they finished in the bottom two and had to skate again on Monday. However, Monday was a different story. It was a clean skate and it appeared to me that Val threw in a single toe loop jump. The only judge not to vote for the pair was Don Cherry - but did you expect him to vote for Russians?

Kyoko Ina and Kelly Chase

Kelly was pissed this week because of all the criticism that he was too slow. He attacked this routine like a man on a mission. His solo was fast and aggressive although he will never look graceful. It worked and the pair never looked better. They skated to Charlie Winston’s ‘I Love Your Smile’ and I think they executed their best lifts in this competition. Cheery was more impressed by Kelly’s weight loss and wanted to know if he had to give up ‘suds’ to lose the 50 lbs. Despite the improve skating, Kelly and Kyoko had to skate again on Monday. Once again they skated cleanly but the difficulty of their program did not match that of Val and Katia. It was the end of the road for these two.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Leafs on the All Star ballot

The NHL has announced the 100 names that will appear on the All Star ballot to be completed by fans. When one out of every seven players appear on the ballot, you can expect to see some pretty ordinary players included.

From the Leafs there is Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel, Tomas Kaberle and J-S Giguere. Sure they are some of the Leaf's better player but there best player this season has been Luke Schenn. Schenn will not be on the ballot and will not be going to the All Star game. It almost seems that the NHL just named highest paid players. How else could you explain these picks.

Well this is just your normal level of fussing over the ballot choices. The most bizarre choice is Mark Streit of the Islanders. Streit is out for the entire season which doesn't make it likely that he will be playing in the game.

I'm not big on fighting but this was a classic battle

Eric Bolton vs. John Erskine

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cross Jeff Carter off Brian Burke's shopping list

Leaf fans and possibly Leaf management dream about landing a major young talent from another team. Rick Nash because he might be tired on playing in a NHL backwater. Bobby Ryan because of cap issues. And even Jeff Carter due to the same cap issues. However in each case the player ends up in with a long-term with his original team.

The most recent case was Jeff Carter who has been subject to trade rumours with the Leafs going back to when Cliff Fletcher tried to move Tomas Kaberle for Carter and a draft pick. Well the Flyers have signed Carter to am 11-year, $58 million contract so he's obviously not going any where.

In the post-lockout era teams are not trading away their top draft picks and locking in these players long term. There are exceptions such as the Kessel deal where the Leafs were willing to over pay for a player that the Bruins weren't totally sold on. There are a few top players who refuse to sign with their original teams despite being tabled excellent long term deals - most recently Ilya Kovalchuk and Jay Bouwmeester.

The fact that top players are rarely available underscores the importance of hanging on to draft picks.

Why the Maple Leafs have a weak core to build around

The most frustrating aspect of the Maple Leafs' past 43 years is their unwillingness to hang onto first round draft picks. Even in the era of the salary cap where every team desperately clings to their first round picks, the Leafs continue to flip them in questionable deals.

The Leafs own only 2 of the 1st round picks over the past decade. Almost all are playing in the NHL.

Year, Prospect, Rank
2011 - Traded to Boston for Phil Kessel
2010 - Traded (2) to Boston for Phil Kessel
2009 - Nazim Kadri (7)
2008 - Luke Schenn (5)
2007 – Traded (13) to San Jose for Vesa Toskala (used to pick Lars Ellers)
2006 – Jiri Tlusty (13) traded to Carolina for Philippe Paradis
2005 – Tuukka Rask (21) traded to Boston for Andrew Raycroft
2004 – Traded (19) to the Rangers for Brian Leetch (used to pick Lauri Korpikosk)
2003 – Traded (21) to San Jose for Owen Nolan (used to pick Mark Stuart)
2002 – Alex Steen (24) traded to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak
2001 – Carlos Colaiacovo (17) traded to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak
2000 – Brad Boyes (24) traded to San Jose for Owen Nolan
1999 – Luca Cereda (24)
1998 – Nik Antropov (10) traded to the Rangers for a 2nd round pick
1997 – Traded (4) to the Islanders for Wendel Clark (used to pick Roberto Luongo)
1996 – Traded (15) to Philadelphia for Dmitri Yushkevich (used to pick Dainius Zubrus)
1995 – Jeff Ware (15)
1994 – Alex Fichaud (16)
1993 - Kenny Jonsson (12) traded to the Islanders for Wendel Clark
1992 - Brandon Convery (8)
1991 - Traded (2) to the Islanders for Tom Kurvers (used to pick Scott Niedermayer)
1990 - Drake Berehowsky (10)
1989 - Scott Thornton (3), Rob Pearson (12), Steve Bancroft (21)
1988 - Scott Pearson (6)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Will he deliver us to the Promised Land?

