Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why doesn't the NHL have a playoff tie-breaker?

The big story in sports tonight was baseball's one-game playoff to determine the winner of the AL Central. The White Sox won a 1-0 nail-biter over the Twins thanks to great pitching and a late home run by, not surprisingly, Luke Schenn.

Here's a question: why doesn't hockey have one-game tie-breakers to settle ties for the last playoff spot?

Currently, the tie-breaker is totals wins. That's not a terrible way to break a tie, since it's the only small acknowledgment the league makes that three-point games and points for losing in overtime are stupid ideas that most fans hate.

But wouldn't it be exciting to see two teams, tied for eight place at the end of the year, play a winner-take-all game? Think you might get some ratings for that matchup?

It wouldn't be a completely simple idea; sometimes multiple teams tie for the last spot, and you could also have a scenario where three or more teams tied for two playoff spots. But all of these cases could be accounted for, perhaps by using the total wins tie-breaker to narrow down to two eighth-place teams first.

Now I realize that Gary Bettman, in his infinite wisdom, has decreed that there must be a five-day break between the end of the season and the start of the playoffs, in order to allow for all the momentum and excitement to completely disappear. But surely we could somehow find a way to squeeze an extra game or two into that gap.

Just a thought.




Monday, September 29, 2008

Introducing Maple Leaf Media Cliche Bingo!

With training camp in full swing and the new season almost upon us, the usual Maple Leaf media suspects are back in action.

Yes, it's time for yet another season of fan-bashing, well-worn cliches, recycled one-liners and decade-old material that will make Leaf fans want to slam their heads with a car door.

But as long-time readers know, I've always been one of those positive, ray-of-sunshine types. So this year I decided to make reading about the Leafs fun again.

Down Goes Brown is pleased to announce Maple Leafs Media Cliche Bingo.


How to play: Print out a few copies of the card. Feel free to distribute to friends, re-post on other sites, staple to downtown sign posts, etc. But please do not find high-traffic newspaper boxes and insert the cards into the sports section of major Toronto dailies. That would be wrong.

Once you have your card, simply read your favorite Leafs beat writer or columnist and cross off the squares as you go. Once you've made a bingo, celebrate by calling the writer's voicemail and yelling "Nice work, you unoriginal cliche-spewing hack!"

Which writer will be the first to score a bingo? How long will it take? Will anyone fill their entire card over the course of the season? Will Berger and Cox wage a Brady/Manning-like rivalry all year long? And will anyone manage the holy grail: Getting a bingo with one single article?

See? You're excited about the season already, aren't you?




Thursday, September 25, 2008

Larry Tanenbaum really has no idea, does he?

Leafs co-owner Larry Tanenbaum was asked an interesting hypothetical question today: would you take a guaranteed Stanley Cup win right now if you knew it meant five years of losing immediately after?

As a practical matter it's a meaningless question, of course, since there's absolutely no way to ever guaranatee any result, least of all a Stanley Cup.

But it's still an interesting thought experiment. And of course, Tanenbaum proceeded to give an answer that was absolutely and inarguably wrong.
"If you asked us if you were to pay for a Stanley Cup team this year, but you were to be lousy for the next five years, would you do it? The answer from the ownership point of view, absolutely not. "
No, no, no! Wrong!

The Stanley Cup is the goal. From a big picture standpoint, it's the only goal. Period.

Not consistency. Not winning seasons. Not playoff wins. Not even, despite what the anti-Leafs media types have apparently decided in recent years, Finals appearances.

It's about the Cup. The rest is just noise.

"It would be an interesting survey. If someone would say we could win a Stanley Cup one year and go from first to worst and stay worst for a long period of time, would they actually take that?"
Yes, of course we would, and if you actually need that explained to you then you're even worse at this than we thought you were.

Let's look at it this way: The Leafs were very good, a realistic Stanley Cup contender, every season from 1998-2004. That's six years, including seven playoff rounds won and two trips to the conference finals, but no Cup.

If you had the chance to trade all that success for one Stanley Cup and fives years of misery, would you take it? Imagine the Leafs were really bad during that stretch, except for one year when it all came together and they won the Cup. We had a parade. They all got rings. There's a big banner that hangs form the rafters at the ACC every night.

Is anyone even having to think about this?

Ask a Senator fan if they'd trade all their President's Trophies and regular season success for one single Cup. Ask a Ranger fan if they'd like to trade that 1994 Cup (followed shortly after by almost a decade of missing the playoffs) for some consistent success.

Do these ownership types have any idea what it means to be a fan? A single clue? At all?

Again, none of this means that teams should blow their brains out to load up for a playoff run every year. That's usually a bad a strategy, and the Leafs are absolutely right to be focusing on a long rebuild right now.

But they're right to rebuild because that's the best way to win a Cup. Not the best way to be consistent or have long-term success. To win a Cup.

If Leaf ownership really can't understand that, even hypothetically, then we may be in even worse shape than we thought.




Monday, September 22, 2008

If it's in the game, it's... wait, WTF?

By now you've no doubt seen the ad for NHL 09 that features "Lauren", the nhl.com blogger (and apparent Leaf fan) who waxes poetic about the drama and the stories, while an orchestra plays in the background.

