Monday, March 31, 2008

Why is Mats Sundin still playing?

Here's something to ponder while we wait for the season to end: Why would a 37-year-old with a torn groin muscle risk further injury to continue playing in completely meaningless games?

This being the Leafs, of course, we don't really know how bad Mats Sundin's injury is. But we do know that he couldn't play last Tuesday in the most important game of the season. With the Leafs facing a game they absolutely had to win, Sundin couldn't go. Not even part-time duty. And yet four days later, there he was taking a regular shift for a game against Montreal that didn't mean a thing.

Could he really gone from "can't play at all" to "100% healthy" in four days? Not likely. And if he's still hurt, there must be at least some risk of reinjury. With the season already a writeoff, why not pack it in now and focus on doing whatever it takes to get healthy for next year -- whether that means surgery, treatment, or just a few weeks of rest?

The decision to keep suiting up simply doesn't make any sense.


Unless Mats knows something we don't.

Maybe he doesn't care about being healthy for next year, because he knows there won't be one. If Mats has already decided to retire -- or is strongly leaning that way -- then it would make sense to keep playing. Maybe he suspects that this is his last week as an NHL player. Maybe he doesn't want to go out like Doug Gilmour, stuck on the injured list and watching from the press box.

Maybe not. Maybe he's just making a bad choice. It certainly wouldn't be the first time this year.

But things sure makes a lot more sense when you look at them this way, doesn't it?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Fade to black. Roll credits.

Have you ever watched a movie with a tacked on ending that doesn't work with the rest of the story? It feels wrong, like it was from a different film, and it ruins the whole experience.

And then sometimes you get the other side of the coin. The ending that just fits, that nails the tone of the story exactly. An entire storyline summarized in one perfect scene.

Last night was one of those perfect endings.

There's no better single scene you could choose to describe this Leafs season than Kessel's back-breaker goal: a younger, faster opponent breaking in to score, while a Leaf trails behind him, not skating hard, complaining to the officials.

That's what this team has become. They don't work hard. They don't skate. And they always find somebody else to blame.

It's a tribute to this team's core leadership that a young player like Kronwall can come up, play only a handful of games, and still know exactly how to handle the situation. His reaction was right about of the Bryan McCabe playbook.

(For his part McCabe, as PPP points out, was quick to play the injury card after the game. Stick to that script, Bryan. As always.)

So the good news is, the Leafs 2007/8 movie ended perfectly. The bad news is we'd already seen it -- twice, in fact. Damn sequels. And I hear that Peddie Productions are already working on another one.

After all, the critics hate them, but they make a killing at the box office.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How to fight when you don't want to fight

By now you've seen the bizarre footage of Patrick Roy's son "fighting" an opponent over the weekend. Jonathan Roy has been suspended seven games for his actions during the brawl, which saw him charge the length of the ice to decimate opposing goaltender Bobby Nadeau, who clearly wanted no part of the scrap.

Now clearly there is a time and place for walking away from a fight. In fact, it's generally a very good idea, especially if you have reason to believe you're going to lose. But even from a pacifist's point of view, Nadeau's performance was pathetic -- he made virtually no effort to defend himself, and wound up curled on the ice like a wounded puppy.

What's a self-respecting man supposed to do in this situation? It's hard to say. So as a public service, I've gone over various scenarios to come up with a list of possible responses. In order, from best-case to worst, here's a list of nine options to consider if you ever find yourself in Nadeau's position .

Best case scenario: Clearly communicate that you are a pacifist and would prefer a non-violent solution. If forced to fight, beat opponent to bloody pulp. Calmly leave like it was no big deal.

Examples: Felix Potvin vs. Ron Hextall. Youngblood vs. Racki. Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura. Mr. Miyagi vs. the guys dressed up as skeletons

If you can't do that, then: Accept invitation to fight despite overwhelming odds. Fight valiantly, eventually losing but sending the clear message that you won't be intimidated, thus winning a moral victory.

Examples: Spartans vs. Persians. Martin Biron vs. Ray Emery. Craig Coxe vs. Bob Probert. Zack Morris vs. A.C. Slater.

