Leafs Interim Report
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.”
“But Andrew Raycroft is twenty-fifth in the league in goals-against.”
“Yeah. But Toronto leads the league in face-off percentage. 54%.”
“Wade Belak is now a fixture on Toronto’s defense.”
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.