It's a decent ad, and it does a good job of showcasing the new game. You can watch it here:



Yes, clearly EA Sport's latest offering is one of the most realistic portrayals of hockey that you'll find, with even the smallest detail given such profound attention that...

Wait, WTF? Did you see what I just saw? Can we rewind that clip to the 0:05 mark? Lauren, get your head out of the way.

Who is that throwing the crushing, highlight reel body check? Can we get a freeze-frame?



Canucks jersey... wearing #42... kind of small... last name kind of looks like W, E, L...

Is that KYLE WELLWOOD?

So let me get this straight. EA Sports spends one year, and millions of dollars, developing the latest version of its hockey flagship. And then some advertising genius decides that the best way to illustrate the game's much-touted realism is to film a TV ad that features Kyle Wellwood throwing a monster body check?

Kyle Wellwood, who is 5'2, weighs 300 lbs and spends his off-season playing the role of Pablo on The Backyardigans? That guy?

Kyle Wellwood, who has never physically attacked anything that wasn't made out of frosting? That's the player you chose?

Kyle Wellwood, who tucks half of his beer gut into the side of his hockey pants like it's Wayne Gretzky's jersey? That's your poster boy?

How did this get approved for air? If I'm playing NHL 09 and I see Wellwood hit anything other than a buffet table, I'm taking the game back to the store and demanding my money back.

I eagerly await future EA Sports ads, featuring Andrew Raycroft making a glove save, Bryan McCabe making a clearing pass, and Mats Sundin making up his damn mind.




Sunday, September 21, 2008

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part three

In part one, we took a look at the miserable Ballard years. In part two, we looked at the mostly positive Fletcher and Quinn eras.

In the final installment of our series, we look at recent seasons to try to once and for all answer the question: is this the worst it's ever been?


2004-05

Welcome to the John Ferguson Jr. era.
The good: John Ferguson Jr. doesn't make any terrible in-season moves. The Leafs don't blow any third-period leads, never back down from a single fight, and finish tied for first overall.

The bad: There is no hockey thanks to the lockout.

When the owners and players finally sign a new CBA in summer 2005, the league signals the new era by introducing rules that will favor smaller, speedier teams. Ferguson responds by signing a bunch of big, slow free agents like Jason Allison and Eric Lindros. He also chooses not to buy out any veterans, signalling his keen understanding of the importance of cap management.

How bad was it? 80/100. We thought a full year without the Leafs was as bad as it could possibly get. Boy, were we wrong.


2005-06

The good: The Leafs take a step back, but still manage 90 points under Pat Quinn. Bryan McCabe has a career year, scoring 68 points and making the Canadian Olympic team. A handful of younger players like Kyle Wellwood and Alex Steen show promise. Tomas Kaberle plays well, then signs a very reasonable contract extension.

The bad: The Leafs narrowly miss the playoffs. Ed Belfour doesn't look very sharp, and is bought out at the end of the year. Allison is just OK, Lindros is hurt, and the veteran Leafs look slow and out-classed in the new NHL. Ferguson offers McCabe a huge five-year contract that introduces the phrase "no-movement" to NHL fans. McCabe actually waits for weeks to sign the offer, showing that his decision making is just as solid off the ice as it is on.

Ferguson also fires Quinn, replacing him with teenaged prodigy Paul Maurice. At the 2006 draft, Ferguson deals top prospect Tuuka Rask to the Bruins for Andrew Raycroft, a former Calder winner who has just had an awful season.

How bad was it? 80/100. Well, at least hockey is back. And the Leafs will be too, soon enough. Right?


2006-07

Captured on film:
Paul Maurice's defensive system.
The good: The Leafs fight hard for a playoff spot, leading up to a thrilling final-game showdown with the Habs. They win a comeback thriller, only to be eliminated the next day when the Scott Clemmensen and the Devils lay down for the Islanders.

The bad: Raycroft is inconsistent -- bad some nights, awful on others. Paul Maurice doesn't seem to have any sort of system, other than cracking one-liners for the adoring media. Despite clearly not being a contender, the Leafs bring in Yanic Perrault at the deadline for a prospect and high draft pick. (Fun fact: Perrault's grandfather was drafted by the Leafs in 1991.)

Sensing the team is weak in the critical "wasted shots" category, Ferguson signs Jason Blake to a contract that will last until the end of time. When Ferguson asks him if it's true that he's a locker room cancer, Blake shakes his head and laughs before adding "Wait, you did say 'locker room', right?"

How bad was it? 90/100. At this point it's becoming clear that Ferguson is a moron, the team isn't going anywhere, and there's really no reason for optimism. Or as we call it now, "the good times".


2007-08

The good: You must be new here.

The bad: How much time have we got? OK, let's try to be brief... The Leafs are terrible. They don't play a system, they score into their own net, they let in 180-foot goals, the blow third-period leads every week, and they're the softest team in the NHL.

With the entire city begging for the team to be taken out behind a barn and shot, the team's five veteran leaders refuse to waive their no-trade clauses at the deadline because their wives really enjoy shoe-shopping at the Eaton Centre. Fans wear paper bags to the games. Paul Maurice stands behind the bench with his arms crossed wondering what the "T.O" on the scoreboard stands for.

