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.

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