Pension Plan Puppets: January 2007

Every Leafs fan has an opinion. Here's mine: We are all Pension Plan Puppets. The Teachers pull the strings and we dance.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

All Razor All The Time

As much as the NHL has changed one thing has remained constant: a team is only as good as its goalie. For the Leafs to have any chance at the last playoff spot Andrew Raycroft has to find consistency. Between a hot start and a strong 2007 Razor was maddening. He was inconsistency personified and the injury plagued Leafs were not able to bail him out. What set him on the path towards being the leading cause of death among fans of the blue and white? A groin injury against the Bruins in a game which had, up to that point, served as a statement from Razor that he was back. Thankfully, the lingering effects seem to have cleared up:
My body feels as good has it has since September," says Raycroft. "There's nothing nagging, no groin, none of that stuff is lingering any more.
Considering that Maurice is going to start him the rest of the way that is a comforting statement.

What is less comforting and more amusing is this that I read on
This is an average team beset by injuries and plagued by inconsistent goaltending. Is Andrew Raycroft going to morph into Dwayne Roloson? Or Ryan Miller? Or Cam Ward? No.
I do not usually frequent the World Wide Leader because their hockey writers include Damien Cox. However, I ocassionally stumble across something by Scott Burnside or Terry Frei or John Buccigross. For an organization that completely ignores hockey those three can put together a decent article once in a while. That quotation came from an article by Burnside on whether to trade Mats in which he comes to a similar conclusion as myself: JFJ is in a tough position at the trade deadline and he will have to reconcile what's best for the organization with what will help him keep his job.

The implication with regards to Raycroft is that he is not able to be a top-level goalie. He purposely compares them to last year's finalists and one of the vanquished semi-finalists in order to make his point. Now I could argue that Roloson is running out of gas and even he will not morph into last year's playoff version or that playing behind two top teams in the East might help Miller and Ward put up numbers (at least when their teams are playing well, when they are not those two are much closer to the average). The truth is that this season Raycroft has not matched those three. However, if you look a little closer you can see the morphing taking place. Below is a table of each goalies performance since the New Year:

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Those numbers would be more flattering to the Leafs if you took out the 6-1 and 8-2 losses to the Canucks and Penguins where the Leafs forgot how to play hockey. If Raycroft is over his niggling injuries and he can continue his 2007 form then the Leafs might have solved their goaltending problems. And maybe Buffalo, Carolina, and Edmonton should start worrying about their goaltending. Tonight, Razor can lead the Leafs into a tie for a playoff spot with a win at MSG. As it stands, it will be a tall order for the Rangers to best the Leafs number one.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Leafs 4 v. Hurricanes 1: Great Success!

Game Recap

Coach Paul 'Space Cowboy' Maurice could not have asked for a better birthday present as he celebrated his 40th in the rink where he had his greatest success. Andrew Raycroft stopped 28 of 29 shots including a first period penalty show and Nik Antropov used his quick hands and long reach to pot two goals in the third to break a 1-1 deadlock.

Bates Battaglia opened the scoring with his eighth of the year as he corralled a loose puck at the side of the net and slid it into a yawning cage. Ray Whitney tied the game on a breakaway that trickled in off both of Razor's pads. That would be the only time he was beat as he turned away everything that the Hurricanes could throw at him including a 17 save second period.

The Leafs successfully repeated the habits that helped them handle the Canadiens on Saturday night. The Hurricanes have a lot more skill and size than the Habs but the Leafs and especially their defence were able to handle the likes of Staal and Justin Williams, Cobourg's greatest export since Steve Smith (yes, that one). The forwards were at their forechecking and cycling best as the were able to neutralize the opposing D's ability to make a good first pass. The third goal by Antro actually came as a result of three consecutive shifts that hemmed the Canes in their own zone. The other half of The Soviet Bloc did not want to be left out of the limelight so Ponikarovsky dropped the mitts with David Tanabe in a pretty even matchup after the Leaf had a knee-on-knee collision with Brind'Amour. I did not get a good look at the hit but it looked like Rod was trying to get off the trolley tracks and did not quite make it.

Tomorrow night the Leafs travel to the Big Apple to take on the New York Rangers. They are currently tied on points with the Rangers having played one fewer game and possessing one more win [the first tie-breaker]. The last time these two teams met was the infamous 9-2 shellacking in TO that the boys in blue meted out to their guests. The Leafs have had trouble in NYC over the past few seasons so they will have to bring the same effort that has led to back-to-back 4-1 wins.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Monday Morning Odds and Ends

Mark Zwolinski adds to the pressure on JFJ to make some tough decisions. Darcy Tucker is attracting a lot of interest from his home province and the Western Conference. The talk from his agent had been that he was going to be looking for something in the $4M-$5M range when contract negotiations started but the starting point has been pegged at a 5 year deal for $17.5M or $3.5M/year. The deal is a little long considering Tucker's style of play and that he will be 36 at the end of the contract but the price is a little more reasonable.