Ferguson is finally fired, although not before Richard Peddie humiliates both of them my calling his hiring a "mistake" while he still works there. Cliff Fletcher is re-hired on an interim basis and has to sit there while Peddie mouths his words along with him at the press conference. The team forms a much-publicized search committee for a new GM, who end up not hiring anybody.

In the off-season, Mats Sundin backtracks on all that "I want to be a Leaf forever" nonsense. The fake fishing trip that he uses every off-season to avoid the media stretches into its fourth month before he finally re-emerges to shill for a gambling web site. McCabe reluctantly agrees to waive his no-trade clause after Fletcher breaks into his kitchen and boils his children's puppy, but only if the Leafs absolutely promise not to get anything good for him.

The Leafs prepare to enter the 2008-09 season with a roster that will feature 15 defencemen and four forwards. Somewhere in Finland, Vesa Toskala is on 24-hour suicide watch.

How bad was it? 95/100. We have a winner.

So there you have it... Yes, last year was the worst it's ever been. You are currently living in the worst days of Leaf Nation. Lucky you.

But wait... what about next year? Luckily I've obtained an advanced copy of next season's Year in Review DVD.

Spoiler Alert: Don't read any further if you want to be surprised.


2008-09

Closing your eyes won't help, Vesa.
You'll still be able to smell everything.
The good: Kaberle plays well, and Toskala steals several games. Ron Wilson installs a defensive system that cuts down on the turnovers and mistakes. For the first time in years, young players are given decent ice-time and a shot at special teams.

The bad: The Leafs flirt with last place overall for most of the year. Mikhail Grabovski is a bust, Alex Steen doesn't emerge, and Nikolai Kulemin struggles as a rookie. Leaf fans sing the national anthem at the home opener, then immediately turn on Jeff Finger. Meanwhile, Marlies coach Greg Gilbert successfully destroys whatever is left of Justin Pogge's confidence by making him wear a frilly pink dress as he sits at the end of the bench of every night, then goes to work on ruining Luke Schenn too.

With a half dozen teams driving up the bidding for him, Toskala tweaks his hamstring days before the trade deadline and Fletcher can't deal him. Meanwhile, Kaberle decides not to waive his NTC and the Leafs fail to land any decent picks or prospects for the second year in a row. Days after the deadline, Mats Sundin comes out of retirement to sign with a first place team. He puts his new poker skills to work by telling the media with a straight face that winning a Stanley Cup has always been his top priority.

Bryan McCabe scores 20 goals for the Panthers, leading to 800 identical articles about how the Leafs should have never traded him written by the same reporters who spent the last two years trying to run him out of town. Kyle Wellwood scores 70 points with the Canucks, Darcy Tucker pots 30 goals for the Avs, and Andrew Raycroft learns that you're legally allowed to raise your glove hand to stop a shot.

The Leafs find themselves firmly entrenched in last place overall heading into the final month, then reel off eight straight wins at the end of the year to move up to second-last. A team in a crappy US market that nobody cares about wins the draft lottery, bumping the Leafs down to the third overall pick in a draft with two franchise players. Days before the end of the season, Brian Burke signs an extension with the Mighty Ducks. Richard Peddie is rumored to be seriously considering naming himself general manager before mysteriously disappearing after accepting an interview invitation with an Ottawa-based hockey blogger.

How bad was it? 100/100. But try to act surprised.




Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ottawa Sun: Everybody hates the Leafs because I say so

The "Is this the worst it's ever been" series will conclude on Monday. In the meantime, I couldn't resist posting this latest piece of Ottawa Sun goodness.

Here's a story by media critic Crash Cameron from Friday's paper, in which he trots out the old argument (much beloved in Ottawa) that the CBC should show fewer Leaf games.

Unfortunately too many broadcast decision-makers don't understand that, while the numbers can look good on paper, there's a widespread, well-entrenched hate on in our hockey nation for the Maple Leafs.
Yeah, those dumb broadcast decision-makers, so caught up in "the numbers". Always trying measure things like ratings with objective, indisputable statistics and data. What a bunch of eggheads!

I mean sure, the numbers might seem to show that the Leafs are the most popular team to watch in the country, which would make it moronic for the CBC to stop showing them. But that's only if you look at the numbers "on paper". If you crumple that paper into a little ball and throw it into your wastebasket, what do those numbers say now? Not much!

Luckily, Crash Cameron is here to set everyone straight. People hate the Leafs. And not even in the good way.
But it's not like, say, a hate for the New York Yankees where people will tune in to watch the Boston Red Sox lay a smack on A-Rod's Evil Empire. Or to see the Florida Marlins or Arizona Diamondbacks or any team beat them in the World Series.
Cameron then goes on to cite several studies that back up his theory that everyone hates the Leafs and nobody wants to watch them.