If you can't do that, then: Throw early sucker punch. Assume fighting stance a few feet from opponent. If opponent attempts to advance, slowly back away. Wave away anyone who tries to intervene. Continue backing away while looking like you really want to fight. Hope opponent will die of old age and/or Dave Manson will eventually save you.

Examples: Denis Savard vs. Gary Leeman. Every NBA fight ever.

If you can't do that, then: Try to look as tough as possible immediately before the fight. Once fight begins, throw a few punches early. Realize you are going to die. Make peace with your god.

Examples: Pretty much everyone who ever tried to fight Wendel Clark.

If you can't do that, then: Stand frozen like a deer caught in headlights. Once touched, immediately curl up into a ball on the floor. Make no attempt to fight back. Whimper girlishly. Watch highlights of self on youtube for rest of eternity.

Example: Bobby Nadeau vs. Jonathan Roy. Chris Neil vs. Chris Dingman. Me, if anyone I make fun of on this blog ever confronts me about it.

If you can't do that, then: Relax all muscles. Go completely limp. Cling to larger opponent. Cry loudly. Poop a little bit.

Examples: Roy vs. Montecore. Bryan McCabe vs. Zdeno Chara. My one-year-old daughter vs. the word "no".

If you can't do that, then: Run screaming to nearest exit. If no exit found, just flee in circles in hopes opponent will lose interest. Flail hands above head (optional).

Examples: The Owen Sound Platters vs. Jeff Kugel. Kazuhiko Daimon vs. Rod Allen.

If you can't do that, then: Defecate on ice. Fling poo at enemies to keep them away from you.

Examples: The monkey from Most Valuable Primate (director's cut edition only). Most Sean Avery fights.

If you can't do that, then: Stand still. Slump shoulders. Begin to cry.

Example: Oliver McCall vs. Lennox Lewis. Me vs. realization I am a Leafs fan.

I think that covers it. Did I miss any?

I see dead people

So it's over.

Well, that's not technically true. It's been over for a long time -- months, really. But now it's official.

Except it isn't, which is why the Leafs will continue to play Toskala every night and cut back on the kids' ice time and all the other things Maurice is doing because he knows he's going to be fired as soon as the season ends. They need another loss or two to be mathematically eliminated, and that could take a while because we know how well this team plays when the games don't mean anything.

Bryan McCabe, the "star" defenceman with the huge salary and no-movement clause, took a penalty last night for intentionally shooting the puck into the stands after a goal. Yes, it was a must-win game, and yes the Leafs could absolutely not afford to give up another powerplay. But McCabe is the master of the childish on-ice tantrum, and you have to let your players do what they do best.

Wouldn't it be great to see Maurice put McCabe in the pressbox for Thursday's game? You know, just to send a message about leadership and maturity and putting the team first. Maybe McCabe would get the hint. Or maybe he'd sulk and pout, which would be fine too -- if he gets mad enough, maybe he'll even stand up to his wife long enough to allow a trade out of town this summer.

It won't happen, of course. Maurice knows that it's much easier to talk tough about accountability without ever backing it up. But it's a nice thought.

1Yes, this suggestion is a classic Damien Cox #3. If you can't beat them, join them.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Maurice talks tough

In his post-game scrum tonight, Maurice was asked about the Leafs' effort against the high-scoring Sabres. He attributed it to having players who know that if they don't take care of their defensive responsibilities, "they won't play".

Strong words indeed, and it had the Sportsnet crew singing his praises.

Here's a question: has Maurice benched anyone besides Kyle Wellwood all season, for poor defensive play or any other reason? Even for a shift? Or is it just more empty talk from a team that seems to specialize in it?

There have been some truly awful efforts that went unpunished, but I can't think of anyone who was actually held accountable. Can you?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flukiest goal in NHL history?

If you were watching the game, then you know the goal I'm talking about. I probably replayed it a dozen times, and I still can't believe what I saw. I've been watching hockey a long time and can't ever remember seeing something like that before.

I mean, Kyle Wellwood driving hard to the net to score a clutch goal in the third period of a must-win game?

What are the odds of that, one-in-a-million?

The new math

Welcome to the NHL's new math, courtesy of the Bettman Era.