Mats Sundin has also attracted interest from the Anaheim Ducks. The article notes that the Leafs will have to take the $6.3M cap hit because they will have to pick up the option to keep the Captain. He has a no trade clause but I can imagine him being tempted into a run for a Cup that he deserves. His addition to Anaheim would definitely make them a strong favourite to win the Cup and they have a lot of young players that could make an immediate impact for the Leafs in Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf among others.

Ken Dryden opines on his jersey retirement on the day that his number 29 will be honoured by the Montreal Canadiens. There were a few good pieces written about the subject that were split on whether to honour or retire. Good arguments were made for both sides with Bitter Leaf providing some good criteria to consider when retiring a jersey, Wardo at Leaf Club pointing out how players enjoy the history of their jerseys, and Reality Check at Eyes on the Prize focused on the joy that having their jersey retired would bring to a player. Well Dryden sees both sides of the argument and points out that he enjoyed seeing young players wearing his number:
It used to be ... that when a special rookie arrived in a team's training camp, that player would be given No. 9 or 7 or 2, whatever the number that was special to that team. One of the great and surprising thrills for me was seeing goalies wearing No. 29 after me. For a few, it may have been because I wore that number, but over time it became a goalie number.
Ever the politician.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Leafs 4 v. Habs 1: Eight Is Enough

Game Recap

The Leafs kicked off their post-All Star schedule with an almost perfectly played game. Pavel Kubina had a hell of a game with two goals and an assist and the Leafs' special teams outdueled the Canadiens top ranked PP and PK. The Habs have gone 6-10 in their last 16 and have slowly been returning to the pack where they belong. Their heady position was built on excellent special teams and any Leaf fan can relate to how shaky that sort of foundation can be. The Habs are a deely flawed team that has been dominated in all five games by the Leafs and have picked up two wins on the basis of incredible goaltending and their special teams. This is the second game in Toronto between the two in which neither showed up and they were easily handled by a team that Sheldon Souray labelled as 'not as good as us' in post-game comments.

Easy Sheldon, I think you might be letting your place as Montreal's Bryan McCabe go to your head. I have a newsflash for you: Your team is not as good as the Leafs and the final standings will reflect that fact. I am sure that the Habs are glad that they will only have to face the Leafs three more times during the run-in to the playoffs. Not even with the Leafs laundry list of injuries could the Habs compete with the boys in blue. It was nice to see Souray, who will no doubt wrangle a ridiculous contract on the back of his wicked slap shot despite his complete inability to play defence (see last year's top 10 goals for 3 appearances by Monsieur 44 and he was not scoring them).

Andrew Raycroft had another game in which he made the big saves when needed (that's 3 of 4 since the Canucks debacle) and the team played the simple game. They rarely got caught turning the puck over in their own end, they chipped it out, and they dumped it in and worked to their strength. They dominated the Habs defence down low and caused numerous turnovers. On the powerplay, the second unit of Stajan, O'Neill, Steen, Kubina, and Carlo showed that they could be a viable threat with two goals and excellent puck movement.

The 4-1 defeat of the Canadiens was a great send-off before embarking on a five game road trip. There are 13 games left before the February 27th trade deadline. They include only four home games which in itself may be a blessing. The Leafs sport a 12-9-3 record away from the ACC and Andrew Raycroft is clearly more comfortable away from the boo-birds as his 11-5-1 attests.

Those 13 games include eight games against teams that are either in the playoffs but within striking distance or in the chasing pack on the ouside looking in. The first five will give JFJ a good indication of what sorts of deals he will be able to make. Bitter Leaf makes a good case for not giving up on the season while still making trades that will benefit the future of the team. Dave Shoalts outlines how Richard Peddie, Larry Tanenbaum and the rest of the MLSE board have put JFJ in a ridiculous position. He can either look out for his own best interests, in this case make short-term trades in order to make the playoffs and retain his job, or do the right thing for the club, cash in assets and build for the future, and risk being fired if the Leafs miss the playoffs.

JFJ has already walked down the path of self-preservation during the off-season and it left the Leafs with a Bryan McCabe contract that gives the team an anchor around its neck more than an anchor on defence and a Pavel Kubina contract that until recently was looking every bit as bad. My belief is that when JFJ examined the team last year he saw a team that missed the playoffs because of injuries to the forwards and shaky goaltending. He addressed the goaltending issue well (whether he made the right decision is up in the air considering most fans would have lived with an Aubin-Telly platoon and that Manny Legace was available cheaply since teams were inexplicably uninterested in him) but he made a calculated gamble based on the advice of the Leafs scouts and their depth at the goaltending position.