Ha ha! Just kidding. He just states his opinion as fact, and hurries on to the next paragraph.
With the Leafs, it's as much tune out as tune in. For too long (with the brief exceptions of the Sittler-Salming and the Dougie Gilmour "What a guy, I tell ya" eras) the Leafs have been a dull, hopeless hockey team, an over-ripe product that has been forced down our throats.
So bad news, Leaf fans. Those six straight years from 1998-2004 under Pat Quinn when the Leafs averaged 98 points a season? Never happened.

Which is odd, because I could swear the Leafs won a lot of playoff rounds during that time. Many of them were even against the same team. I'll have to look that up some day...

So, Crash, now that you're done making your air-tight case that CBC should dump the Leafs because everyone hates them, would you like to completely contradict your own argument in the very next paragraph?
Speaking of teams you love to hate: The Dallas Cowboys are back... Love-plus-hate added up to 12.95 million American homes and 18.6 million viewers for the Cowboys-Eagles Monday Night Football tilt. And since MNF is now on ESPN, that, by default, makes it the largest audience ever for a program on a cable network.
Sure, sure, record-breaking numbers... on paper.




Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part two

In part one, we took a look at the Ballard years. This time around, we move into the Cliff Fletcher and Pat Quinn eras.

1992-93

Shanahan avoids eye contact,
lest he get "hextalled".
The good: Pat Burns arrives and immediately teaches the team a groundbreaking technique call "playing defence". Doug Gilmour scores 127 points, a new Leafs record. Overage Russian rookie Nikolai Borschevsky scores 34 goals. Rookie goalie Felix Potvin shines, allowing the Leafs to deal Grant Fuhr to the Sabres for a package that includes 50-goal man Dave Andreychuk.

The Leafs manage 99 points, then shock the hockey world with a 21-game playoff run that features Potvin's brilliance, the greatest five-man defensive unit of all time, the Foligno Leap, Borschevsky's OT winner againt the Wings, Gilmour's double-spinarama against the Blues, and Wendel's heroics against the Kings.

Toronto-based jails and hospitals are empty since there is no longer any crime or illness in the city. Flowers bloom during winter time. Racism ends.

The bad: Kery Fraser chokes on the biggest call of his career, then lies about it. The NHL responds to the scandal by cancelling the rest of the playoffs, so no Stanley Cup is awarded in 1993. Meanwhile, a young John Ferguson Jr. ends his minor hockey career as an utter failure, and decides to maybe give the management side of things a shot.

How bad was it? 10/100. Short of a Stanley Cup win, this was as good as it can possibly get.


1993-94

The good: The Leafs start the year 10-0, establishing a new record for best start to a season and briefly establishing the team as consensus Stanley Cup favorite for the first (and only) time in a generation. Wendel has the best year of his career despite playing with one knuckle still embedded in Marty McSorely's eyeball. Gilmour is brilliant again, and Andreychuk scores another 50. Another long playoff run is highlighted by the Leafs shutting the doors on Chicago Stadium, leading to a second straight appearance in the conference finals.

The bad: The Leafs bow out sort of meekly against a Canuck team they should have beaten. Gary Bettman changes the names of the divisions to something more American-friendly, and hockey starts getting worse every year. Despite millions of prayers, Kerry Fraser is not diagnosed with cancer of the AIDS.

How bad was it? 20/100. This season was sort of like 1992-93's not-quite-as-cool younger brother. Leaf fans are finally starting to think that their suffering is at and end and long-term success is near.


1994-95

The good: At the 1994 draft, the Leafs acquire Mats Sundin from the Nordiques in exchange for Wendel Clark.

The bad: At the 1994 draft, the Leafs acquire Mats Sundin from the Nordiques in exchange for Wendel Clark.

Also, half the season is wiped out by the lockout, Doug Gilmour manages fewer points than Mike Ridley, and the Leafs lose in the first round of the playoffs. The Devils win the Cup, proving that incredibly dull defense can win out over talent. Gary Bettman can't see any problem with this.

How bad was it? 40/100. Clearly just a temporary bump in the road, probably due to the lockout. We'll be contending again next year.


1995-96

The good: Wendel Clark returns (part one), and scores on one of his first shifts back in maybe the last truly great Gardens moment. Sundin has another good year on an otherwise veteran squad. The Leafs bring in a bunch of veteran stars like Larry Murphy, Kirk Muller and Dave Gagner and have a great team on paper. Felix is still pretty solid. The always under-rated Dmitry Yushkevich is acquired, and Tie Domi returns to Toronto at the trade deadline.

The bad: After three years, the team starts to tune out Burns and he's eventually fired late in the season. Nick Beverely takes over as coach and infamously calls the team "nimrods". Andreychuk is traded. The Leafs slump through the second half, finish under .500, and lose in the first round of the playoffs to Wayne Gretzky and the Blues.

How bad was it? 60/100. What the hell is going on? We'd better do some serious damage in the playoffs next year.


1996-97

Kirk Muller cuts in front of Chris Chelios,
who was too old to skate 12 years ago.
The good: Clark scores 30 goals, even though everyone will later claim he wasn't any good in his second stint with the Leafs. Sundin is great again, and rookie Sergei Berezin is strangely intriguing.

