Thursday, March 8, 2012

From the Net Out

Leaf fans not currently occupying space under a rock are well aware of the team's recent downward spiral and subsequent vacancy of a playoff spot. Everyone is sharing in the blame, especially Ron Wilson, who was turfed as coach and replaced by Randy Carlyle, who joined the team in Montreal.

Brian Burke trotted out to welcome his new coach, and answer any questions the media posed him. Unfortunately, Burke gave us many of the same answers he's fed us before, and though I like Burke a great deal, his act with the media, like his act as GM, is growing stale.

I have to reserve judgement on Carlyle's hiring. I'm not certain that bringing in a coach who is known as a harsh taskmaster is a great replacement for Wilson. I also question the timing of a coaching change at this point in the season, because changing systems late season is usually a recipe for disaster, and a coach shouldn't have to make roster decisions on the fly with an unknown roster.

There is a notion afloat out there that the reason Burke made no roster moves at the deadline is to give Wilson the best chance at making the playoffs, thus enabling him to keep his job. It's been clear for nearly the whole season that the Reimer/Gustavsson tandem has not provided even average goaltending. I can't subscribe to the notion that Burke gave his buddy the best chance of success for exactly this reason.

I'm not about to slag either keeper, but I do question a lot of the roster moves made by Burke in regards to goaltending. Why assume Reimer, almost 24, is a legitimate starter in this league, after a half a season? Why aggressively pursue Gustavsson only to basically do everything but give him a legitimate shot at being a starter?

I think this is the reason we're seeing Gustavsson start more often lately. I'm not advocating that he be re-signed, but I definitely want to know what I'm potentially letting walk for nothing at the end of this season. Francois Allaire may be the best butterfly coach in the league, but he's also seen a number of good goalies bristle under his authority. Sometimes, it just isn't a good fit, and I suspect this is the case here.

Reimer could use a stint in the A. He's very young for a team to be trying to hand him the starting job in this most fickle of markets. The Marlies are expected to make a deep playoff run. Let Reimer attach himself to a culture of success rather than mire himself in the misery of defeat. There is absolutely no reason to rush his development, and I think it's become obvious he's still developing.

As far as what should be done to improve our goaltending, I'm at a loss. There aren't a lot of quality options available. Trading for a keeper depletes an already weak team, and most teams aren't giving up the kind of goalie this team needs without a king's ransom returning. Free agency seems the most likely route, and the most unsatisfactory one. This team is supposed to be built from the net out. It needs a reliable keeper more than anything else.

As far as making the playoffs go, I wonder why people still have hope for this outcome. I completely understand and empathize with the desire to reach the playoffs and see the Leafs compete for the cup. I cannot feign the belief that this team is remotely capable of that, nor can it hope to make it out of the first round should they succeed in reclaiming a low seed playoff berth.

The best thing this team can do is admit defeat. Admit that Ron Wilson wasn't the ideal coach here. Admit that going with 2 unproven keepers was a poor choice. Admit that our defense has not been as good as it should be, and that playing run-and-gun hasn't helped their cause. Admit that our forward squad has holes that haven't come close to being filled. Admit that as it stands, this team won't be there next year either, because as great as the thought of Kadri, Colborne, Frattin and Ashton being called up sounds, it's not going to instantly make us contenders.

If you can do that, you'll see that the best option for this team is to ensure that Burke goes to the draft armed with the highest draft pick possible. There are some quality players in this draft, and Burke would do well to target a big young center who can join the club this season or next. If he can and/or needs to, he should trade up to ensure this.

Next year will be the final contract year for Connolly, Lupul, Lombardi, MacArthur, Armstrong, Bozak and Steckel. Unload these at the deadline, take as many first-round picks and picks in general as you can to the draft, trade up as best you can to get Nathan MacKinnon. Bring up all the kids, get whatever complimentary pieces you can get to compliment them, and with the current defense and a reliable goaltender you should have the foundation of a team that can compete for years.

It's going to hurt to be a Leafs fan until then, but no more so than it already does, and the very last thing I want to see is the team wasting another chance to get this rebuild done the right way in a feeble attempt to "patch up a leaky hull." Right now there's more hole than hull.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Talkin' Leafs

I love having conversations about hockey, and more so about the Leafs. I spent the better part of an hour today in a series of consistently work-interrupted conversations with four of my colleagues today, and heard a number of surprising suggestions for this club. Given the state of the team and the position they're in, I figured I'd share some of them with you. Just some regular Leaf fans who've logged hours in rinks over the years, shooting from the hip.

