Monday, August 14, 2006

Exclusive: Andrew Raycroft Scouting Report

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At a family barbeque this weekend, I was enjoying the finest hotdogs money can buy, when one of my uncles name-dropped again.

See, Andrew Raycroft is from Belleville. And since he’s the city’s only resident NHL hockey player, that makes him the most famous guy in town.

And my uncles, Chuckles and Murph, live next door to the Raycroft family, where Andrew has been staying all summer. Naturally, that means I get an update anytime the Leafs’ newest goalie takes out the trash.

“Yeah, I saw Andrew again the other day,” Chuckles yawned, the languorous action of a man accustomed to meeting NHL players on a routine basis. “He’s looking good.”

Murph, flopped beside Chuckles in his Adirondack chair, nodded sagely. “He’s a great kid,” he added through bites of hamburger. Meef-meef, morf. “It’s great when your eight-year-old can take shots on former Calder winner. Andrew even showed us his trophy,” he bragged.

Chuckles got down to brass tacks. “Andrew though, he’s been working out this summer in his backyard, just like Rocky Balboa and his side of beef,” he said.

“Balboa,” echoed Murph. “Takin’ shots.”

“I talked to him. He looks just like a kid, you know. Without his gear on, he looks like a kid – anyway, I asked him how it was going, with his training and everything. And Andrew, he was dead serious. ‘I want Ottawa’, he said. He looked right at me, and said, ‘I want Ottawa.’ He looked like the Terminator or something. Watch out for Raycroft this year.” Chuckles lectured.

“He’s going to get the start,” Murph said.

“That’s right. Opening night, against Ottawa. Andrew wants it. I know it, I asked him. ‘Are you going to be ready?’ And he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘Oh yeah, I am.’ He wants Ottawa bad,” said Chuckles. "He's ready. Gerber is going to be pooping in his diapers, you'll see."

“This year is going to be different,” said Murph, throwing his beer can into the weeds. “Chuckles and I watched Andrew develop, when he played for Kingston. A goalie hadn't been the MVP in the CHL in 50 years, and then Andrew did it. He’s excelled at every level he’s ever played at. He’s a winner and always has been,” he burped.

“ ‘I want Ottawa’,” Chuckles marveled. “Hey, are there any hotdogs left?”

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Who is Hal Gill?

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When I saw the announcement on TSN’s website last month, I did a double-take. The Leafs have signed – Gill? What the…?

But no, Todd “the Thrill” Gill hadn’t returned from the grave to sign a contract with the Leafs. Thankfully, the days of relying on The Thrill as a pillar on the blueline are long gone, although it’s possible Hal isn’t much of an upgrade over Todd. My message-board rummagings have uncovered few testimonials supporting his acquisition. Hal Gill was a regular target of boo-birds during his time in Boston, and online comments I’ve read can be summarized as, “I can’t believe Toronto signed that pylon.”

(Although, according to Gill, plenty of other teams had interest in signing him as well - take that for what it's worth. Credit Toronto Truthiness for the link.)

His numbers are ordinary. Last season: one goal, ten points, 124 penalty minutes. These numbers are acceptable if he’s the hardnosed shutdown defenseman the Leafs have been lacking, but he isn’t. His penalty totals include 52 minor penalties, by far a career high. This is probably due to his attempts to overcome his total lack of footspeed in the new NHL. Every online scouting report I can find notes his tortoise-like fleetness, and even Paul Maurice remarked on Leaf Lunch that, “Hal Gill is too slow to deliver the big hit.”

Oh well, you’re thinking. He’s got to be tough, at least. Six foot seven, about two-hundred and fifty pounds, he’s one of the biggest men in the league – he’ll fill the void Domi left behind, right? This guy must fight like an enraged gorilla! Well, think again. He was involved in only four fights last season, actually throwing a punch in only three of them, and winning just one. And then there’s this:

Hal Gill: Owned

Hal Gill sent Zdeno Chara off the ice for medical treatment after this fight. Too bad it was because Chara hurt his hand while converting Gill’s face into hamburger.