I bet you think I'm talking about Nazem Kadri? Well I'm not.

Sure there is lots of drama this weekend as Leaf management appears to be hitting the panic button and reversing their position on Kadri. But the Kadri promotion makes perfect sense. There is no question that Kadri has good offensive skills but his defensive game is lacking and management wants him to be a more complete player. But the Leafs greatest need right now is offense. Shuffling around the current players hasn't help jump start the offense so why not Kadri? Lets face it he is already the best centre in the Leaf organization so he might as well play on the big team. There won't be a better player coming down the pipe for at least two years because of the Kessel deal.

Which brings me back to the bigger issue. Even if Kadri becomes a star and Ron Wilson can get the team to listen to him, is there actually a blueprint to building a contender? I don't see it. I remember when Brian Burke was brought on board one of many of his memorable quotes with respect to the job was:

"You're talking about the Vatican if you're Catholic, you're talking the centre of the hockey universe, you're talking about one of the most important jobs in hockey running the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's a dream job."

Burke set high expectations for the team and himself. In two weeks he will have been on the job for two for years. Has he been successful to date? Well it's hard to say because he has not publicly set any timelines or milestones. He has only spoken in generalities. We are going to get bigger I want a team that other teams will hate to play against. I want to change the culture of the team. None of this appears to have been accomplished as yet.

Now when enacting change within an organization there will be setbacks and some failures along the way to achieving your ultimate goals. But where is the progress?

In the post-lockout era, there hasn't been a team that has successfully rebuilt without relying on the draft. Look at Pittsburgh, Washington, Chicago, and Tampa Bay. You can retool without the draft but not rebuild. The old days of using free agency to replace draft picks are gone. So why are the Leafs the only team to consistently trade away draft picks? Do we know something the other teams don't? The Phil Kessel trade has put this franchise back another two years in its rebuild. There are no short cuts.

So Burkie, how's life in the Vatican?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 2002-03 Season

On July 1, 2002 Curtis Joseph spurned a better offer from the Maple Leafs to sign with the Red Wings. The attraction of winning a Stanley Cup with Detroit combined with the Olympic snub from Pat Quinn was just too much to handle. Cujo was made to wear the Maple Leaf and he neither he or the Leafs would ever equal the succes the experienced together. The Leafs quickly signed free agent Ed Belfour who had lost his starting job with the Stars to Marty Turko.

The Maple Leafs would stumble out of the gate winning just two of their first nine games, as the team adjusted to their new goalie. During that period Belfour was heckled repeatedly by Leaf fans who were still angry over the Joseph fiasco. However the Leafs began to find their way in mid October and quickly rode up the standings in the Northeast Division. However, their struggles against the Ottawa Senators would prevent them from getting over the top as the Maple Leafs won just one of five fight filled games with their rivals.