The bad: New coach Mike Murphy crashes and burns. The Leafs miss the playoffs, then watch the Islanders use their first round pick on Roberto Luongo. Larry Murphy is terrible, and the fans turn on him. Felix is starting to struggle. Doug Gilmour is traded to the Devils at the deadline in a deal that lands the Leafs three good young players but officially ends the "Passion Returns" era. Fletcher leaves the team at the end of the season.

How bad was it? 80/100. Oh god, no... it's all happening again!

1997-98

The good: Absolutely nothing. Oh god this team is so bad I am so depressed won't somebody help me...

The bad: Other than Sundin and Clark, the Leafs prominently feature players like Derek King, Mike Johnson and Igor Korolev. Felix Potvin is officially bad. Nobody else from the 1992-93 run is even on the team anymore except for Jamie Macoun, playing the role of Dizzy Reed. At the end of the season the Leafs move out of the Norris (cough, Central) division.

How bad was it? 90/100. The '93 and '94 runs seem like a lifetime ago. It becomes clear that the Leafs will never ever make it to the conference finals again.


1998-99

No seriously, I'm fine back here.
All five of you guys go play offense.
The good: The Leafs make it to the conference finals again! Pat Quinn and Curtis Joseph arrive and combine to instantly transform the team back into contenders. Sundin is solid, Steve Thomas is great, Berezin is flying, young guys like Steve Sullivan and Freddy Modin are contributing, and the Leafs somehow lead the league in scoring by a mile.

Even better, the blueline is young and talented as Tomas Kaberle debuts, Danny Markov plays his first full year, and Bryan Berard is acquired mid-season. The Leafs shock everyone with 97 points, then beat the Flyers and Penguins to advance to the final four.

The bad: Somehow, the Leafs manage to lose to the Sabres in the conference finals even though Hasek is hurt for half of the series. The team also moves out of Maple Leaf Gardens and into the corporate mausoleum known as the ACC.

How bad was it? 30/100. It wasn't quite the Gilmour/Clark squad, but this was a heck of a fun team to watch.


1999-2000

The good: The Leafs are even better this year, recording 100 points for the first time in franchise history. Joseph is awesome once again, Darcy Tucker appears on the scene, and Jonas Hoglund arrives and plays for the Leafs until 2003 but still apparently manages to be Mats Sundin's linemate for 14 straight years. And most important of all, Wendel returns (part two) and proves to be a post-season inspiration.

The Leafs beat the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs, which is sort of sad since they're a Canadian team and their fans are kind of cool.

The bad: Bryan Berard has his eye carved out by Marion Hossa during a horrifying play that I am imagining because it never, ever happened according to the Ottawa media. The Leafs lose a tough second-round series to the eventual Cup-winning Devils.

How bad was it? 30/100. The Leafs were winning, and had a semi-young core. Times are good.


2000-01

The good: Gary Roberts arrives and immediately grabs the town by the throat. The Leafs trade Alexander Karpovtsev, who is a bad player right now, for Bryan McCabe, who won't be a bad player for four more years. The Leafs are a tough, veteran squad that doesn't take any crap. They sweep the Senators and their fans out of the first round, which is fine since those guys are getting kind of lippy.

The bad: The Leafs lose a seven-game heartbreaker to the Devils. The series is remembered for Tie Domi's horrifying elbow to the head of Scott Niedermayer, which injures the Devils' star so badly that doctors take his pulse on the ice and he is feared dead right up until he's out of camera view and immediately pops up and starts making cell phone calls.

How bad was it? 40/100. They're not getting any closer to the Cup, but at least the Leafs are contenders every year.


2001-02

The good: Ho-hum, another 100 points, and this time combined with another trip to the conference finals. Alexander Mogilny becomes the latest free agent star to sign in Toronto, and the team continues to pound opponents into submission.

Despite a growing injured list, the Leafs beat the Islanders in a seven-game series that may have been the most vicious of the modern era. They then pull off a shocking comeback to eliminate the Senators again, providing those whining crybabies with yet another playoff loss to choke on.

The bad: Everyone finally gets healthy early in the third round, just in time to lose to the vastly inferior Carolina Hurricanes, which not only eliminates the Leafs but also convinces the world that Paul Maurice knows how to coach. Curtis Joseph bails in the off-season to sign with Detroit. That little sellout, see if we ever forgive him.

How bad was it? 30/100. Oh well, we'll get 'em next year.


2002-03

The good: Ed Belfour replaces Joseph and is just as good, if not better, as the Leafs manage another strong year with 98 points. Alexander Mogilny tops the team in scoring, marking the only time Sundin doesn't. Sports Illustrated calls the Leafs the most hated team in hockey, which some people would consider a negative but I thought was pretty cool.

The bad: Quinn makes a disastrous deadline deal for Owen Nolan, who doesn't contribute much during his time in Toronto beyond his awesome "boo-hoo" reply to the Sens after the Flu Game. Quinn's other big deadline move is to re-acquire Doug Gilmour, who plays one period before suffering a career-ending knee injury. The Leafs lose a first-round playoff matchup for the first time in seven years, bowing out to the Flyers largely thanks to a series of meltdowns by Bryan McCabe.

Late in the off-season, Richard Peddie hires fresh-faced go-getter John Ferguson Jr. as general manager, presumably after losing a bet.

