Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday ho-ho-hold the posting

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So, I'm out of time for this calendar year. There's just too much going on for me to sit down and write anything worthwhile about the Leafs. I'll be back in the New Year. In the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

1.) I'm tired of seeing Andrew Raycroft let in a bad goal every single game. I've read a lot of stories about how he's had a successful beginning to his Leafs career; I've read nothing addressing the fact that almost every time I've watched him play, he's let in a terrible goal. Like on Saturday night, for instance, against the Rangers. You know the one - the weak, spinning backhand the somehow found its way through Raycroft's five-hole. (Brother-in-law Vanny, after dumping his beer into his crotch: "That was - oh my god! That was the worst goal I think I've ever seen! How did he let that go in?" My sister: "Oh dear, that goalie is awful! I'll get you boys another drink.") It isn't just the bad goals - Raycroft cannot handle the puck at all, and I'm not noticing this just because Belfour was so good at it. Raycroft is unable to reliably stop the puck behind the net, frequently gets flustered when having to pass it to a teammate, and too often has sent it to an opposition player instead, has trouble playing the puck under pressure...he just doesn't look comfy back there at all with his passing game. I think that Leaf defensemen need to try harder to make it back into the zone to relieve the pressure from Raycroft, because he isn't capable of managing that aspect of the game. I have a horrible, creeping feeling that at some critical point this season, Raycroft is going to let down the team in spectacular fashion because of one of those weaknesses.

2.) It took 35 games before Hal "Skill" Gill had a bad game for Toronto, December 19th's implosion against the Panthers - and the boo-birds immediately came out of hibernation to dump all over the guy. It's like they were just waiting for him to mess up to give them their golden chance to take a collective crap on him. And it's true - before the season started, I thought that Gill would be the weakest link in the Leafs' defense, but I'm happy to report that I was wrong about Skill so far, and have in fact been pleasantly surprised with his play. Given how often other defensemen on the team have messed up this year without this kind of attention, I think Gill has earned a mulligan or two from the crowd.

3.) Steen: Time to wake up and do something, already. Prove to us that Ferguson wasn't a moron for keeping you instead of trading you for MVP candidate Chris Pronger.

4.) So the Penguins might be moving, and the word is hockey hotbed Kansas City might have the early line on landing the franchise, if they moved. No mention of Hamilton. What does it take for Canada to get a hockey team back? Will it ever happen under Bettman? I read this morning that Nashville gets $14 million a year under the "Toronto subsidizes the league" sharing plan. I'll bet Winnipeg or Quebec City would still have teams if they were given that kind of cash to boost their budgets. Here's hoping Bettman rings in the New Year with a tall glass of Polonium 210.

5.) Colin Campbell aired the idea of increasing the size of the nets to increase scoring, after noticing goal-scoring is down a little this year compared to last. Typically, Damien Cox agrees with the half-baked scheme, announcing that when a no-nothing like Jarome Iginla dares to suggest it's a bad idea, that it makes him "want to scream."

Here's what makes me want to scream. Reading Damien Cox present an illogical argument that contemplates TOTALLY CHANGING THE GAME, and making it sound like it's a proclamation from the mountain that a simpleton like an all-star hockey player wouldn't understand.

To summarize - Cox thinks bigger nets would be a good thing because goalies have grown larger over the years, and therefore, the integrity of NHL records would be preserved because this change would only restore the balance back to what it was in the days of Max Bentley, back when goalies were midgets, apparently.

He's wrong. Such a change would alter the game forever; if that ever happened, you might as well draw a line through the record book. In the NBA, players are dramatically bigger than they were 40 years ago. Are they going to make the nets bigger? Will baseball switch to aluminum bats to jack up home-run numbers?

Cox includes arrogant language in his contemplation like, "don't tell me" it would be an affront to the records, and "don't even try to argue," and "it's a fact" that Esposito saw more net than Cheechoo. He says all these things with absolutely no backing statistics at all.

It may well be true that goalies are larger these days - but he didn't cite anything proving it. Therefore, his argument is worthless, and sorry Cox, I'll argue all I want to.