Hoping to improve the team at the deadline the Maple Leafs made several big trades. As always they traded away their future at a long shot in the playoffs. Management always underestimated the talent on the roster. The Leafs acquired Owen Nolan from the San Jose Sharks, and reacquired Doug Gilmour from the Montreal Canadiens. However the dreams of a great comeback from Gilmour were squashed early as he suffered a season ending knee injury in his first game with the Leafs, which ended his season and his career as Gilmour announced his retirement after the season. The Leafs also picked up Glen Wesley and Phil Housley at the trading deadline. In these deals the Leafs gave up Alyn McAuley, Brad Boyes, and 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th and 9th round picks.

The Leafs did go on to have a solid season finishing in second place with a record of 44-28-7-3. Alexander Mogilny was their leading scorer with 79 points and Mats Sundin led the team with 37 goals. It was the height of the dead puck era as only these two players scored over 20 goals. Belfour finished well with 2.26 GAA, .922 SAV% and 7 shutouts.

In the playoffs the Leafs were matched up against the Philadelphia Flyers. After splitting the first two games in Philadelphia the Leafs took a series lead with a dramatic 4-3 win in double overtime on a goal by Tomas Kaberle. However, the Flyers would bounce back to take Game 4 in triple overtime. After losing Game 5 in Philly the Leafs staved off elimination with a 2-1 win in double overtime on a goal by Travis Green. However, with Game 7 in Philadelphia the Leafs simply ran out of gas losing 6-1.

All that young talent and only 3 playoff wins to show for it.

What's happening down on the farm?

The Maple Leafs aren't going to find any help on the Marlies. Nazem Kadri is starting to find his stride in the AHL but at this stage in his career he isn't ready to pick up this tattered team and carry it on his back. We've already seen what Mike Zigamonis can do. With Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson already recalled, that's about it folks.

Nazem Kadri 13 5 8 13 1
Justin Hodgman 9 4 5 9 3
Mike Zigomanis 5 2 6 8 3
Matt Lashoff 13 2 6 8 0
Joey Crabb 13 5 1 6 -3
Ryan Hamilton 11 3 3 6 4
Darryl Boyce 13 3 3 6 2
Brayden Irwin 12 2 4 6 1
Greg Scott 12 1 5 6 6
Josh Engel 5 2 3 5 3

It's November so Maple Leafs must be falling

Well you can put a fork into the 2010-11 season. And while you're add it, the same goes for the 2011-12 season. Sure I'm being a little dramatic but I'm a Leaf fan afterall. After a lacklustre effort in Tampa Bay we were all sure that the Leafs were going to come out guns blazing. The Panthers were expecting it too. Instead we got the same listless game.

Right now there is no team in the NHL the Leafs could beat. The Islanders who have their own 7-game losing streak must be checking their schedule to see when the run into Toronto so they can finally pick up 2 points. There is no help on the Marlies and no team is going to be throwing Brian Burke a lifeline. Besides no move Burke has made as GM has worked out.

So Burkie how is it managing in the Vatican, the centre of the hockey universe?

It is becoming painfully obvious to everyone but the stubborn Irishman running the franchise that the quick fix, Phil Kessel, has set the rebuilding program back two years. In the post-lockout era of the NHL rebuilding requires sinking to the bottom of the standing and using those high first round picks as your nucleus. So it looks like the Bruins will have a dynamite in a couple of years with their two lottery picks. The Leafs will have to be bottom dwellers for extra couple years to recover from Burke's signature trade. And you thought the Raycroft deal was bad.

I can't see Ron Wilson surviving but that's not going to bring more talent to the team. Still it sure doesn't seem like the players are listening to him.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

$100 million man fails!

Another All Star Game format

The word is out that two captains will choose players from either conference to make up the teams for the 2011 game in Carolina. Fans voting for the starters and the NHL’s hockey operations staff rounding out the rest of the pool. The change eliminates the the Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference which has been for format since 2003.

Let's face it, shuffling the players around and changing the sweaters isn't going to make the game more interesting. There hasn't been a good All Star Game since expansion. Back then the All Star team would play the Stanley Cup winner at the start of the season. The game had some meaning because the league champions were playing for pride having just won the Stanley Cup several months earlier. That's how it worked from 1947 to 1968.