  • The Leafs play Ottawa on Saturday. Heading into the game, the Leafs are 3-2-1 against the Senators. If the Leafs manage a regulation loss and an overtime win in their next two against Ottawa, both teams will finish with a 4-3-1 record against each other. In other words, both teams will win the season series.

  • Speaking of Ottawa, the Senators are currently in fifth place, four points ahead of the Rangers (who have a game in hand). The Rangers have been hot lately and could easily catch Ottawa in the next week. That would be bad news for them, since the fifth place team gets to play the fourth seed and the sixth place team gets to play the third seed. In the East, it's quite possible that the fourth seed will be either Pittsburgh or New Jersey. The third seed will be either Carolina or Washington.

    In other words, there's a very good chance that this year's #4 seed will actually be the second best team in the conference points-wise, while the #3 seed could be the eighth (or even ninth) best. Moving "up" from the sixth seed to the fifth spot will probably mean a first round matchup with a team that's up to 10-15 points better.

  • As of today, 25 of the league's 30 teams are over .500. There's a realistic chance that as many as 28 or 29 teams could end the year over .500.
My head hurts.

A note to Gary Bettman: A league that desperately needs to regain its credibility isn't doing itself any favors by having standings that nobody can take seriously.

Please, NHL, wake up and fix this mess in time for next year.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The more things change

Lots of articles (blog posts too) today, singing the same tune: "The Leafs had a heck of a post-deadline run, but their playoff hopes are dead now."

Hold on.

The Leafs lost one point in the standings and one game off the schedule. That's all. Injuries aside, it wasn't a good day but it didn't change much at all.

When they woke up Saturday morning and wiped the sleepy-cats from their tired eyes, the Leafs needed two things to happen: a white hot finish to the season (along the lines of 15-18 points in their final ten games), combined with all of the teams ahead of them playing mediocre-to-poorly the rest of the way.

What changed, exactly?

The Leafs still need a miracle. It's a slightly larger miracle than they needed before, yes, but still a miracle.

If you were a believer before, you obviously put more stock in destiny and karma than you do in the standings. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it's part of what being a fan is all about. And if that's you, and you believed this team could do it yesterday despite all evidence to the contrary, then a one-point swing is no reason to stop believing.

And if you thought they were done weeks ago, then nothing has changed for you either. They're still done.

You know which side I'm on. Maybe you agree, maybe you don't. But your position shouldn't have changed since Friday.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wait, that wasn't in the script...

What did we learn tonight?

Well, if you're a Flyers fan, we learned that you should just stick your head in an oven now because this season is going to end two ways, "soon" and "badly". And if you're a Leafs fan, we learned that there's no point trying to figure this team out anymore.

So I'm done with the analysis. From this point on, I'm going to watch the rest of this Leafs season like it's a David Lynch movie. I'll enjoy the pretty pictures and cool soundtrack and just let go of the possibility that I'll ever have any chance at figuring out what's happening.

At this point, there's no storyline for the last few weeks that would surprise me.

  • A quick collapse that has them out of contention by the weekend? Not a surprise.

  • A short win streak that ends up doing nothing but delaying the inevitable and killing any chances at a decent pick? Not a surprise.

  • A miracle win streak to move all the way into a playoff spot, then a late choke job in the final few games to drop out again? With this group, definitely not a surprise.

  • A long winning streak that pushes them into the playoffs? Well, that would still be a surprise. In fact, as a wise man once said, it's impossible. Not going to happen.

You know. Unless it does.



Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A strong effort. A big win. But...

Full credit to the team for finding a way to pull it out tonight. It wasn't pretty, but for one night at least we got to watch hockey being played as if it meant something. If you sort of squinted and titled your head, it almost looked like a playoff game. And those are always fun to watch, even if you're cranky and miserable like me.

It won't be enough to get us anywhere near the playoffs, but it will buy us one more meaningful game. With this team, you take what you can get.

Good job, boys.

But while we're here...
If you want to just enjoy the win, skip the rest of this post. I won't mind. I won't even talk bad about you after you're gone. Click your back button now, and we'll see you again later in the week.

Still here? OK, good. I thought those puppies-and-sunshine losers would never leave.