Also - let's accept for a second that maybe goaltenders have gotten bigger over the years. What about the skaters? They have too. Why doesn't he propose making the rinks larger? And the advent of carbon-fibre sticks have enabled pluggers like Chad Kilger to own 106 mph slap-shots. Why hasn't that boosted scoring the way an egghead like Cox seems to want? What about the no-tolerance reffing policy - wasn't that supposed to increase scoring, too?

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What the - what a stupid gift
that moron Cox gave me!

The top goalies in the game are all regular-sized guys. Hasek is all of 160 pounds, and he's still going strong at age 41, making his case for the Hall of Fame. Belfour, 6-feet, 180. Kiprusoff, Huet, Giguere - all top goalies of average size. Ryan Miller is listed at 166 pounds, for crying out loud. "Goalies are bigger, it's a fact" - really? Even if goalies averaged 6'3" now, and I'll bet money they don't, they aren't 6'3" wide. Where are all these giant, mutant goalies keeping the scoring down and ruining exciting hockey games? I can think of Luongo and Brodeur as above-average. Is this statistically significant?

Also, who says larger goalies automatically keep more shots out? What if a smaller guy is more nimble?

Goalies are more effective today because of many reasons - their equipment is much larger than in the old days, (a look at the tapes proves that without the need for any statistical backup) game preparation is better than it has ever been (credit Roger Neilson for introducing video-work in the back rooms, in addition to a team of advance scouts that could staff the security agency of a small country), systems coaching has improved, and most of all - goalies are just better at what they do. They've improved more over the last 20 years than skaters have, because they had so much more ground to make up. Remember "Red Light Racicot"? Remember Mike Palmateer when he attempted to skate? Any Leaf goalie before 1992? Players like those wouldn't make an AHL roster today.

But most of all, in years gone by, the goalie was a crazy bastard you never talked to, a nutjob who practised his craft off by himself in the corner, because if you were foolish enough to actually speak to him, you'd banish the mojo he'd conjured up from his latest chicken sacrifice and turn him into Allan Bester incarnate. Nobody wanted that, so goalies were the freak of the team who roomed by themselves, hid in toilet stalls before games, and who talked more to themselves than anyone else.

But not anymore. Goalies are indisputably the centre of every team, and some clubs have finally cottoned onto the idea that they should have their own coach to help keep them in top form. To point out how backwards most teams are in that regard, even today, most teams don't carry a coach dedicated to mentoring the goalie, but that's going to change. Toronto has one, Montreal has one, and so do a handful of others. In a few years, all teams will have one. These coaches are dedicated to mentoring the goaltenders, working on all aspects of their play, and therefore, the goalies will get even better. As an example, Ray Emery felt he could use a talent upgrade, so he spent the entire off-season in a dedicated hockey school in order to sharpen up, and you can't argue with the results so far. Spending your summer handling shooting drills was unheard of in the old days. Roberto Luongo was traded by Mike Keenan because he insisted on having his own goalie coach included as a contract clause; I guarantee you Vancouver doesn't mind having that guy on the payroll one bit.

My hunch is that this entire "make the net bigger" plot is yet another initiative cooked up by Bettman and his cronies to make the game appeal more to Americans. And therefore, adapt it at the expense of Canadian sensibilities. Do a survey - fans like scoring chances, not necessarily tons of goals. I never saw a formula on the blackboard that said, "more goals = better game".

And the truth is, nobody knows what would happen to the outcomes of games if the nets were enlarged, so for Cox to thoughtlessly blow off any concern as nothing to worry about - it's the definition of arrogance. Leave the nets alone, you bunch of clowns.

I had more to say tonight than I thought.

Hallelujah, holy shit! - where's the Tylenol.

Saturday, December 09, 2006 a disease.

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I have avoided commenting on the recent Leaf slump for a few reasons – first of all, since it’s close to Christmas, some of my free time has been wasted shopping for presents and doing the other usual things a person gets roped into at this time of year. Another reason is that I’m generally a lazy person, and sitting down at the computer to analyze Toronto’s futility looked like a boring, painstaking job. It’s way more fun to talk about your team when it’s kicking ass all the way down the rink and back again.