The change in format was partly the result of moving the game from the start of the season to the middle of the season. The Cup winning team would look far too different 8 or 9 months later. It also meant that outstanding rookies would otherwise be shut out of the game (Booby Orr broke in at that time),

With expansion the NHL was able to move to an East vs. West format in 1968.

Further expansion changed the format to Wales Conference vs. Campbell Conference in 1975.

The 1979 All-Star Game with a three-game series where the best the NHL All Stars faced off against the best the Soviet Union had to offer in the Challenge Cup.

The Challenge Cup was copied in 1987 but called Rendez-Vous '87 and it was a two-game format to prevent the NHL from being embarrassed by the Russians.

The All Star Game in 1998 saw another change in format to promote the first Olympic hockey tournament where NHL players could participate. This format, which was used for five years, saw a team of North American All-Stars taking on a team of players who were not from North America known as the World All Stars.

In 2003, the game reverted back to its classic East vs. West format.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Don't panic!

Yes things look pretty bleak in Leaf Nation right now. But last year it wasn't until game 22 that the Leafs had won their 5th game. After 15 games this season the Leafs have 13 points compared to 11 points over the same period last season.

This is not the same team as last season. The previous team was very weak on the backend. Those problems have largely been resolved but this year the team is weak up front. Yet we saw they play some good hockey to start the season. They just haven't been able to find that groove they were in. This is one of the fastest teams in the league but right now they don't look it. The coach has to help them find that other team.

Last season they scored 40 goals and gave up 47. This season they have scored just 31 goals and only gave up 38. That works out to a drop of 9 goals in scoring but have given 9 fewer goals. The improved goaltending and defense has contributed to lower goals against but the offense has dropped off just as much.

The weak offense has been shutout 3 times already. That didn't occur at all at least in the first 15 games of last season. Don't expect much of an improvement over the season. The Leafs have the weakest group of centres in the NHL and you don't generate much offense without decent centres.

You look at Steve Stamkos on Tampa Bay and you see the value of hanging on to those first round draft picks.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Battle of the Blades - week 6

Week 6 had Toller Cranston as the guest judge. That caught me a little by surprise. Toller pretty much has disappeared from the skating scene over the past few years and has been living in Mexico where he paints. Toller was fired by the CBC in the 1990s for being overly critical of the skaters. He sued the corporation and got a settlement from them. Does this sound like the type of person who should be judging a fun competition? Well he didn't disappoint me. He gave the lowest scores to each skater and was pretty critical of their performances. None of that sweet syrupy stuff that you get from Sandra Bezic. Anyway on the to skating. This week's theme was the silver screen.

Kyoko Ina and Kelly Chase

This was K&K's best skate of the competition though to be frank I don't find them very entertaining. Kelly was dressed as Shrek without green makeup (thankfully) and Kyoko was Princess Fiona. Kelly has now lost a ton of weight and looks like a totally different person on the ice. He moves more like a figure skater and has dropped his dopey fist pumps. They actually skated with some speed though Roenick suggested that they try more speed next week - if they're still around (nice!).

Katia Gordeeva and Valeri Bure

Boy did these two look hot skating to the James Bond theme for “From Russia With Love.” The highlight was a magnificent throw jump. As always, the Russians were in a league of their own, and well deserving of two 6.0s handed out by the judges (Cranston gave them a 5.8). Valeri doesn't even look like a hockey player out there.

Isabelle Brasseur and Todd Warriner

Izzy and Todd borrowed a trick from back in the days when Isabelle skated with Lloyd Eisler to a number they called Patricia the Stripper yet the judges praised them for originality?? Todd skated in drag and Izzy in whiskers and a suit. Watching a big jock in a dress provides some shock value but there was not much of a performance to go with it. Roenick and Sandra Bezic gave him 5.9s just for having the guts to go on national TV dressed that way. Totally undeserviced. Toller, however, was downright brutal and expressed his disgust by giving them a 5.5. On Monday night they were forced to skated again and looked better including executing what appeared to be side by side spins. They survived to skate again on week 7.