- Consensus is that Wilson has to go, obviously. Most don't think he'll go before the end of the year, owing to Burke's loyalty, but also no need to make a hasty decision on a replacement and botch it. There may also be a greater selection available post-season.

- More blame for Allaire than for the keepers. They feel that Reimer is still not 100% after his injury, due to either lack of conditioning or that his sharpness has not fully returned. They like Gustavsson, and feel that he is being asked to stray too far from the style of play which got him where he is. We had a slight majority voting to ride him the rest of the year, to determine if re-signing him is worth it. A couple of us, self included, believe that the minute he is signed to another team, like Detroit or the Rangers, he will blossom into something great.

- Included in that argument is that a goalie takes quite a bit longer to develop into NHL reliability, and that most seem to play their best hockey in their 30's. We all agreed that having a veteran alongside a young keeper is ideal in every situation.

- Strong endorsement for Luke Schenn. All of them feel that he is caught in a system which exposes him and the goalies rather than work to their advantage. Each balked at the notion of moving him. One believes Schenn/Gardiner are the top pairing for the next decade. 

-Likewise obviously for Gardiner, but also Phaneuf and Gunnarson. Franson is also well liked, but it remains to see if the system will let him play his proper side and get comfortable in this lineup. Komisarek had a couple fans too, but the majority feel this isn't the right place for him, and all think he's overpaid. Unanimity as to why Liles was re-signed rather than moved for futures at the deadline.

- Brown and Steckel get full marks for their roles. A couple feel that Crabb does too. I've always felt that while we continue to ice Crabb, we will never emerge as contenders. I love his work ethic and he is good at what he does. The problem, for me, is that his skill set is quite limited and I think you can find a better player to fill his spot while remaining on budget. I'd love to be proven wrong, because we already have him and he's already affordable.

- Connolly is seen as a lazy floater! No dig, no hustle, no effort. I never thought he was the answer long-term, but I also don't think he's effective on the energy line. Skill of that ilk belongs on the top line with your playmakers and snipers. I was outnumbered, most want to move him immediately and allow kids to come up and show their goods.

- Lombardi gathered little conversation. Most don't know enough about him, but knew enough to complain about his salary. They did understand that he was the cost of acquiring Franson and moving Lebda, and agreed with the move completely when I mentioned it. I feel like he could be a solid 3C, even a 2, when he has a regular summer regimen and training camp under him. There is a reason Poile signed him in the first place, and he's a pretty savvy GM, all Kostitsyn's aside. If I recall correctly, he was being touted as a potential 1C at the time, coming into FA from the Flames.

- That issue led to a great conversation about the 2C slot. Most of my colleagues felt that, since Connolly was such "garbage," we had a collection of 2C's, and this is where moves should be made to unload players.  Bozak is not a 1C and is ideal for the 3C, either him or Lombardi, with Grabbo and Lombardi eyed at 2. But there was desire to also see Colborne take the 2C.

- The most interesting thing I heard today was about Kulemin. 2 thought to move him, 1 thought he was a career 3rd liner. I want to keep him exactly where he is, because this season cannot be a real indicator of who he is. But one guy, and I generally view his opinion very highly, suggested that he was a center. He said "He's fast, he's strong, he's hard to take off the puck, he's got a two-way game, good vision, and if he's off the boards he can cover the slot. He's even being used on more and more faceoffs and he's pretty good there." He suggested that he be put on the Kessel/Lupul line and be given a shot, since there was nothing to lose at this point in the season. Another said they wanted him on the boards, because we really don't have a lot of players willing to go into the corners, and while I do agree with that, I must admit I am intrigued by Kulemin. Maybe what he really needs is a challenge, a variation from routine. He's always shown immaculate work ethic, maybe he is capable. I don't really know. If he is, and it worked, would it ever answer a pressing need without exacting a heavy asset toll.

- Small debate on the futures of Mac and Lupul. Lupul will be 29 next year, Mac 27 in little over a month. Generally, player point production declines at 27. and Lupul, while posessing greater talent, is also more reliant on scoring, whereas Mac is seen to have a more complete skill set. Since both are under contracts expiring next season, the desire is to let them play in contract years and reap the benefits of that added pressure, then make those decisions at the deadline. It's a very good point.