He addressed the forward issue by letting Allison and Lindros walk and allowing the younger forwards to take on a bigger role for the club. Despite the doomsday predictions about the lack of scoring the Leafs sit in the top quarter of the league in goals for. The problem lies in JFJ's decisions about the back-end. Kaberle's deal was a steal and he should receive credit. However, in examining the team's chances of success I think that JFJ looked at the powerplay and saw that he had to maintain it in order to have the best chance to save his job. That reasoning is how Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina ended up getting such large contracts. Yes, both would have probably received more on the open market (Kubina was offered more for longer by the Blues but chose Toronto) but keep in mind that Zdeno Chara, the kind of defenceman that chews up minutes and can shut down the opposition's top line, was available. Him and Jay McKee could have been available for the same money but JFJ must have felt that keeping the McCabe and Kaberle partnership was necessary for the powerplay to keep humming along which in turn gave the team, and by extension himself, the best chance to succeed. He didn't want to risk having the powerplay fall off because the team could not adapt to a different strategy on the powerplay.

So once again the Leafs and their fans enter a decisive period with a GM that has his own interests ahead of the team's long-term succes. He not only has to decide if Mats and Darcy remain Leafs but at what price. Will any of the Cup contenders make offers worthy of those two? When will he start/finish negotiations with the pair? If the Leafs are not able to decline Mats' option and negotiate a better deal (thereby reducing the $6.3M cap hit for next season) then will JFJ move him to a team like Anaheim and thereby free up a large chunk of cap space for the next Leafs star? If Darcy insists on more money or a longer term than the Leafs are willing to spend will he move him before he can leave for nothing? or will he cave and sign him to a McCabe-like deal? I love both players and they would be nigh on irreplaceable but if they were not then these would be easy questions to answer. As it stands, they run through my mind every day.

My own view is that if JFJ takes the easy route and tries to save his job again and succeeds (gets a playoff spot) it will most likely be a Pyrrhic victory because he will probably have traded some portion of the Leafs future to ensure short-tem gains. Leaf fans already frequently tear their clothes, refuse to cut their hair, and moan 'Pat Quinn/JFJ, give me back our future!' without tossing some more picks/prospects/youngsters to the mix. JFJ's next month needs to be focused on ascertaining if Mats and Darcy can be brought back at a good price or, failing that, what the best mix of players/prospects/and picks is that he can get for them. A couple of bad contracts or losing Darcy for nothing would be disastrous for the Leafs.

However, there is nothing that I can do but hope that the Leafs, injuries and all, have learned to succeed over the first 50 games and can use those lessons to reach the playoffs. Before the season I believed that they would make it and the signs have been distinctly positive of late. As for the rest, all I can do is hope for divine inspiration to strike JFJ.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ups and Downs

Game Recap - Tuesday January 16, 2007 - Leafs v. Lightning

Game Recap - Thursday January 18, 2007 - Leafs v. Panthers

Game Recap - Saturday January 20, 2007 - Leafs v. Penguins

The good news is that while the Leafs were recovering from their fun in the Florida sun Andrew Raycroft was stealing them a couple of wins. The Soviet Bloc returned and powered the offence in the Tampa game with a goal and an assist each. The Florida game showcased JFJ's talent for spotting unappreciated players that could help the Leafs as Battaglia, Kilger, and Devereaux scored the goals. This probably the biggest mystery surrounding the Leafs' GM. He has shown a great skill for the little deal but not much for the blockbuster and that is worrisome as the Leafs head towards a deadline day in which they have several assets that could be moved to either build for the future (I hope) or make a last desperate push for the playoffs (a pyrrhic victory is successful) or he could sit on his hands again (the most likely scenario).

Unfortunately, Raycroft's great play apparently made the rest of the team think that they could be completely absent and they were buried in Pittsburgh. In a game that featured undisciplined play and some atrocious refereeing the Leafs were done in by their useless powerplay and their shockingly inept penalty kill. It is incredible just how much the Leafs PK misses Peca. The team suffered as they repeatedly lost defensive zone faceoffs and ran around like chickens with their head cut off. Travis Green has helped take some pressure off of Mats' shoulders on faceoffs but they both were outclassed by Crosby.