Jamie Salé and Theo Fleury

Jamie and Theo did a number to Stayin Alive from Saturday Night Fever but the disco-themed routine didn't quite work. They bobbled several lifts and at one point I thought Jamie was going to land on her head and then it looked like instead would decapitate Theo. It wasn't pretty out there. They finished in the bottom two and had to skate again on Monday night. But Monday the made even more technical errors and the judges all agreed that they were done. So Jamie who had won in the first season was done.

Shae-Lynn Bourne and Patrice Brisbois

Well I didn't thnk they could top last week's incredibly entertaining Monster Mash routine. They didn't but sure came close. They did an equally eye-catching Bollywood number. Shae-Lynn and Patrice showed that not only did they belong back in the competition but they make be the only competition for the Russians. This program was also super loaded with tricky elements, footwork and lots and lots of speed. Shae-Lynn didn't stop moving for the full 90 seconds.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Time for a coaching change

I personally believe that Ron Wilson is a fine coach - but it's just not working for him here in Toronto. I said before the season that Ron Wilson was on the hot seat this season. The odds that he finish the season are slim unless the team plays over the heads for longer than 4 games.

It doesn't help his cause that GM Brian Burke declared that this team should be good enough to make the playoffs. Now he was hedging and frankly what else could he say. But if management truly believes that this team should at least compete for a playoff spot then something is seriously wrong here. Last night's collapse against the Sabres is just one game but it is symptomatic of a team that can't get the job done.

I can't help but notice questionable decisions by the coach that do not work out. Take last night. Sending out your defensively challenged first line to protect a lead late in the game does not make sense to me. Bozak is -3 and Versteeg is -4, the worst on the team. Meanwhile Grabovski is +8 and MacArthur is +6, the best on the team. Even Orr and Brown are plus. Then in shootout Wilson goes with Kessel and Versteeg, both carrying cold sticks while Grabovski and Kulemin, who had both scored in regulation time, were sitting on the bench. Let's just say Wilson's hunches aren't working out for him.

His penalty killing system and powerplays are total duds. OVer the past 9 games the powerplay efficiency has been 12.5% and the penalty killing has been 72.0%. No wonder they have only won a just one game. His top line has really shown no chemistry yet he sticks with them.

Brian Burke has come out to state that the coach's job is safe. He goes on to say that why would the coach lose his job when the players are playing poorly. Well, isn't it the job of the coach to get the best out of his players? Sure the players play well for him for a period or two. But he can't seem to get a good performance for an extended period of time. Either this is another last place team or a team under performing. If it's the former what's the plan to improve the team with a lack of draft picks. If it's the latter than why isn't the coach get more out his players?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rick DiPietro is a case against long contracts

Rick DiPietro was supposed to be the franchise in Long Island. Why else would management give him a 15 year, $60 million contract 5 years ago.

This season DiPietro is trying to come back after missing most of 2 seasons with knee injuries. Well the 7 goals given up in a game against Carolina the over night would suggest the comeback is going too well. In fact he's been pretty bad with a 4.21 goals against average and a .854 save percentage. Those are Vesa Toskala numbers.

Meantime, Dwayne Roloson has a 2.50 GAA and a .913 save percentage and pressure is on Scott Gordon to play Roloson over The Franchise. Fans are blaming DiPietro for the Islanders' 6-game losing streak although he only played in 3 of those games.