But after their latest loss, making it their sixth in a row, I knew I could avoid it no longer. The team is in trouble, and putting my head in the sand over it isn’t going to make it go away. So get ready to yawn, I went sorting the stats at and crunched a few numbers.

A preface: In times like these, the tendency is to try and identify a single culprit, one guy who is generally perceived to be somehow failing the team in a key way, like, “Raycroft is letting in soft goals,” or, “Sundin hasn’t done jack since he came back from injury,” or, “Kubina is a waste of money.” Annoyingly, in today’s Toronto Star, Damien Cox had no problem pointing fingers at a few individual players in this fashion; for instance, apparently Darcy Tucker’s -10 stat is “terrible”, and an important indicator for how he is letting down the team. The thing is, plus-minus numbers are fundamentally related to the overall performance of a team; therefore, in his bungling attempt to put the goat-horns on Tucker, the individual, as a reason the Leafs are struggling, in reality Cox is identifying a team problem.

Because by definition, a team is a collection of multiple personalities contributing to the fortunes of the collective. So that means all Leaf problems are collective action problems, issues that cannot be pinned on a sole non-contributor, particularly with regards to the skaters on a team. At least with goaltending, one specific person is the guy who let in a bad goal, but even then, goalies are usually playing poorly at least in part because they are the victim of defensive breakdowns by the players in front of them.

And like I noticed earlier in the season, a look at the stats this morning for the team reveals extremities in many key areas, both good and bad, and they can only be the result of an aggregate compilation of a team’s contributions. Sorry Damien, you suck.


Is scoring the problem?

So far this season - not on the powerplay, at least. Before Friday night’s games, Toronto was 7th in the league in powerplay scoring. Looking good so far.

Toronto's ratio of even strength goals to PP goals is 0.89 - 19th in the league, which looks bad initially. This ratio means the majority of Toronto's goals are scored on the power play. Since about 70% of a game is played at even strength, it means for the majority of the time, Toronto’s level of scoring is rates among the worst teams in the league - by ratio.

However, this ratio aside, Toronto is still scoring plenty of goals in absolute terms - they are 10th in goals scored per game overall, at 3.07/G. And (surprisingly, to me) they are actually 9th in the league in 5-5 scoring, an area most people seem to perceive as an important problem, probably because the power play is so dominant by contrast. Any stat that is top-10 league-wide can't rate as a priority to worry about.

The Leafs seem to be trying pretty hard to shoot the puck, since they are 2nd in the league in shots per game with 33.8, on average. With regards to recent performance, over their last ten games, they’ve averaged 32.3 shots per game. So, we're still doing okay in this department.

But in those ten games, Toronto’s record is 29th in the league, at 2-7-1, and in that period, they’ve totaled 24 goals, 2.4 per game, far below their season average.

It gets worse. Toronto has not won a single game this season when trailing after one period (0-6-1), obviously one of the worst marks in the league. They have won only one game when trailing after two (1-9-2).

Continuing now with the period-by-period breakdown – Toronto scores most of its goals early in the game, and scoring trends downward after that point. They are 3rd in the league in 1st period goals, with 33. They are 7th in the league in 2nd period goals, 35. And they are 21st in the league in 3rd period scoring.

Since Toronto scores a lot of goals overall, this means they are crapping out at the end of games - arguably when it matters the most, especially when this stat is compared with the "wins when trailing after..." stat. This has to mean that Toronto stinks at clutch scoring so far this year.


With a lineup including the league's most expensive defensemen, Toronto is 24th in the league in team goals-against-average, at 3.20 goals per game. Andrew Raycroft is 24th in league GAA at 2.93.

Total goals against – Toronto is 26th in the league in goals allowed, with 96. In 5-on-5 play, Toronto is 28th in the league in goals against, with 62.

No team has allowed more 3rd-period goals than Toronto, with 41. That means, when it matters most to hold a lead - Toronto hasn't.

They are 17th in the league on penalty kill efficiency, at 83.8% (out of the top 16 – which could be thought of as, "the teams that don't make the playoffs.")