The good thing is that the Leafs have focused much more on the confidence that they derived from the two games in God's Waiting Room than the mess in Pittsburgh. The Leafs take on the Habs tonight, a team that they have dominated this season and save for some incredible goaltending would be 4-0 against, in Toronto. It will come down to the goalies which was a much scarier prospect two weeks ago.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Leafs 1 v. Canucks 6: Good Time Gang Gets Routed

Game Recap

On Saturday night, the Leafs played host to the Canucks. ACC patrons were treated to a ceremony celebrating the Canadian Armed Forces (a Hockey Day in Canada theme) and the stench of incense from the blue and green clad pot-smoking hippies. Some negotiating wizardry landed myself and three friends in the lower bowl where we were joined by a big chuck of the patchouli set. The atmostphere in the rink was great during the game and my one Canucks friend took all of the ribbing during the warm-up, the pre-game ceremonies, the first period, and the second period very well. Being the nice Toronto fans that the three of us are we decided to go easy on him during the third period. The Leafs decided to play the compliant host and followed suite.

The score notwithstanding, this was one of the most enjoyable nights out at a hockey game since Game 1 of the 2000 series against the sens. After the game about 300 fans surrounded the LeafsTV set to serenade Jody Vance, get pictures with the lovely host, and trade good-natured chants. It was probably confusing to the Canucks to see so many Leaf fans joining in the Raycroft chants but their drug-addled minds probably concocted some sort of explanation. The friendly atmosphere was a testament to the welcoming Leafs crowd and the Canucks fans that realized that despite large numbers they would probably have been routed in a fight (plus the pot makes them too apathetic to get worked up into a frenzy). sens and habs fans do not get the red carpet rolled out for them and I would guess that things are different for Canucks fans in Stabmonton but it was good to see two large groups of fans get along and it made for some good natured banter.

The big lesson that I learned from this game was: do not trash talk early. Earlier in the season I mocked Tim Thomas and the Bruins' defence only to see them shut down the Leafs in four straight game so I guess I should be grateful that the Leafs do not play the Canucks again until sometime in the 2044-45 season. Well, that's actually the second biggest lesson that I learned during the game. The most important revelation concerned Andrew Raycrfot the Leafs # 1 goaltender. Most people are probably expecting an expletive-laced, unhinged rant about the six goals and by most people I mean the Canadian government. But you will not find that here. I waited to write this because I am sure that if I had been able to type something up post-game it would have resembled the worst of internet message board fodder. Instead, I think I have solved the enigma that is the Andrew Raycroft situation.

The biggest issue is the recent history of the goaltending position for the Leafs. Raycroft does not have the luxury that Felix Potvin had of taking over the number one spot after Allen Bester, Peter Ing, Mark LaForrest, and a washed up Grant Fuhr had tended the net at the Carlton Cash Box. Raycroft has had to wrest the mantle of # 1 from the memories of Curtis Joseph and Eddie Belfour, two goalies who (last year notwithstanding) regularly stole games for the Leafs that they had no business winning and allowed the team to play a post-lockout run and gun game when most of the league was playing some version of the trap.

What is sometimes lost in all the hemming and hawing about Raycroft is that both of the aforementioned goalies came to Toronto as established stars. They had gone through the learning curve, they had honed their skills almost to perfection, and they had earned their fearsome nicknames through their success in the battle that is the playoffs. Raycroft has his own nickname, Razor, but he has not earned it in the same fashion as the other two. His potential (2003-2004 Calder Trophy Winner) has kept many in his corner, including myself, while his struggles in Finland during the lockout and last year have given many pause to question the trading of Tuuka Rask for a seemingly washed up goalie. The truth is that there is a long line of goalies that were voted the best at the WJHC and never made it and this year's performance by Rask was definitely underwhelming. Any suggestion that the deal has been a bust is premature to say the least.

The Leafs have a young team that will only get younger after this year. Raycroft is still working on perfecting his game. He already has 20 wins at the break. He could hit 30 easily. That is a very good figure for a goalie that only won 8 games in the last season before the lockout. He has a manageable three year contract at $2M/year after which the Leafs will be able to re-sign him if his development continues or well placed to chase a free agent goalie to give Justin Pogge (then 23) a little more time to develop if he is not already set to take over the reins. Raycroft has the game to be an elite goalie in the NHL and his Calder Trophy is proof of that ability. He is coming off two disastrous years but has shown in many games the level to which he can aspire. The difficult thing for Leaf fans and the team's management will be whether they are patient enough to see if he can find the consistency that the Leafs need and he needs to properly lay claim to his nickname.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007


This post was cross-posted at the BoO.
Tonight the Leafs host the Vancouver Canucks in their only matchup of the season. Unfortunately for the Leafs points total, the guaranteed points trips of yesteryear have been waylaid by the new schedule. The Canucks have surprised everyone by icing a competitive team and they currently sit seventh in the Western Conference which has been good enough to keep their bandwagon fans buying tickets (see Mark Messier Years' attendance).