How bad was it? 50/100. Hey, remember when losing in the first round was considered a bad thing, and not a best-case scenario?


2003-04

I double-checked the math. It turns out
"four" is still a lot more than "zero".
The good: Sundin is great, McCabe has a career year, Joe Nieuwendyk joins the fold, and Ed Belfour is spectacular again. On their way to a team record 103-point season, the Leafs gear up for a long playoff run by adding future Hall of Famers Ron Francis and Brian Leetch at the deadline. The Leafs open the playoffs with a seven-game win over the pathetic Senators, whose cheap-shotting players and thumb-dicked fans can all go choke on demon chymus in hell.

The bad: The Leafs lose to the Flyers in round two when Jeremy Roenick's overtime winner sets off a massive celebration that's briefly interupted by the funeral of Sami Kapanen.

How bad was it? 40/100. This was arguably the best Leafs team of the post-expansion era, which made their second-round exit all that much tougher to take.

Coming up next: In our final installment, we look at the JFJ era and beyond...




Sunday, September 14, 2008

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part one.

John Ferguson. The Mats Sundin saga. Paul Maurice. Bryan McCabe. Jeff Finger. Rask-for-Raycroft.

If you're a die-hard Leafs fan, these have been dark days. It's bad right now. No doubt. But how bad? Have we ever been down to these depths before?

I'm not sure. So this week, I'm going to take a look back over Toronto Maple Leafs history and try to answer the question: Is this the worst it's ever been?

As always on Down Goes Brown, "Leafs History" is defined as beginning when I was old enough to be a fan. That takes us back to the early 80s, and that's where our three-part series begins.


1983-84

This picture is all kinds of awesome.
The good: Rick Vaive scores 50 goals for the third straight year. Bill Derlago chips in 40, which is neat since as a kid I always liked him because I thought his name was "Builder Lego". Tough guy "Razzle" Basil McRae was briefly on the team. Gary Leeman debuts, which ends up being important eight years later.

The bad: The team misses the playoffs for the second time in three years, following a streak of eight straight appearances. The team used five goalies, including teenaged rookies Allan Bester and Ken Wregget, and the departing Mike Palmateer. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 80/100. The team is terrible, Ballard is a menace, and fans were starting to lose hope. Rightfully so, as it turned out.


1984-85

The good: Al Iafrate debuts, and immediately begins going bald. A rookie named Steve Thomas arrives, and proceeds to play for the Leafs off and on for the next 30 years. They use the first overall draft pick to choose some farmboy defenceman from Saskatchewan who turns out to be pretty good.

The bad: The team was a laughingstock, managing only 48 points and finishing last overall. They scored 253 goals which would be good today but was awful back then. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 90/100. This was in the "fans wear paper bags" days.


1985-86

The good: The Leafs make the playoffs thanks to a pathetic 40-point season by the Red Wings and even manage to win a round by upsetting the Blackhawks. Wendel debuts, leading the squad with a team rookie record 34 goals and killing and eating every tough guy in the Norris. The Leafs draft Vincent Damphousse, who I refer to as "Damp House" for about two years before my dad corrects me.

The bad: The team manages only 57 points. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 70/100. The team was still awful, but Wendel-mania has begun.


1986-87

The good: The John Brophy era begins, and the sight of an angry white-haired man in a derby scares the Leafs into earning a playoff spot. This was the second year of the two-year Brad "Motor City Smitty" Smith era. The Leafs manage an upset first round win against a St. Louis Blues team coached by a young Jacques Martin, who vows to only ever be the Leafs playoff bitch like four more times at the absolute most.

The bad: Despite the playoff appearance, the Leafs were still ten games under .500. Nobody on the entire team managed 75 points. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 50/100. Make no mistake, the team was still bad. But Brophy was fun and they won a playoff round, and Wendel Clark was punching the blood out of a different guy every night.


1987-88

The good: The Leafs make a blockbuster deal, sending Rick Vaive and others to the Blackhawks to get Ed Olczyk, who scores 42 goals and leads the team in scoring. Despite only managing 52 points, the Leafs make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

The bad: The string of first-round upsets ends as they lose to the Red Wings. Wendel Clark starts to have some injury problems, but we're sure they're nothing to worry about. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 60/100. Wendel's back will be OK after the off-season, right?


1988-89

The good: Olczyk scores 90 points, showing nice chemistry with Leeman. Daniel Marois scores 31 goals as a 20-year-old rookie. The Leafs rob the Flyers blind, trading semi-decent goalie Ken Wregget for two first round draft picks. They also make the Courtnall-for-Kordic deal. Guess which one of those trades Leaf fans have to hear about constantly for the next two decades?

The bad: Wendel only plays 15 games. Brophy is fired mid-season and replaced by the corpse of George Armstrong. The team misses the playoffs. They have three first-round picks and the best they can do is Rob Pearson. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 80/100. Thank god for the Blue Jays.


1989-90

The good: The Leafs are actually good! Well, not quite, but they're .500 for the first time in the decade. Leeman scores 51 goals, Damphousse has 94 points, the team scores 337 goals and is fun to watch. And best of all, Harold Ballard dies!

