Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Leafs Interim Report

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After ten games or so of an NHL season, it’s possible to sit back for a second to see what you’ve got in a hockey team. This, as opposed to say, gloating about an early, crushing victory over an arrogant rival, ("6-0, baby! Where's my map to the parade route?"), or prematurely losing your lunch after watching a blowout loss ("The defense is horrible! I hate Chris Neil! Trade everybody!") during the tenth game, for instance.

Or - the eleventh game, actually. Hmm. When is the NHL going to change up this unbalanced schedule?

Anyway, Toronto has played thirteen games so far, so I was taking the stats a little more seriously in today’s paper. You can’t say, “it’s early” anymore.

I was scanning the boxscores with an eagle eye when my buddy Ed came in. He’s a Montreal fan, and in my Ottawa-area office, that almost makes him an ally. Almost. At least he didn’t jump into my office and yell, “Leafs suck!” after Toronto’s recent visit to Scotiabank Place.

“Whatcha doin’?” he says, munching on a large cookie. “Guess what? Kelby hugged me for my birthday! She’s wearing a neon-green thong. I saw it poking out of her pants when I got my hug. Life is good.”

“Wonderful. Shut up. I’m checking out Toronto’s stats. So far, they’ve scored 42 goals. Third in the league,” I say.

“Gee. That’s good!”

“But they’ve allowed 46. Second-worst in the league.”

“Oh. That’s bad.”

“They’re averaging 36.1 shots per game. First in the league.”

“That’s good!”

“But Andrew Raycroft is twenty-fifth in the league in goals-against.”

“Hum. Bad.”

“Yeah. But Toronto leads the league in face-off percentage. 54%.”

“That’s good!”

“Wade Belak is now a fixture on Toronto’s defense.”


“That’s bad.”

“Can we go for break now?” Ed whined.

The one thing you can say about the Leafs so far is that they have been a study in contrasts. A win followed by a loss, all season long until they finally won two in a row against Columbus Monday night. Great on scoring, lousy on letting them in. Killers on the faceoff, but the most shootout losses so far in the league. At a 6-4-3 record so far, it’s like having one foot in a pail of boiling water, and the other in ice water, and saying you feel sort of warm. This is a bizarre team to watch, and there are only two things I’m sure of when I settle in with my remote control and bag of Cheetos: nobody knows which team is going to show up to play - the overmatched kids, or the 50-shot barnstormers. That, and – Wade Belak has the most embarrassing fighting style in the league. He needs to watch what Derek “The Boogeyman” Boogaard did to Todd Fedoruk last week.

Other contrasts in the team are just as apparent:

The Good

1.) Darcy Tucker has been carrying this team since the first game. 15 points, 9 goals – he’s actually on pace for 50 this year. No, I don’t believe that will happen. But you can’t ask for more out of the pint-sized winger whose heart was always greater than his talent – until this year. Here’s hoping he pots 50, and then Ferguson can give him 8 million dollars a season on a 6-year contract. Yeah, scratch that.

2.) Mats Sundin. As usual, the underappreciated Big Swede is always there, producing at his customary point-per-game pace, and his game-winning, hat-trick-completing, 500th goal in overtime to reclaim sole possession of the NHL’s “most overtime goals scored” record was the cherry on his season, even if he does nothing else this year. If he was from Kingston, there would already be a statue of him in front of the Air Canada Centre.

3.) Paul Maurice was the most important addition to the team this summer. He has installed a more aggressive forechecking game plan with an emphasis on hustle, and never hesitates to bench a player when he’s not putting out. He’s doing the best he can with an inexperienced defense, and has generally freshened up the Leaf team after seven years of Pat Quinn farting up the place. No, Quinn wasn't that bad. But the team needed a change, and it's been effected for the better.

Honourable Mention

Mike Peca has done everything as advertised. Sure, he’s on pace for about 9 goals, but he kills penalties, is always in position, is a faceoff ace, hits, draws penalties, and showing the kids how it’s done.

The Bad

1.) Bryan McCabe is doing nothing to earn a penny of his giant contract. He has 9 points, but he’s getting Hall-of-Fame money to be the cornerstone of the Leaf defense, so that isn't good enough. I’d say he’s on the verge of getting Larry Murphied out of town, but since he has a no-movement clause in his contract, he’ll be Murphied in Toronto for the next five years unless he gets himself in gear. ("Boo-yeah! He'll be Murphied-all-year! Uhnn! Uhnn!" Ed yells, punching the air.)

2.) Alex Steen is stinking up the joint. 3 points, and invisible on most nights, he has done squat to build on his excellent 2005-2006 rookie season. The team needs him to step it up.

3.) Aleksander Suglobov hasn't shown a thing to merit a roster spot. It’s true Ferguson was able to obtain him as a warm body in exchange for the essentially worthless Ken Klee, but the kid cannot be relied on to take a shift without giving the puck away. He holds down the bench on most nights, and should probably be in the minors instead.