They are in the upper half, 13th overall, in shots allowed per game, 29.5, but more significantly, their starting goalie (Raycroft) has seen the 7th-most shots per game overall, with 660. This means that while their overall shots-against average is mediocre, since Raycroft has seen so much rubber, more often than not Toronto is getting blown out in shots against.


As I noted earlier in the season, Toronto continues its faceoff prowess, which is rated 4th in the league at 52.4%. And – interestingly, Toronto is also 2nd in the league at faceoffs taken, with 1849. I don’t know if this from Raycroft and Aubin habitually freezing the puck a lot, or Ian White shooting the puck into the crowd five hundred times this season to cause a penalty, or maybe it’s just a random thing, since a team has to place somewhere on the list. At any rate, Toronto has had a lot of faceoffs to deal with, and they are one of the best in the league at winning them, so I can’t help wondering if it’s a deliberate thing.

Toronto has the 3rd-most giveaways in the league, with 381. On the flipside, Toronto seems to redeem themselves a bit in pressuring opponents, because they are 10th in the league in takeaways, with 234.

Lots of shots per game? For sure – but Toronto is also the worst team in the league in missed shots – 426 overall. So while they are getting a lot of rubber on the net – even more doesn’t make it there to begin with.

Toronto has won only one game this season when they scored less than four goals.


To summarize, by the numbers, these are the most important points to take home:

1.) Toronto is a top-10 offensive team in both powerplay results and 5-on-5 scoring. The amount of shots unloaded at the net, whether they miss or not, is indicative of the fundamentally offensive nature of the team, even with recent (crappy) play taken into account.

2.) Toronto is a bottom-third defensive team in the major statistical categories.

3.) Toronto is decisively bad at scoring goals when it matters (when losing, or by period), and they are decisively bad at holding a lead when they need to, blowing more 3rd-period leads than any team in the league. Toronto has proven so far this year to be useless in any clutch situation.

4.) Based on the above, if I were forced to decide, I would say overall defensive play is the biggest problem of the team right now, a disappointing thing when John Ferguson’s greatest off-season priority was to upgrade Toronto’s defense, which he paid for like no other GM in the league decided to do.

All the above indicators are the hallmarks of a team lacking skill, heart, and experience, all things that can be improved upon given enough time.

In the case of the Leafs’ young team, John Ferguson and Paul Maurice have to hope that time heals all.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Retiring Numbers

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At the end of the red carpet stands a man. A spotlight cuts a circle for him in the big dark, a place in the arena all to himself, symbolic of the singular honour to be bestowed upon him. His hair has silvered, and the crows-feet around his eyes will soon outnumber the battle scars he won in glorious confrontation, the reminders that he once sacrificed every measure of himself to become one of the best, and the proof that the time he borrowed from the game lasted longer than for most.

Across his back droops his uniform, not filled now by broad slabs of heroic equipment, but by his narrowing shoulders, his folded surname barely visible amid the billowing fabric. Above him, a standard is cranking to the rafters; a banner, crested with his name and number. It finishes its ascent beside the row of others, the long line of heroes from whom he accepted the torch, the storied past from which he drew his inspiration and strength to carry his teammates to glories of their own. He always understood the great responsibility that was his, and he is proud to have held up his end of the bargain.

For all the blur of days and seasons to come, that number will be his alone; none who will follow will ever be permitted to wear it. Recollections of the digit will come part-and-parcel with the orchestrations he performed for the people in this arena, for the people who mattered most to him.

Always so emotionally contained as a player, his lips quiver, and he widens his eyes in a vain attempt to preserve his manhood, but his feelings betray him at last. Twin streams run from his eyes, cutting a path through his cracking features and twisted roots of ancient stitches to drop to the ice.

The crowd roars its approval.

I always enjoy this spectacle. This season, I’ve seen clips of the various ceremonies, almost too many to recall. McInnis, Savard, Hull – and soon we’ll have footage of Messier, Yzerman, and probably Nieuwendyk crying at centre ice rolling on the highlight shows.