So, Gill carries a reputation of being a soft big man, doesn’t score much, takes a lot of penalties, and his own coach labeled him “too slow,” while simultaneously identifying him as Toronto’s likely third-pairing defenseman. For the next three years, at $2.1 million per season.

Maybe I'm being too hard on him. Gill looks about average in his skillset, so maybe I should cut him some slack, especially since he has yet to suit up in a Leaf uniform. Still, he's getting paid above-average money from Toronto, so it's hard not to demand more from him. But who knows, maybe under Paul Maurice, he'll be able to adapt his game and flourish under a new defensive system and exceed all expectations.

It disappoints me a little that Alexi Ponikarovsky already wears the Thrill’s old sweater number, because I can’t imagine anyone else on the team I’d rather see wearing it than -- dare I say it before Bob Cole does? -- Big Hal Gill.

Get used to it, Hal. Welcome to Toronto.

Friday, August 11, 2006

The Dog Days of Summer...

You know what? It’s hard writing a hockey blog in August. Maybe it’s because it was 38 degrees outside when I started this post. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t get signed up for my Friday pick-up game this fall because the guy that runs it is on vacation. Maybe it’s that the last major news out of the Leaf mothership was the Wade Belak signing. (See Wardo’s excellent comments on that subject.)
Still, I feel like I have to contribute. Wardo’s post production probably outpaces mine by about a thousand to one by now, so I’d better write something.

That’s why I’m going old school and recounting my favourite Leaf memory: The '93 playoff win over Detroit. After that I’m going to re-enact the movie Old School by streaking through the quad. It’s okay, everybody’s doing it…

That whole season was a roller coaster. Fletcher had hired Pat Burns as head coach, and picked up Fuhr. He also fleeced Calgary of Gilmour, Dave Ellett, Jamie Macon etc., for Leeman and a bunch of spare parts. To this day this stands as the most lopsided trade I can remember. (Not to mention the first one I can recall that actually worked out in our favour). I can only imagine the incriminating pictures of Flames GM Doug Risebrough that factored into that deal. We should run some sort of Photoshop contest. Incidentally, if you know any Calgary fans, make sure you recount the story of this trade to them often. They never get tired of hearing about it.

Cliff Fletcher: Leaf Nation Saviour

Back then, the Wings were the only real Leafs rival we had, and my buddy Matt is a huge Detroit fan, so we had our own microcosm of the whole Wings/Leafs rivalry at every game. Detroit had Yzerman, Federov, Coffey, and a young Lidstrom in '92/'93. The Leafs were two years removed from essentially being an expansion team, so Matt felt pretty confident. For my part, I had zero expectations, even if the Leafs did have 99 points that season. Call it conditioning. A lifetime of Ballard had pretty much crushed all of my hopes that the Leafs might ever succeed at anything. The series just kept going though, and the Leafs kept winning. It was unreal. Borshevsky’s overtime goal to win game seven was without a doubt the greatest Leafs-related moment of my life.

Ironically, whenever Jay and I play Sega Hockey '93 though, we always turn line changes off and swap Borshevsky for Wendel, so the diminutive Russian never gets to play. History may support Nik's playoff prowess, but in Sega hockey a sneeze will knock him off the puck. On the other hand, Wendel’s just awesome. He’s not Roenick, but he is the best video game Leaf of his era.

Thinking about my reaction to that goal, I wonder what I would do if the Leafs actually do win the cup. I saw the footage this spring of Edmonton fans after they took out the Sharks. Their cup wins aren't that far removed. What would Toronto be like in that situation? Would people laugh? cry? riot? hold hands and sing like the Grinch just stole Christmas? I can't even picture it.

Too bad it'll be another 10 months before we even get a chance to find out. Of course as Leaf fans, we're pretty much used to that sad fact.


Since we're on the subject, here's a quick Matt story. Matt calls me up one day and tells me about these two guys he works with. "It's the most disfunctional workplace ever. These two guys fight constantly. One day I walk in and they're yelling at each other. The one guy shouts: IF I HAD TELEKENETIC POWERS I WOULD MAKE YOUR HEAD EXPLODE!"

"The other guy keeps yelling at him, but the first guy (the head exploding guy) is just standing there with his eyes closed and his fingers pressed against his temples going: NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH!"