If you get a chance, make sure to check the highlights for the replay of the third Philly goal -- Briere's tap-in off the two-one-one feed from Prospal. The play develops because Ian White gets caught up ice, leaving Prospal and Briere to break in on Colaiacovo. Jason Blake is trailing the play, trying to catch up with Briere who has a few strides on him.

Prospal holds the puck and waits out Colaiacovo, who goes into the pass-blocking slide. He doesn't cut off the whole passing lane, but he forces Prospal to hold onto the puck long enough that Briere has to slow down and Blake can catch him.

Except he doesn't, because Blake stops skating. Watch for the replay from behind the net -- you can clearly see Blake take one stride past the blueline and then glide the rest of way. He doesn't take a single stride until the puck is in the net. He gets close enough to meekly wave his stick at Briere as the pucks goes in, and that's it.

You're down 2-0 in a game that you absolutely must win. You're at home. You're outplaying the other team. You make $20 million. And with the season on the line, you can't be bothered to skate hard on the backcheck.

Blake didn't miss a shift the rest of the way, of course. If there's been a better example of what the current team is all about, I haven't seen it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

So now what?

Now that the pulse has stopped and we're two Flyer mudhole-stompings away from the official funeral, it's time to start thinking of the future.

No, not the long-term future. Thanks to Mats "I would do anything for love, but I won't do that" Sundin, we don't have one worth thinking about. Let's focus on the short-term. What should the Maple Leafs do over the next 12 games before they pack up their gear and head out for yet another early vacation?

I think it has to be a three-point plan. Here's what you do, and why you do it.

1. Play the kids.
I'd call this a no-brainer but that would be interpreted as a shot at Paul Maurice. So let's just say that conventional hockey wisdom is with me on this one.

The days of young players getting three or four minutes of icetime a night needs to end, right now. That doesn't mean you bench every veteran and let the kids run the show. But it does mean that you start grooming the youth for the roles they're expected to play next year and beyond.

That means that it's time to find out if Tlusty can play on a powerplay unit, whether Stralman can handle 22 minutes a game, and whether guys like Earl and Newbury can keep the energy level up for more than a shift or two per period.

Because it's time to figure out whay you've got in these kids. There may be some decent talent here, but I don't think any of the young players in Toronto are sure things. Some will turn into solid NHLers. Some won't. The sooner you start to sort them out, the better.

Whoever replaces Cliff Fletcher is going to want to know what these guys can do at the NHL level. Would you want to explain to Brian Burke -- er, I mean the mysterious future GM -- that you don't know who can do what because you were too busy boosting Jason Blake's powerplay time?

2. Play Raycroft
Not every game, and not even most games. But get Raycroft in there for at least three or four games the rest of the way. As a rule of thumb, start Toskala in games that have a critical impact on the other side's playoff chances, and split up the rest.

Ideally Raycroft will play well enough to increase his trade value from "zero" to "marginally above zero". Even if he doesn't, Toskala's groin could probably use some rest. And a third reason that not many people have talked about: Raycroft has earned it.

Yes, his play has been awful and I'll be the first in line to dance on his metaphorical grave when he's gone in the offseason, but say this for him: he's handled this situation with class from day one. As a hockey fan in Ottawa, I know that a backup goalie with a sour attitude can destroy the best of teams from the inside out.

Raycroft doesn't deserve any cheers for his play this year. But his willingness to take the high road entitles him to at least a round of polite applause, and a handful of chances to showcase whatever NHL skills he may have for his next employer.

3. Don't tank
You read that right.

Once you've taken care of the first two points, you continue to do everything else in your power to win. Expect the players to play hard when they're on the ice. Pull the goalie when you're down late. Fight right up until the final whistle.

Not because you owe it to the fans who "pay good money" to see you -- after all, most of the church-mice at the ACC have expensed their tickets long ago.

But playing hard sends the right message to the young players. This team has accepted losing with a shrug for too long. That's going to change next year, if Fletcher can be believed, so you might as well start ramping up the intensity now.

And besides, playing hard is just the right thing to do. Karma counts for something.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Are the Leafs the softest team in the NHL?