The fact that there have been so many of these is the reason I think the tradition has to end.

Montreal, for instance, has twelve numbers hanging unavailable in the rafters, and they are mostly the small, classic ones associated with the greatest legends who have ever played the game. The best numbers, like 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10. The Boston Bruins have eleven. The Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues, nine. The Blackhawks and Rangers, seven apiece.

In the years to come, players for some of these teams will have only unattractive, anonymous numbers like, “78” or, “82” to choose from, and the limitations will only increase as more banners are hung in the sky. In a game with about a hundred years of history to look back on, these restrictions are growing more significant, and all other, newer teams in the NHL have adopted this tradition themselves.

I believe the only team that is forward-thinking with this issue is the Toronto Maple Leafs. According to club policy, numbers are retired only when the player wearing them has died wearing the uniform, so the team has removed only two from circulation: Bill Barilko’s number 5, and Ace Bailey’s number 6. It’s three if you include Gretzky, whose number was retired league-wide at the behest of Gary Bettman.

When the Leafs desire to recognize a worthy player, his number is “honoured”, and remains in active circulation. Toronto has honoured seven numbers in this fashion in recognition of thirteen players who wore them. It’s a policy that has irked some fans and former players alike, Dave Keon being foremost among them; he will never set foot inside the Air Canada Centre so long as the team refuses to retire his number, and I see that as a good thing. The club rule applies to everyone, no exceptions. If Keon becomes the exception, then the exception becomes the rule; the precedent will have been set, and the floodgates would have to open, and many other numbers would soon join his, removed from active use.

Why is it so awful for Keon that his number remains in circulation? Isn’t it reverential enough to “just” be honoured by his team? The way things are now, the best, classic numbers can still be worn by active players, and as a fan of the history of the team, this seems like a great thing to me. I see the fact that numbers like 1, 7, 9, or any other can be used as a tribute to the club’s history, not as an insult. And besides, there are many years of hockey yet to play, with a young crop of new players arriving every year who will one day merit jersey retirement, if a team follows historical precedent. There will arrive a day when from an operational standpoint, it will not be feasible to retire any more numbers.

But Toronto’s policy of elevated numbers of honour is not above criticism. I believe it is a fundamental disrespect to Ted Kennedy that a rookie with limited potential like Aleksander Suglobov was given permission to wear the number 9. Not as obviously unworthy are Andrew Raycroft (1), Ian White (7), or Matt Stajan (14), but the fact remains that these are all young, unproven players who have yet to build a legacy meritorious enough of wearing numbers that have been honoured for team legends – or in the case of Stajan, a number that should be honoured. Jersey numbers are cherished things, things negotiated for by veteran players and usually chosen for special reasons, and it takes away some of the prestige if anyone at all is allowed to wear them. That isn’t right, and I agree with Keon that this needs to change. At a minimum, club policy should dictate that only deserving, veteran players be granted permission to wear an honoured number. This would respect the tradition of the game, the team, and the contributions of the player who once wore it. I believe it would also enhance the cachet of a special, chosen number for fans and players alike; if this were the new team policy, it would really mean something if a player stepped onto the ice wearing say, number 9, if almost nobody earns the right to use it. It would mean that this is a special player who paid his dues and merits sharing a uniform that has been worn only by the teams best.

And if there is the sense that fans are being denied the enjoyment of a retirement ceremony - well, imagine its replacement, a "Jersey Ceremony": for instance, picture Mario Lemieux waiting on the carpet at centre ice, wearing his number. Out of the tunnel comes Sidney Crosby, chosen by club officials as Lemieux's successor after years of proving his worthiness to the team. After the traditional accolades and speeches are delivered to Lemieux, he passes his sweater to Crosby, who symbolically slips it over his own head, as the crowd explodes in rapture. I get shivers just thinking about it.

And if there is no deserving player for the number, well, then nobody gets to wear it, it’s as simple as that. As the club rule stands now, it is obvious there is little distinction in being honoured at all.

But it’s still better than seeing a lineup card filled with anonymous player numbers more appropriately used on a football field.
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