- Lastly, we all agree that Burke has done far more good than harm, and that he stays for a while, but that he will deny us the opportunity to fire him at any juncture. It's believed in these parts that he'll resign the GM post and remain President, passing the torch to Nonis.

Anything you'd like to add to the conversation?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Burke's Dead Line

When Brian Burke addressed the press shortly after the end of trades for the 2011/12 season, he was less than honest with Toronto's media and fans. He served up excuses for his team's recent play, claiming that the trade deadline had played on the psyches of his young athletes. Burke told his audience that he and his consortium of assistants discussed setting an internal trade freeze, similar to the holiday break he routinely affords his players.

While I approve of most of the decisions Burke made regarding transactions yesterday, I have to call BS on quite a bit of Burke's fodder. The truth is that Burke spoke out of both sides of his mouth, he contradicted himself in several ways, and he bungled an attempt to inspire his current roster, in large part to overtly identifying his moves, or lack thereof, as a vote of confidence.

Setting any sort of pre-deadline internal deadline is asinine. It is already a deadline, both to assuage player concerns that they will remain a member of their current club for the rest of the year, but also to ensure that the finale of the season and the playoffs are played under equitable terms for all teams. Burke did acknowledge that attempting such a ridiculous idea essentially removed a valuable opportunity to improve his team, and rightly so, because such egregious management is a fireable offense.

He mentioned also of telling us and proving by action that he tries to make his deals well ahead of the deadline, for every conceivable reason. In saying that, Burke is making a tacit admission that he is aware of this distraction and has always tried to avoid it, thus enforcing an informal freeze on himself. He already does this. The words said today were an appeasal.

Burke simply cannot state that he performs due diligence in researching a player's mental resilience when determining if that player can handle the varied rigors of playing in Toronto, then excuse the team's recent play to them. They can handle it. He made sure of that.

He told us recently that he had no interest in getting to the playoffs to be knocked out in the first round, that he was committed to building a lasting success for this franchise. He has left intact a team that will be very fortunate to make it into the post season, much less survive their preliminary pairing. Burke said yesterday that his focus was on making the team better now, that the fans deserved it, and that he felt that the team's current composition was in fact a playoff capable team.

One of those statements is an entire falsehood. You are not building for the future by securing the present, and you certainly aren't securing the present by making zero changes to a roster that, for three quarters of a season, has failed to demonstrate the ability to win at a reliable rate. They couldn't last year either.

The deal Burke made for Ashton was a lateral one, moving a future defenseman for a future forward. I like the move, but it doesn't reasonably improve our fortunes, now or in the future. It simply bolsters a position of weakness by diminishing a position of strength. Fair enough.

If it doesn't help us now or in the future, it must be considered a failure, and should in no way be considered a vote of confidence for the existing roster. If Burke liked their chances he'd have added to their fortunes, and if not, he would have rewarded some with the opportunity to win elsewhere while providing the rest with  promises of better tomorrows. Doing neither essentially hangs them out to dry.

Calling Reimer the "real deal" insinuates that Jonas Gustavsson is not. Saying that Gustavsson is the reason the team is in the position it is is quite the backhanded compliment. Both keepers should be watching over their shoulders in urban and rural settings, as the coach will throw you under a bus as readily as the GM will put you out to pasture. They'd both do well to remember that their play during this 'justifyable' period led Burke to contemplate (aloud, to media) that he would have to consider investigating the market for help in that department. Not for the future, but for right now.

It's not the coach, because the personnel has never been there for him to work with, but the personnel is playoff capable. He won't mortgage the future to get into the playoffs to lose in the first round, but this team is already capable of that, currently in 10th in the East and holding no candle or torch to hopeful first round opponent Boston. Burke conveys contentment with the team in every way, and gives this group his full endorsement.

"I think the trade deadline is hard on players but I think it's murder on players in Toronto." Good thing we have a good lawyer.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Leafs deadline flatline

With 11 days left until the NHL trade deadline, the Leafs are reeling from a streak of losses, including back to back games in which they gave up 5 goals. This is a team that sent 3 players to the All-Star Game recently, and had been considered to finally be playoff bound after an 8 year absence. How could things look so optimistic at times, and yet so terrible at others?

The difference is optimism vs. realism. The fans and the brass have been optimistic, and heading into this deadline, it is time for realism. I have to take issue with a number of decisions and statements made which have and will continue to affect this team moving forward. Let's look at a few.