Honourable Mention

Tomas Kaberle, before his hat-trick in Montreal, had been overmatched every game this season. He’s broken out of the doghouse, but he also needs to man up to the contract Ferguson gave him.

The Very Ugly

Wade Belak cannot play any position, consistently takes penalties which cost the team, and worst of all, turtles when he “fights” opposition goons. Don’t you have to look at a guy at least once if you want to punch him? Incredibly, Ferguson extended his contract to 2007-2008. Lord knows why – guys like him are available anytime, free of charge, on the waiver wire. Why paint yourself into a corner by committing to him?

The Verdict

It’s true I said it’s no longer that early in the season. But the team still has lots of time to establish itself and put a string of wins together. However, if Maurice is forced to employ inexperienced and/or crappy players on forward and defense for most of the season, there isn’t a lot of reason to expect anything other than we’ve seen so far: an inconsistent, rebuilding team stocked with younger, inexperienced players at key positions.

“Toronto should have gotten Mike Johnson from the Coyotes,” Ed brags. “Mr. Gainey got him for only a fourth-round pick, and he’s tearing it up. Why didn’t Ferguson get him?”

“The target was defense,” I say. “Ferguson addressed the greatest weakness first.”

“Ferguson wasted all his money on a defenseman who’s been hurt all season so far. Now he’s stuck.”

“Samsonov asked for a trade after nine games.”

“Raycroft can’t stop a beach-ball. Montreal has two bona-fide starters, and managed to unload that headcase Theodore and his fat contract at the same time. Praise Gainey, amen.”

I take back what I said about Montreal fans being allies.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Pilar really is MIA

When I wrote recently about the fact that Karel Pilar seems to have slipped off the face of the Earth, I assumed Leaf management knew what his status was, and had simply decided not to tell anyone. But, I was wrong - Toronto really doesn't know what happened to the guy. Not only has he not made an appearance in Toronto this year, but he hasn't played for his Czech Republic club team, either:

"We have no idea why, whether it's for health reasons or not," assistant general manager Mike Penny said.

It can't be good if Toronto has no idea what Pilar is up to these days. If it wasn't before, then it's certain now that any hopes of him returning to Toronto to bolster the defense are nothing but pipe dreams.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Gunshy of the Shootout

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It was 6-6, Leafs-Devils, and on the television, another fruitless scoring chance was dissolving in the dying moments of the game. My brother-in-law Vanny began to squirm around in his seat.

“Oh, right there! Skate, you retard!” he screamed at the TV set.

The horn blew, signaling the end of the overtime period, and the cameras panned over the coaches, who were sucking on their pens, frowning intelligently at their shootout lists. Hmm, who to pick. How hard can this be? You just list your three best guys, and say, go get ‘em champ.

“Frigg. Not another shootout. I hate this rule. We’re toast for sure,” Vanny moaned, hiding his face.

“Toronto took out Florida the other night in a shootout,” I said.

“Yeah, but that was just Florida. They’re useless. Montreal beat us the game before that. I can’t believe this, three straight shootouts.”

I was trying to stay positive, but I saw it the same way. I’ve been conditioned to hate shootouts by a humiliating Olympic loss (“What the - Crawford picked Ray Bourque over Wayne Gretzky?! On a shootout, he picked a defenseman over the greatest scorer who ever lived?!), a conservative hockey media, (“Shootouts will ruin the game!”), and the Leafs’ own ineptitude at them last year. In 2005-2006, Toronto finished 3-7 in games decided by shootout. You’re thinking, well, that’s not so horrible. It wasn’t the worst in the league, after all, and a lot of teams had trouble with it. Except - Toronto scored a total of FOUR goals in those shootouts. Dead last in the league.

A brief reminder: Picture this in your mind. A goalie stretching in the crease for the shootout attempt, and then remember what Jason “Rocket” Allison looked like when he struggled to “deke” any goalie last season.

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Jason Allison.
The fastest
who ever lived.

“It’s like this,” Vanny complained, gathering steam. “We stunk at the shootout last year. We had guys like Sundin, Allison, Lindros, taking our shots. This year, Toronto faces division rivals eight times each. So, Ottawa: Heatley, Alfredsson, Spezza. Buffalo: Briere. Afinogenov. Drury. Those guys skate like ninety. Who else? Montreal? Built for the shootout, man. Kovalev. Samsonov. Higgins, Ryder. We’ve got Sundin, and that’s it. Tucker and a few other guys have okay shots, but they don’t scare anybody. We need guys with moves. Or else we’ll get creamed all year.”