I've been thinking about this topic for a few days, but after watching Ponikarovsky get pummeled tonight while his teammates stood around pretending not to notice, I think it's now a legitimate question: are the Leafs the softest team in the entire NHL right now?

A quick check over a shows that the Leafs have had only 21 fighting majors this year, ranking 28th out of 30 teams.

It gets worse. That pathetic number is actually grossly inflated as far as the current lineup goes, since the players responsible for most of those fights are no longer with the team. Between the trades of Belak (six) and Gill (two), the injury to Bell (four) and the demotions of Battaglia and Ondrus (one each), the current Leafs lineup has only managed seven fighting majors on the year.

I'll pause here so you can read that last sentence again.

It gets worse. Those seven fights have come from Darcy Tucker, Kris Newbury, Matt Stajan and Bryan McCabe. So the only players in the lineup tonight to have dropped their gloves all year are two guys who are 5'10 on their tippy toes, one guy who had never fought before in his life, and a guy who can't remember which net to shoot at in overtime.

Of course, fighting isn't the only measure of team toughness (although it's a pretty good one, right Ducks fans?). But in the case of the Leafs, I don't think the fighting totals are some sort of aberration or fluke. This is just an easy team to play against these days, almost ridiculously easy to push around and completely incapable of even the slightest intimidation.

This isn't a new development -- remember last year's pathetic display in New Jersey, as the entire team watched their best player get scraped off the ice after a dirty hit from a no-talent thug and did exactly nothing about it? This team was soft at the start of the year, and the recent moves have only made the situation worse.

It wasn't always this way. Ever since the excellent Kordic for Courtnall deal, the Leafs have ranged from adequately tough to downright nasty for almost two decades, culminating in the 2002-4 era squad that would occasionally jump into opponent's benches or try to kick guys in the head during fights. Or, as we call it in Toronto, "the glory years".

Am I overstating the case? I don't think so, but I wanted to be fair about it. So let's take a look at the current squad, player by player. And there's only one fair way to do that -- with a completely arbitrary Toughness Scale™ that I just invented right now.

Level 1 - That guy looked at me funny, I better shut it down for the rest of the game just in case.

Tomas Kaberle - Probably the only Leaf on Level 1 who has the talent to justify it.

Johnny Pohl - Not likely to stick with the team after this year, but based on his name he could have a promising career in porn.

Anton Stralman - The rookie may still be finding his comfort zone, but so far he hasn’t shown much in this department.

Jiri Tlusty - Certainly has potential, but so far has been disappointingly soft. Was that a naked photo joke? You be the judge.

Kyle Wellwood - I’m flattering him with this ranking.

Ian White - That’s three of our six defencemen at level one, for those keeping track. I can’t imagine why this team doesn’t play well in its own zone.

Level 2 - All things considered I’d really rather stay here on the perimeter, thanks

Jason Blake - Wasn’t he supposed to be an “agitator”? Was that supposed to refer to the other team, or just Leaf fans?

Boyd Devereaux - Pro: He’s on the checking line. Con: May have the wimpiest name in Leaf history.

Dominic Moore - I haven’t seen much of him, to be honest. But he plays on the checking line, so he must have some sandpaper. Also gets extra room because players are afraid that if they hit him, he’ll get the family lawyer to sue them for millions.

Matt Stajan - This may be stretching it. But at least he was the one Leaf who looked mad during the 8-0 Panther game, so that’s something.

Alexander Steen - Much like his offensive contributions, the gritty side of his game shows up about once every two weeks and then goes back into hibernation. Still, anyone who can stagger Chara with a hit gets to stay clear of level one.

Jeremy Williams - To be honest, I couldn’t tell you how tough he is because Maurice only gives him ice time during Wellwood’s gravy-chug breaks.

Level 3 - Not looking to start anything, but won’t run and hide

Nik Antropov - He’s big, and just a little bit crazy. Almost never fights and is disturbingly injury prone, but he gets points for being just about the only player on the entire team who seems to be aware that the NHL got rid of the “in the crease” rule.

Carlo Colaiacovo - Is one of the league’s under-rated open ice hitters. Several times a year he’ll spot someone with their head down, launch himself at them, lay them out, and then spend a month of the injured list recovering. That still gives him enough time to land six or seven hits a year, which has him vying for the team lead.