Coaching: Ron Wilson has been here for 4 years. He has yet to lead this team into the playoffs. Wilson has in his career turned struggling teams around, seemingly overnight. He has been known for icing teams with strong special teams. None of that is happening here. Have players developed under Wilson? It would seem so, but that is a questionable proposition to begin with. Players will develop as they age, up until a point where their skills and abilities begin to erode. It is impossible to tie development to Wilson, and for the perceived successes that players like Lupul, Gunnarsson and Grabovski will be seen to have had, there must be questions surrounding players like Gustavsson, Kadri and Kulemin.

I've long been a proponent of Wilson, but I cannot say that I am in that camp anymore. 4 years is a long time to lose, and I'll give him the first two years, but not the last two. This is unacceptable. I'd much rather the coach tear a strip off of the team in the locker room than to ignore them after losses, make snide and sarcastic comments in the media, taunt the media and gloat about a contract extension in the middle of his 4th season of mediocrity. Some of this is the team, I'll grant that, maybe most of it is. It is Wilson's job to make sure this team is ready to play every game and that every player knows the systems and the jobs they are there to do. I don't feel this team is doing that, and I think it is time for a coaching change.

Goaltending: Brian Burke likes to say that his teams are built from the net out. Is that so? How is it that he saw fit to trade the 3 highest picks this team had over 2 years to Boston for Phil Kessel when the goaltending issue had yet to be solidified? It is STILL in limbo! When Burke set out to sign Jonas Gustavsson, he did everything right to get him into Leaf blue. Since then, the Leafs have done everything wrong with him. Gustavsson's contract is about to expire. Can anyone say with any certainty that he should be re-signed? If so, to what value and term? How can the Leafs have had this player for 3 years and still not know his value? They have done everything possible to show him that they have no faith in him, Reimer, Scrivens, everyone has gotten a chance to step ahead of the Monster on the depth chart. Yet, when the chips are down and he is given a chance to start for a string of games, the Monster begins to produce as we hoped he would when he signed. I'm not sure Gus would sign here again if he were offered a contract.

Rynnas is playing for the Royals, that's the kind of season he's been having. Scrivens is risking losing his spot to Owuya on the Marlies despite having a stint as starter for the Leafs this year. Garrett Sparks has to be wondering what he's gotten himself into. What of James Reimer? His statue is in a permanent state of construction, built and unbuilt on a game by game basis. I've said it before and I'll say it again, they have never really known what they have in Reimer, and won't until he gets at least a full season in goal, something that should have gone to Gustavsson in a contract year. Step one is setting goaltending in stone? We've built an entire team on sand.

Defence:  Another famous Burke quote has him considering our top six defencemen the best corps in the league. Admittedly, it looked that way on paper, but it has never played that way to fruition. Maybe this has something do with suspect goaltending, and maybe it has something to do with inadequate coaching. Either of those arguments can be made, but inadequate defense is an argument that, for the Leafs, hardly needs a scapegoat. Burke has essentially lucked his way into this defensive corps. The move that brought Phaneuf and Aulie to Toronto has to be considered a complete steal, as did the moves that netted Franson and Lombardi, and Lupul and Gardiner. Nobody can hope to continue a streak of deals like that.

Remember though that Burke signed Lebda and Komisarek, and must have called in the favor Chiarelli owed him for the original Kaberle "first" debacle in getting Colborne and a first for Kaberle, when half a year later the same Kaberle went to Montreal for Jaro Spacek. Getting Franson meant they were overloaded on one side, and the experiment of having anyone switch to their off side has failed miserably. Komisarek still struggles, Franson spent most of this season thoroughly frustrated, and future captain Luke Schenn has become a scapegoat and future trade victim. We now sit with 9 or 10 completeley viable NHL defencemen and still cannot ice 6 that can reliably get the job done. I'm at a loss to explain how this is even possible.

Forwards: This season has seen a shift in philosophy for Burke and his consortium of assistant GMs. Top-six  bottom-six has become top-nine and checking/utility line. Here again, it seems like everything should be working well. Tim Connolly was brought in to center Lupul and Kessel, because Tyler Bozak was not up to the job last year. He seems to be this year, as Lupul and Kessel are both all-stars and have had excellent years. Connolly and Bozak, not so much. Bozak can skate with Lupul and Kessel, but is not contributing point-wise as a top line center is expected to. Connolly has been relegated to the third line, and is as much a victim of diminished ice time as the Wilson line blender. Ideally, Bozak is a third line center, and Connolly is still a Sabre, but hindsight is 20/20. Meanwhile Colborne and Kadri continue to plug it out as Marlies wondering what gives.