I thought about Alexei Kovalev, remembering a shootout I saw last season. The crowd, hushed. Kovalev, skating vacantly to the crease, so slick and sure and confident, so unlike the enthusiastic, chugging Canadian skating style I’m accustomed to. A Soviet Hockey Terminator, built in a Siberian lab, who froze the goaltender with deadly Commie Vision before he robotically bullwhipped a wrist-shot into the top shelf, the puck dropping like a turd beneath the terrified goalie. Game over.

I shuddered. Vanny was right, Toronto has nobody like that. Just Sundin. Sundin, and a team of anonymous guys who might pull off a lucky backhand once or twice, but for the most part, can’t stickhandle their way out of a paper bag.

How long is it going to be before teams begin to carry a shootout specialist on their rosters? It sounds ridiculous. But in all seriousness, Toronto should attempt to get ahead of the curve for once and find a guy like that. I don’t care how good he is in any other facet of the game – premium shootout capability comes first, and if they can play a little on the fourth line, fine, take that as a bonus. Goons have been taking up roster spots for generations – what’s the difference? There are probably dozens of tricky guys who have a pocketful of moves, guys who spent their entire development working on shifty plays they’d never use in a live game because they ignored the fundamentals. Guys who have “no hockey sense” or who “can’t play without the puck.” How many times have we heard that about some guy who can dangle the puck for about five eye-popping seconds a game, but does nothing else? Guys who only practiced the hotdog moves and breakaway attempts, because they are the glory plays, the kind that win imaginary Stanley Cups on backyard ponds. How different would it be to keep a player like this around instead of a fighter? Who brings more to the team?

Last season, the Dallas Stars led the league with twelve shootout wins and one loss. Those twelve extra points elevated Dallas into 2nd place in their conference - without them, they would have only scraped into the playoffs.

Also, Dallas scored twenty-four shootout goals, with ten of them - a monstrous forty-two percent - potted by Jussi Jokinen, which happened to lead the league in this category. All by himself, he scored 2.5 times the number of goals Toronto managed as a team last year. Talk about holding pocket aces. It’s possible to argue Jokinen was personally responsible for ensuring the Stars’ playoff seeding last season. How many other skaters can be pointed to as a direct contributor to a teams' position in the standings?

It’s a new game now, and fighting is disappearing around the league. I never thought I’d see the day, but some teams don’t even carry a designated enforcer anymore (and - it’s debatable that Belak actually fills this role for Toronto). Special teams, systems, and shootouts are what matter the most now to team success. With the salary cap enforcing an increasingly evident level of parity across the league, the shootout will become less of a gimmicky show-stopper, and more of a critical game aspect that can make or break a season. Instead of playing for the win, it’s possible that a team like Dallas might even attempt to engineer a shootout, knowing that they had a 92% success rate at them the year before. If you’re the Dallas coach, and it’s the overtime frame, you tell me what you’re going to do.

Toronto missed the playoffs in 2005-2006 by two lousy points. Edmonton squeaked in, and came within one game of taking home the Cup, injured goalie and all.

So I ask again – what kind of player would be more important to a hockey team?

“…Ponikarovsky with the backhand – misses wide,” said Joe Bowen on the TV.

“Yargh. My Little Poni,” Vanny griped. Leafs lose: 7-6, in the shootout.

Who will become Toronto’s shootout gunslinger?

[Edit: I don't believe it! Seconds after I post this, I read that somebody already wrote about this today!]

Friday, October 13, 2006

Where is Karel Pilar?

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It didn’t take long for Pavel Kubina’s absence to register an effect on the defense of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

One game after Kubina was knocked out of the lineup with a strained MCL, Paul Maurice was forced to pencil in Wade Belak and Jay Harrison as his third pairing for last night’s embarrassment against the Devils, a roster change that frightens nobody except Leaf fans.

Unfortunately, Maurice had no choice. If you believe Leaf management, Kubina will be gone for a month. Andy Wozniewski is out indefinitely as he recovers from surgery to repair a separated shoulder. Staffan Kronwall is day-to-day with a sprained ankle, Brendan Bell has been day–to-day with a fractured ankle, and Carlo Colaiacovo is – well, no time frame for his return has been contemplated as he recovers from a concussion he sustained ten months ago. His latest setback is listed as “headaches”, but no player is helped off the ice after one game of training camp in need of a little Ibuprofen. He won’t be saving the day anytime soon.

The sad part is, other than Kubina, none of the above players are anything more than depth players on any other team, and Toronto is relying on them to be pillars of their defense core.

So last night, that left the Leafs with Belak and Harrison to bring up the rear, and Maurice was suffering from no delusions that these guys can play a regular shift. Against the Devils, they skated for 7:26 and 8:14 of ice-time, respectively.

This created a ripple-down effect in the lineup, forcing Maurice to overuse Kaberle (29:48), McCabe (32:51), Gill (26:17) and White (24:56).