That's just classic comedy.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

About a Ferguson

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I’m not a John Ferguson Jr. fan.

I feel the Leafs blundered when they made him the general manager of their hockey team – with so many possible candidates available, why choose one with absolutely zero management experience for the most important executive position in the organization? To this point in Ferguson’s tenure, I don't have many reasons to think his management has been anything but mediocre, since the team has accomplished nothing of significance since he took the wheel from Pat Quinn in 2003. And the Board members of MLSE must be thinking the same thing, since to date, they have refused to extend Ferguson's contract beyond 2006-2007. (Although, Ferguson's appointment looks like a stroke of genius compared with the decisionmaking going on in the Islanders' head office.)

But I’m willing to follow the upcoming season with an open mind. Maybe Quinn really was the main antagonist standing in the way of Ferguson’s boardroom machinations to bring a Cup to Toronto. Maybe all Ferguson needed to shape the team into the necessary image was $20 million in cap space, and the subtraction of various floaters and clubhouse cancers from the roster. And maybe Ferguson really does have a Master Plan in a vault someplace after all. So I made up my mind – I’ll continue to scrutinize Ferguson’s moves, but I won’t go into this thing holding any particular bias against the man, regardless of what I’ve questioned in the past.

Some people have different attitudes, it seems. In today’s Toronto Sun, Steve Simmons made the following remarks:

“So here's something to chew on: Was John Ferguson Jr. aware that Eric Lindros was eligible for performance bonuses this coming season and if he was, why did he tell the Lindros camp he didn't know? Either way, it doesn't look good on Junior, who either didn't know the rules or led others to believe he didn’t.”

Does Simmons really believe Ferguson is this stupid? Wait – first, for this to be true, we have to accept as truth that Ferguson actually told the “Lindros camp” (What "camp"? Lindros represented himself in all negotiations this year) he didn’t know Lindros was eligible for performance bonuses, something I haven’t seen reported anywhere else.

Secondly, we have to believe that Ferguson, a former lawyer, somehow missed the article in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that lays out the conditions for eligibility for performance bonuses. The one applying to Lindros is found on page 189, 50.2(b)(i)(C)(2)(iii):

“Players who are “400-plus game Players” for pension purposes, and who: (i) in the last year of their most recent SPC, spent 100 days or more on the injured reserve list; and (ii) have signed a one-year SPC for the current or upcoming League Year.”

Even with Lindros' incredible injury history, he is clearly vested in the NHL player's pension plan with a minimum of 400 games played. So all Ferguson had to do to find out if Lindros qualified for performance bonuses next season was to double-check his calendar and see if Lindros spent 100 days or more on the shelf last year, which anyone with a pulse knows was probably the case.

Finally, Ferguson has already proven he has some familiarity with the above CBA provision, since he gave Jason Allison an incentive-laden contract last season with consideration for the above-stipulated conditions.

So I don’t believe for a second that Ferguson was foolish enough to lack any awareness of a well-known, easily confirmable CBA clause he used himself only last season. If he actually told Lindros he didn't know he was eligible for performance bonuses, given the above facts, then he must have hid in the bushes with his knowledge of the CBA bonus clauses. Nothing else makes any sense.

If this is true, then why would Ferguson do it?

We know that only days before Lindros signed with Dallas, it was reported that Lindros was “buoyed” by a meeting with Ferguson and Paul Maurice at the news that he would be Toronto’s second-line centre this season.

So what happened after that? Luckily, I have the exact transcript of the events that followed:


Paul Maurice and John Ferguson are standing in Ferguson's office, smiling and shaking hands with Eric Lindros, who is nattily dressed in an expensive suit. Lindros waves goodbye, and walks from the room.

Ferguson: (closing door behind departing Lindros) Okay! Great meeting, everybody. I think we’ll be able to sign the big guy on the cheap for next season. I love this ‘hometown discount’ thing.

(the phone rings)

Maurice: Hey Ferg – It's Mike Peca’s agent. He says he wants to play for us next season, and is willing to take a big discount to do it.

Ferguson: Geez, another one? I’m telling you Paulie, I have to beat these guys off with a stick. Peca, huh? He’s pretty good, actually. How much of a discount?