Pavel Kubina - Not a fighter, but has an occasional mean streak that will serve him well in Columbus or Edmonton or whatever level of hell Fletcher can dispatch him to.

Bryan McCabe - Total NHL fights before signing $28M contract - 58. Total fights after signing $28M contract - 2. Just sayin'.

Alex Ponikarovsky - I’m probably overrating him, but he does seem to have a touch of that Danny Markov-style "could snap at any time" edge to him. Don’t forget, this guy once went toe-to-toe with Rob Ray. Yes, he lost the fight, ending the Leafs 14-year streak of victories over Rob Ray, but he still gets some points from this corner.

Mats Sundin - He doesn’t change his game one bit when the going gets tough. He’s probably a little soft for someone his size, but reasonably tough for someone of his skill level. Rumor is he’d like to fight, but his gloves stubbornly refuse to waive their no-drop clause.

Level 4 - Not afraid to go looking for trouble

Mark Bell - Prior to his injury, showed that he was definitely willing to get his nose dirty – usually with his own blood and fragments of his orbital bone. May be pound-for-pound the worst fighter in the league not named Hal Gill, but at least he looked interested when the temperature went up.

Kris Newbury - He’s ready and willing. The jury is still out on the “able” part, though. I like this kid, but let’s put it this way–you’re never going to see a game where the opponent's tough guy throws a few big hits, and the camera pans dramatically over to Kris Newbury snarling on the bench.

Darcy Tucker - He seems to have permanently buried the Sideshow Bob persona, but will still throw his weight around. Unfortunately, that ends up being about 165 lbs. Will still drop the mitts, though, even when he knows he’s taking one for the team. At least a 20% chance he snaps this year, tries to fight a legitmate heavyweight and is killed, which will have interesting salary cap implications.

Level 5 - Genuinely intimidating


(Crickets chirping)

(Tumblewed blows by.)

So what do you think? Have I been too harsh? Too easy on them? Is this in fact the softest team in the entire NHL?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I'm sorry, you have the wrong number

Actually, we all do. Or at least most of us, including the media experts, when it comes to the Leafs playoff chances.

How many news reports or blog posts did you see today that mentioned that the Leafs were six points out of a playoff spot?

It's the wrong number.

Six is doable. Six is possible. Six is just a solid winning streak away. Six happens all the time. But six is meaningless.

It's the number "four" that matters. As in, "four teams Toronto needs to pass in the standings"1. To get the eighth and final spot, the Leafs would need to pass the Flyers, Sabres, Islanders and whichever one of the Capitals or Hurricanes doesn't win the division. Not one of those teams, or most of them. Every single one.

And I'm sorry, but you can't pass four teams in 14 games. Not when they're all playing each other, and especially not when some of those games will turn out to be three-pointers. Not without a near-perfect finish, and this team just isn't capable of that. And even 12-2 or 13-1 won't be enough if even one of those teams gets hot at the same time.

It can't be done, folks. It's over. Let it go.

1Technically they need to pass the Panthers too, since they're tied, which would make the number five. But I don't want to depress the nice folks at PPP any more than I already do.

Monday, March 3, 2008

With friends like these...

John Ferguson Jr. could have helped this franchise by scrapping last year's lineup and starting a rebuilding project. But he didn't, because it was more important for him to stay the course and hope for a contract extension.

Richard Peddie could have helped this franchise by bringing in Scotty Bowman last summer. But he didn't, because it was more important for him to protect his political turf.

Mats Sundin could have helped this franchise by accepting a trade to a contender. But he didn't, because it was more important for him to stay in his personal comfort zone.

McCabe, Tucker and the rest of the no-trade brigade could have helped this franchise by exiting gracefully when it was clear they weren't wanted. But they didn't, because it was more important for them to keep their wives happy.

Paul Maurice could help this franchise by giving the kids some ice time and not playing Toskala until his groin snaps. But he won't, because it's more important for him to use the next month to audition for his next coaching job.

Which begs the question... is there anybody cashing a paycheck from this team that actually cares whether it ever wins a thing?

And if they don't care, remind me again why we should?