Should anyone be surprised that these four exhibited noticeable fatigue by the end of the game, resulting in key miscues that enabled the Devils to turn a 6-3 deficit into a 7-6(SO) win?

With a lineup like this, the only place the Toronto Maple Leafs are headed is to the podium to make the first overall selection in next year’s amateur draft. And after all the upgrades this off-season, it’s back to the same old tune in Toronto: the team needs defensemen.

But – forget the rumour of bringing Brian Leetch back to town, or of obtaining anybody else who would either a.) want too much money to sign, or b.) cost the team talent in a trade.

What about Karel Pilar?

Pilar last played for Toronto during the 2003-2004 season, when he scored 2 goals and 19 points in 50 games. After that, he was sidelined not once, but twice with a freak heart virus. Given the recent spate of career-threatening heart trouble in the NHL (Jiri Fischer, Mario Lemieux, Steve Konowalchuk, Greg Johnson), it’s understandable that the Leafs might be hesitant to bring Pilar back.

But in the most recent reporting I could find on Pilar were John Ferguson’s comments in the Toronto Star, April 27, 2006:

“Leafs' general manager John Ferguson said his expectation is that Pilar, who remains a restricted free agent, will be signed and at camp in the fall.

"In due course, we'll get him over here, make sure he is fit and ready to play and go from there," said the GM. "Obviously he is playing. He's recovered and the reports have been good."

So Ferguson believed Pilar was healthy. And Pilar had to believe that he was, because…

“...the 28-year-old signed with HC Sparta Prague in mid-February and helped the team wrap up the league championship in the Czech Republic this week (April, 2006). In 14 playoff games for Sparta, Pilar had three goals and three assists and was a plus-6. His North American agent Mark Stowe said Pilar's health concerns are no longer an issue.”

And finally, Pilar indicated at the time of this article that he wanted to return to Toronto.

"He wants to come back (to the Leafs) if he can work out a deal," said Stowe. "He's always said the people in the Toronto organization treated him right." Stowe said Pilar declined an opportunity to play for the Czechs at the upcoming world championship at Riga, Latvia, "just to make sure he's ready for next year."

So – health, check. Desire to play in Toronto, check. Toronto has publicly indicated interest, check. Pilar’s level of play? His work with HC Sparta last spring proved he can still put up the numbers, and at age 28, he’s far from finished as a player - unlike a guy like Leetch might be, for instance. And besides, the last time Belak scored a goal – the NHL regular Pilar would be replacing in the lineup – was three years ago. No, Pilar can play, and would be an upgrade. He’s got some size (6’3”, 207), and is known as a strong skater with a hard shot.

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Look how confident I am.
Sign me, and I will bring
you the Cup.

What about money? In the summer of 2005, Toronto extended a qualifying offer to Pilar of $550,000, which was turned down because Pilar wanted a guaranteed one-way contract. Negotiations never really got off the ground after that, since shortly afterward, Pilar had a relapse of heart troubles that kept him off the ice past the December 1, 2005 deadline for signing restricted free agents.

But since Ferguson gave one-way contracts to career minor-leaguers like John Pohl or Erik Westrum this summer, why should this be an issue at all? Pilar has proven to be capable at the NHL level, and besides, the reasoning behind signing him would be to play on the Leafs anyway. Westrum is currently earning $450,000 to play for the AHL Marlies, and it won’t be long before Mikael Tellqvist joins him. The Leafs are no strangers to paying NHL salaries to players in the minors, if needs be.

Even if Kubina were healthy and in the lineup, a $550,000 contract is affordable to the Leafs. Assuming Pilar signs for a one-way agreement tomorrow, the "cap buffer" they've budgeted for later roster additions gives the Leafs enough room, with some walking-around money left over.

And besides, the Leafs wouldn't need to be concerned with their budgeted cap cushion at all, really - once Kubina is placed on the Injured Reserve list (and he will be), his $5,000,000 salary won’t count against the salary cap limit for the time that he is off the active roster, which roughly amounts $60,975 per game.

So let’s say Pilar is inked for $550,000. The Leafs would be facing the same cap hit as they originally planned for, so long as Kubina misses at least 10 games (10 x $60,975 = $609,750), which seems probable at this point.

Where’s the downside in bringing over Pilar? He'd be a cheap signing, the Leafs wouldn't have to trade any prospects to add him to the lineup, and he'd be an upgrade in talent. He couldn't be any worse than Belak. Is there is more to the story we don’t know about?

But maybe this entire plan can be scrapped after all. The Star is reporting today that the only thing holding Brendan Bell back from returning to the lineup is medical approval from those pesky doctors. “I feel really good...I’m champing at the bit,” he told the breathless media. Brendan Bell, he of the one career NHL game.

But I shouldn’t complain. Even with Bell’s lone game of experience, he’s still the owner of the 9th position on Toronto’s depth chart – right above Wade Belak.
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