Maurice: A lot. He says he’ll sign for two-point-five.

Ferguson: Sweet, let’s do it! In your face, John Muckler! Oh, wait – what about Lindros? This means we can’t afford him now unless he takes the base contract we offered - $750,000. Well, I guess we can throw in some bonus clauses -

Maurice: Who cares! Screw the bonuses, we don’t need him. Remember when his daddy complained to the media about Erica’s wrist injury? Like it’s our fault or something his son is a china-doll. We don’t need that kind of crap. Payback, baby. And if anybody complains about letting him go, we'll just pretend we didn't know about the bonus option.

Ferguson: Yes. Burn! High-five, Paulie. C’mon, high-five, high-five.


Maurice: Hey, the phone’s ringing again. It looks like Eric’s cell! What do we do?

Ferguson: Oh, this is awesome! Put it on speaker.


Eric Lindros: Heya John? I just wanted to express my appreciation for today’s –

Ferguson: Eric Lindros? THIS is John Ferguson! About that contract – I have a briefcase on my desk. It has $750,000 in it – and that’s all!

Maurice: Whee-hee-hee!

Lindros: What the fu – I don’t understand?

Ferguson: Paulie! Shhh! Quiet, now. Ahem. Lindros? Lindros! This is how it is, goddammit, now pay attention. Seven-fifty! No bonuses. Deal? Or NO DEAL?!

Maurice: Oh, man! BWAH HA HA HA!

Lindros: You son of a –

(Ferguson hangs up)

Ferguson: HA HA HA! Peca’s contract – two-point-five. The chance to blow off Eric Lindros? Priceless!

Maurice: Whoo, hoo, hoo! You’re the king, man. Let’s go get some tacos, I’m buying!


And that’s how Lindros became a Dallas Star, folks.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Bizarro Leafs

Here it is, post number 2! I realize that it’s been over a month since my first post, and my lack of production has been pretty staggering. At this rate, JFJ wouldn't sign me for much more than a million. In my defence, I've had a legitimate excuse. I won’t go into the details, but heretofore the girlfriend will now be known as the wife.

Incidentally, you’ve never known fear until the

woman you love says to you: “Why don’t you pick the music for our first dance?” Wow. In the end she changed her mind and chose the music though, and I think that’s wise. You really don’t want to be leaving a decision of that magnitude to somebody that believes w
e should change the national anthem to Thunderstruck.

But I digress…

In any case, since I’ve been away it's fair to say that a lot has happened to the Blue and White.

Consider if you will a professional hockey team. They’re a relatively young club, with a media friendly coach who (if past experience is any indication) runs a pretty structured system that emphasises defence. Their blue line is probably their best asset, although goaltending could be problem. Scoring could also be an issue.

Sounds like the opposite of everything we’ve come to expect as Leaf fans right?

That's my dilemma. I really don’t know what to make of this new look team. It’s not that I have my doubts about Hal Gill, or that I question giving up a prospect like Rask for a goalie with the worst GAA in the league last season (although I do). It’s that everything I’ve known about the Leafs is now wrong. It’s like up is down, black is white, cats and dogs living together… Nothing makes sense any more.

I am gonna get Domi a nice fruitbasket. I'm gonna MISS him!

Think about what this really means. There will be no more cantankerous Quinn post-game interviews. No more jokes about a Leaf roster that saves money on flights and hotels by getting the senior's discount. No more round the clock coverage of Ed Belfour’s back. No more 30 minutes of defensive pairings that would look shaky in my Friday pickup game.

(On a side note, are most Leaf fans aware that Alexander Khavanov logged over a thousand hours of ice time last season? I have no recollection of this at all. Does he have some kind of ninja power that renders him completely invisible?)

Is this man some sort of shadow warrior?

I’m not saying I’m going to miss the geriatric defensively challenged soap opera that’s been my team for nearly a decade. It’s a bit like trading in an old car though. The newer model might very well be more efficient and reliable, but occasionally you long for the familiar quirkiness of the old beater.
For better or for worse though, the JFJ era begins in earnest this October. Welcome to the age of the Bizzaro Leafs.
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