The MGK line has seen a reversal of fortunes this year, clicking only recently. MacArthur seems to have shown that his stats last year are unsustainable, but he is still a relatively valuable player. Grabovski is the best 2nd line player that you need to get rid of if you intend on contending, as he is too small, too easy to take off the puck and too insignificant defensively, and Kulemin is in a year-long funk. Colby Armstrong can't stay healthy, Matt Lombardi hasn't found his whole game yet, Colton Orr has been retired with honors, and Crabb and Boyce have become the tweeners this team cannot seem to do without. David Steckel is still David Steckel. Ditto for Mike Brown. This team needs a puck possessing first line center so badly it hurts. It has Colborne, Kadri and Frattin chomping at the bit waiting for roster spots to open for them, but continued mediocrity has kept them in the minors, while the big club continues to wait for the team to develop it's identity. I fear that this team has shown mediocrity to be it's identity.

I drooled when Rick Nash became available by trade, but it the days since this tidbit dropped, I've changed my mind. The Leafs have wingers, they need a center. Better to try for Jeff Carter. The fact remains that things need to change in Leafland, and they don't seem likely to change on their own. The goaltending position needs to be addressed. They desperately need a 1st line center, and the defence needs to get it's act together. I'm not certain any of this will change with Wilson as coach. For the first time in the Burke era, I'm legitimately worried. I think the well is dry, and after watching Stuart Percy and Tyler Biggs get drafted last draft, I'm concerned about Burke's eye for talent. I hope I'm proven wrong, but at this point this team needs a miracle.

SI takes the pole

Hey all, thanks for reading. Sorry I haven't posted anything fresh in a while, but I had the holidays, followed by a complete computer collapse. Getting back on the blog has been low on my priority list. 

First issue I want to discuss is this new SI poll declaring Phil Kessel the NHL's easiest player to intimidate. Really, SI? These days of internet hits equaling value have taken a serious toll on once-respected sports journalism institutions. Toronto sports media types have made their living off of things like this in recent times, with Twitter wars with Burke and Wilson, questionable photoshopped newspaper covers, on-air personal insults and even books referencing the clarion call of the lowest common denominator, the fabled '1967' taunt.

You people know who you are, and while this method of generating interest in your work may be paying your mortgage, I hope that every time you pull into your driveway you feel the way escorts feel when looking into the wastebasket. 

Since when are timidness or overrating quantifiable statistics worth discussing? Since when are arbitrarily conducted player polls worthy of print, mention or merit? You all know the answer. Sports Illustrated should as well, but they haven't cared much for respectable content since their swimsuit issues became their most profitable endeavors. Wastebasket fodder, either way you look at it.

With all sincerity, this doesn't merit a response, but if recent trends continue, someone from the Leafs brass will reply to this, which is exactly what SI wants. Please refrain and allow me to respond. Phil Kessel behaves in a manner necessary to continue his ability to play in every game for his team. He is not a large or overly physical player, he does not have Colton Orr to rely on for protection anymore, and he has no interest in being concussed. I wouldn't advise he change a thing. I would advise management to ice a squad more capable of countering this.

Lastly, it takes a really big person to kick a team and a city when they are down. Yes, the Leafs haven't won a Cup since '67, but that's hardly the fault of anyone currently affiliated with the team. The Raptors are terrible, the Jays are victims of being in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, and the Argos are inept. These are tough times for sports fans in this city. Let's remember a couple of things though, that the reason Toronto has no NFL team and won't be getting a second NHL team (which this market could EASILY handle) is that it would be devastating to the Buffalo market. Toronto is being used to subsidize Buffalo sports, there is no other way to put it. Every game the Sabres and Bills host is boosted by Southern Ontario funds. 

So kick us if you want, but you should be lauding our patience and congratulating our selflessness and generosity. And the biggest party the universe will have ever seen will happen when the Leafs finally do hoist Stanley's mug, whenever it should happen. We're fans because we can't cheer for anyone else, and no amount of knocking will diminish our spirit.