It's possible that DiPietro may never fully recover from his injuries. So what can the Islander do?
  1. He can become a very expensive ($4.5 million a year) back up goalie.
  2. They can bury him and the remaining $45 million in the minors over the next 10 seasons.
  3. He can go on the long term injury list which provide the team with some cap relief but does not relieve their obligation to pay DiPietro.
  4. The Islanders can buy him out which would cost them $1.5 million per season for 20 years. Remember they are still paying Alexei Yashin $2.2 million for another 4 seasons as part of his buyout.
Even with front-loaded contracts, the risks are just too high. Afterall, the average NHL career is about 5 or 6 seasons. A player who is 25 and signs a 15 year contract has already played at least 400 games and expected to play another 1200 games. Only about 10 players in the history of the NHL have played 1600 games. Ilya Kovalchuk will be expected to play about 1800 games if he completes his contract with the Devils. That would set an NHL record for games played. Yes, that's more than Gordie Howe, Mark Messier, and ron Francis.

Saturday's Ice Girls: Chicago Blackhawks

Thursday, November 4, 2010

NHL Power Ranking - Week 4

The Maple Leaf's scoring slump has had a dramatic impact on their ranking. The average ranking for this week was 19th compared to 15th last week.

Yahoo - 14th (-10)
Fox - 16th (-7)
TSN - 20th (-2)
Sportsnet - 20th (-6)
NECN - 20th (-5)
Sports Illustrated - 21st (+3)
ESPN - 23rd (-2)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Goal-less for 167 minutes drains all the optimism from Leaf Nation

The past three games have totally washed away any optimism that existed in Toronto regarding the Maple Leafs' season. The 4-game winning streak to start the season seems so long ago now although it took place only a few weeks ago.

The team has scored just nine goals in a 1-5-1 streak in their last seven games. The Leafs fired 35 shots at Senator goalie Brian Elliott but once again they made the opposition goalie look like a Hall of Famer.

You can't really fault the effort. They worked hard but the talent isn't there to compete at the level required to finish ahead of teams not playing in New Jersey. Players were going to the net but squandered chance after chance. In fact it was an exciting game at times but that didn't stop the fans from booing. At first it was directed at Dion Phaneuf again but by the end of the game it was for the entire team.

Leaf fans may not have Dion Phaneuf to kick around for a while

Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf had to be helped off the ice after tangling his legs with the Ottawa Senators' Peter Regin in the second period at Air Canada Centre and was carted off to the hospital.

Right now there is no word on how long, it at all, that he will be out of the lineup.

The irony is that both tonight and on Saturday there was a smattering of boos directed at Phaneuf by impatient Leaf fans. Hey when the team is not winning and you make a player the face of the team, the wrath of the fans will be directed at him.

This week GM Brian Burke has provided a spirited defense of the captain. I would expect no less from Burke who has always stood up for his players. But Burke will need to tread carefully and not further upset the impatient fan base.

“You're talking about a real small number of people, and frankly I think it's a disgrace. Ten games in . . . all the time I worked in Vancouver I don't think I ever had a player booed. Our team got booed a few times, I think we probably had it coming” but no player was singled out, Burke said. He also suggested that in the short time since coming to Toronto, no player has done more on and off the ice than Phaneuf.

Perhaps fan expect too much of Phaneuf but those high expectations are partly created by the team. He literally was treated as a savior since day one and installed as captain despite having not shown much on the ice. This is a stud player that Calgary had given up on and we all can see why. It might have been wiser to just let the guy play his way back into form and not make him a centre piece right away.

Let's face it, Burke has hooked his wagon to this player and has to support him. This is a marriage than has to work.

But dumping on the impatient fans is neither fair or wise. No fan base anywhere is as supportive as Leaf Nation. These fans rabidly back a team that has provided next to nothing for 43 years expect for a bad product at ridiculous prices.

If you want to know what a disgrace is? How about a team projected to be in contention for a playoff spot finishing 29th overall. How about a team that hasn't make the playoff since 2004? How about a team that hasn't made a Cup final series since 1967? How about a team once again projected to compete for a playoff spot that can't score? Yet is not the least bit ashamed to charge their customers in excess of $200 for a ticket.

Brian shut the fuck up. Remember who pays your salary?