The bad: Borje Salming plays an embarrassing final season with the Red Wings this year. Why would a long-time Leaf ever wants to go somewhere else for one crappy year? Must be a Swedish thing. Meanwhile, the Leafs lose in five to the Blues thanks largely to the infamous Sergio Momesso OT goal against Allan Bester. And they trade their first rounder in the 1991 draft for Tom Kurvers, but that's no big deal because the team is good now so it won't be a high pick.

How bad was it? 30/100. In hindsight it was still pretty bad, but this season was a lot of fun.


1990-91

The good: Remember all that good stuff from 1989-90? Yeah, never mind. Here are the highlights on this season: Peter Ing stops Wayne Gretzky on a penalty shot. That's it.

The bad: Despite hopes that they can build on the previous year, the team starts off 1-9-1. Leeman gets hurt, Olczyk is traded (for Dave Ellett), and Damphousse is the only player on the entire team to crack 40 points. The team prominently features guys like Lucien DeBlois and Dave Hannan. That Kurvers draft pick turns into Scott Niedermayer, who will return to haunt the Leafs in the 2001 playoffs when he vicously headbutts Tie Domi's elbow.

How bad was it? 90/100. It was bad enough that the team was brutal, but it made fans feel like suckers for ever believing things could actually be different.

1991-92

This guy may be OK.
The good: With the Ballard estate finally out of the picture forever, the Leafs begin to rebuild. They hire a young go-getter from Calgary named Cliff Fletcher to be their GM. He pulls the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Oilers that lands them Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, and actual credibility. That turns out to just be the warmup, as Fletcher pulls off The Greatest Trade of All-Time a few months later, landing Doug Gilmour and other useful players from the Flames for Gary Leeman and the spare change in his sofa.

The bad: Oh right, the actual games. The Leafs aren't good, finish in last place in the Norris and miss the playoffs.

How bad was it? 50/100. They weren't a good team... Yet.

Coming up: The Fletcher era and beyond.




Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Could things actually be getting better?

Regular readers know that I'm not typically a "glass half-full" sort of guy. I tend to expect the worst from the Leafs, and they're usually kind enough to prove me right.

But a couple of back-page stories from the past week have given me a tiny twinge of cautious optimism that maybe, just maybe, this team may be making baby steps in the right direction.

First, here's Ron Wilson on the radio today taking what appears to be a fairly obvious shot at Mats Sundin and friends:
To me, there hasn't been any leadership. You don't squander leads. You don’t fail when it matters most, if there’s leadership on the team.

I can understand you can blame one coach and say "okay, we tuned him out at some point" but I’m now the third coach in the past four years. There comes a point where you say there's something going on here and it just can't be the coach and the general manager's fault. The players have to shoulder some of the responsibility.

Understanding, too, as an outsider coming in, that a lot of players wouldn’t hang around and face the media, those are leadership issues… not holding yourself accountable. How are you going to win?
"The players have to shoulder some of the responsibility"? What a novel concept!

Now you could argue, as some of you will, about whether Sundin deserves that sort of criticism. And you could certainly argue over whether Wilson would be better off keeping quiet on the matter, at least if he actually wants Sundin to re-sign in Toronto.

But you have to admit, it's refreshing to hear somebody, anybody, in Toronto actually raise the subject. For over a decade, Sundin's leadership abilities have been one of the Maple Leafs sacred cows, and nobody -- players, coaches, management, media -- has been allowed to question it.

Sundin is a great leader, end of story, nothing to see here, and pay no attention to the last-place finishes or country club dressing room behind the curtain. Even thinking about maybe possibly implying otherwise was reserved for the mouth-breathing blogger types.

So by even daring to ask the question, Wilson is already breaking new ground in Toronto. And after all, if Wilson is willing to hold the golden boy Sundin accountable, you know that the holiday is over for the rest of the also-rans on this squad.

Meanwhile, one of our least favorite Leafs also had some eye-opening quotes. Here's Jason Blake looking back on his first season in Toronto.
Last year was a disaster for me on the ice and personally. I was brought in to do something and it didn't happen... For me, after having a downfall, you've got to prove yourself again to play, to play at a high level, and to be counted on again to score goals and produce offence. That's what I'm looking to do this year.
No excuses. No McCabe-like pretending that things weren't really that bad. Just an honest (and accurate) admission that he was brutal, and a promise to be better.

Wow. Maybe things really are changing.




Monday, September 8, 2008

NHL 2009 Preview


As any hockey fan knows, tomorrow marks the debut of EA Sports' NHL 2009. This highly anticipated game looks to build on the recent success of the popular franchise.

We here at Down Goes Brown were lucky enough to get our hands on an advanced copy. Here's one Leaf fan's perspective on the new game.

Features

Here are some of the new and returning features that I'm excited about.
  • Thanks to the firing of Paul Maurice, players using the Leafs will no longer find that the "timeout" option is greyed out at all times.

  • Thanks to the firing of John Ferguson Jr., players using the Leafs now once again have the option to actually look at a player's ratings before signing him to a massive, cap-killing contract.

  • Players now do certain routine actions automatically, making the game much easier to control. For example, players at the point automatically stickhandle to keep the puck in the zone, forwards in front of the net automatically try to tip in long shots, and Jason Blake automatically kills every odd-man rush by taking a weak wrist shot from the far boards.

  • The league news section now features an "Eklund" page, in which the game selects a random player, claims he's heading to a random team, and then asks you to send money. This page is updated 50 times a day during the season.

  • The game now features a special "Toronto Media Mode". When playing as the Leafs, a window will pop up after each transaction with an article explaining why it was a bad move. This one may need some more work, though, as I noticed the article is always exactly the same with only the names swapped out.

  • The player models are so detailed that you can actually see where they're looking. For example, when you take a slapshot you can see the goalie stare at the puck. When you try to deke a defenceman, you can see him stare at your upper body. And when you completely destroy Daniel Alfredsson with an open ice hit, you can see all the Senators players stare at their skates.

Cheat Codes

It wouldn't be a video game without a few little tricks you can use to your advantage.
  • On the main trading screen, if you offer a deal and see the message "That offer is ridiculous, it would cripple my team for five years if I did that", press and hold the Select button. This activates "Fletcher Mode", and the deal will go through. Warning: You can only use this trick about five times, after which it won't work anymore. And also, you will go senile.

  • When chatting with an online opponent with a headset, press all four triggers at the same time and a small image of Richard Peddie's face appears on the screen and mouths the words along with you.

  • During the game, bring up the Options Menu and choose "pull goalie". This will activate the special Raycroft Simulator.

Bugs

Unfortunately the news isn't all good. I did find several bugs -- hopefully they'll be fixed in a patch.
  • During free agency, I spent hours scouting Kurt Sauer. But when I finally signed him to a contract and checked my roster, some guy named Jeff Finger was there instead.

  • There are still some major problems with the computer AI. For example, I had a defenceman on my team shoot the puck into my own net. Another time, a 180-foot clearing attempt bounced into my net without my goalie even moving.

  • During a crucial late-season game between the Leafs and Senators at ScotiaBank place, the fans were cheering for Ottawa.

  • Possible issue with collision detection: During a game against the Penguins, Sidney Crosby kept falling down and my team kept getting penalties even though I never touched him.

  • During the all-star game, one of the computer players actually made some sort of vague effort at playing defense.

  • Games played in cities like Columbus, Atlanta and Nashville featured mostly empty arenas, but the league head office still insisted that expansion to the Southern US had been a "huge success".

  • In my first game with the Leafs, I was controlling Carlo Colaiacovo and was involved in a minor collision. However on the next shift, Colaiacovo was still available to play.

  • During franchise mode, some teams went up to two entire years in a row without changing their uniform design.

  • When I tried to open the negotiation window for Mats Sundin, the game froze. Completely. For months. Until I finally lost interest.




Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Damien Cox: Who came up with this dumb strategy? Oh wait, I did.

The Barilkosphere has been having a good laugh at Damien Cox's expense today, thanks to commenter "nealio" over at Toronto Sports Media. He pointed out that Cox had apparently changed his mind on the Bryan McCabe deal in just 24 hours:
Damien Cox, Sept. 2, 2008:
‘Can’t say this is a bad trade for the Leafs…’

Damien Cox, Sept. 3, 2008:
‘McCabe deal a bad one for Leafs.’
This certainly isn't a first for the Toronto media, most of whom decided long ago that the Leafs are always wrong even if they're right. I pointed out a similar double-take by Howard Berger a few weeks ago.

After all, the name of the game in Toronto is relentless criticism of everything Leaf-related, even if you have to twist yourself into a logical pretzel to do it. It's the third thing they teach you in Toronto sports journalism school, right after the number "1967" and the phrase "draft schmaft".

But to his credit, Cox is still the king. His good trade/bad trade switcheroo today wasn't even the only one in his column. Have a look:
"First, second and third rounders were sacrificed to move up two slots in the draft to acquire the rights to Luke Schenn."
Wow, what a dummy Fletcher is! He traded all those picks just to move up from seventh to fifth. Two lousy spots! No wonder Cox has been hammering the Schenn trade every single chance he gets for the past three months.

Oh wait, what do we have here, in this column from January?
"The overall strategy, don't forget, has to revolve around getting top five picks both in the 2008 and '09 entry drafts..."
So the overall strategy has to focus on landing a top five pick... but when Fletcher trades up to get exactly that pick, he's a dunce.

Cox argues one side, then changes his mind a few months later. And he thinks we're too dumb to notice.

Gee, no wonder he gets along with Mats Sundin so well.




Sundin makes it official

Mats Sundin at the trade deadline:

"I have never believed in the concept of a rental player. It is my belief that winning the Stanley Cup is the greatest thing you can achieve in hockey but for me, in order to appreciate it you have to have been part of the entire journey and that means October through June."
Mats Sundin today:
"I will not make up my mind before the season starts. That's how I feel right now. Others have started playing in the middle of the season."
He's still leaving the door open to retirement. But it seems clear now that he's changed his mind about his sole reason for refusing to waive his no-trade clause. Assuming he ever really meant it in the first place.