This is a different Canucks team from previous incarnations. Instead of relying on lots of offence, puck moving defence, and shoddy goaltending the Canucks have been getting by on shoddy offence, strong defence, and amazing goaltending. After years of Brian Burke trying to convert backups into starting goalies Dave Nonis pulled the trigger on what will probably become the most important trade in franchise history by ridding himself of Vancouver's favourites Neanderthal attempted murderer Todd Bertuzzi (seriously, Canucks fans defended this guy...weird) and some spare parts for this year's Western Conference starting goalie Roberto Luongo and spare parts. Unfortunately, this move came about four years too late:

Good thing for Canuck fans that Cloutier will not be around to face the league's fifth highest scoring offence.

Thanks to Jay for the trip down memory lane. I had almost forgotten how that 1994 season ended:

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Of course, the Canucks could not be expected to defeat one of the greatest leaders in NHL history.

I will be in attendance at the game from about six rows behind Luongo so I will be well placed to see how he deals with the Leafs explosive offence. I will hopefully be able to get some great pics of the Leafs celebrating goals. GO LEAFS!
For the other side of the match-up check out:
Waiting for Stanley (A Sport Bigamist!)
Canucks and Beyond (Alanah will be live-blogging which is always interesting)

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Results Comparison IV: Mediocrity Personified

Previous Entries
Results Comparison: The Explanation
Results Comparison I: After 10 Games
Results Comparison II: State of Leafs Nation
Results Comparison III: Surprise!

As I get better at manipulating Blogger and my information I'll try to make these comparisons more reader friendly [regardless of how insane I might go trying]. I added a look at the last ten games, in this case # 31-40, from both comparisons and this year. As well, I have a look at how the Leafs fared in games # 41-50 last year and their schedule for the corresponding fixtures this year.

Game Number Comparison

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It is almost eerie how close all of the stats are to last year's numbers. Powerplay goals for and against are slightly lower than last year but not significantly so. The stat that stands out the most at this point is the increase in even strength goals against. The Leafs are allowing almost .5 ESGA per game over last year and that accounts for more than the 18 goal swing in goal differential. In terms of the points that the Leafs have this year compared to last the Leafs have continued to fall off their pace from last year which, in itself, was a pace that led to Toronto missing the playoffs.

Equivalent Fixtures Comparison

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This comparison also shows that the Leafs have improved their offence at even-strength but have not, through 40 games, been any tougher to play against 5-on-5. Both comparisons show that the Leafs have improved their discipline but have also been given about one powerplay less per game. The Leafs have the fifth ranked powerplay which means that the decrease in man advantages has cost the Leafs about eight goals.

Games 31-40 Comparison

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I would imagine that looking at this comparison might upset Paul Maurice. The Leafs have extremely similar numbers to games 31-40 from last year but picked up seven fewer points. This table shows how tight the difference between success and mediocrity is in the NHL post-lockout. A swing in goal differential of 8 goals in 10 games resulted in a swing of seven points over the previous season.

Next 10 Games

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The Leafs have begun to play the games that correspond to the beginning of the horrific streak from January and February that cost the Leafs a shot at the playoffs. This freefall corresponded with a number of injuries including losing Bryan McCabe and Darcy Tucker for most of these games. This year the Leafs have even wider spread injury problems but they are 3-2 so far in this 10 game segment of the season which is already an improvement of three points with five games left to catch up to at LEAST last year's pace.

While this post is a bit of a downer there are a number of reasons for optimism. The first is that, in addition to how poorly the Leafs played during games 41-50 last year, during games 51-60 the Leafs went 3-6-1. That means that over the part of the schedule that corresponds to the next 20 games the Leafs went 4-14-2. Already the Leafs have gone 3-2. Perhaps most encouraging, even moreso than Steen and O'Neill's resurgence, has been Raycroft's play in the new calendar year.

Since the ball dropped in Times Square he has a .914Sv% and 2.40GAA. More importantly, he has been making big saves when the Leafs have needed them. The team has not always been able to capitalize on the chances that he has provided them but he is providing them in the way that he did before he hurt his groin in November and that bodes well for the Leafs.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Officially Endorsed by Stephen Harper

A big thank you to Mirtle for pointing out that the Canadian government's site has taken a look at hockey blogs to try to explain 'Canadian Culture'. Yours truly made the list of Leaf sites but I had to laugh at the disclaimer:

Seeing that emotions can sometimes run high, some sites may contain provocative and inappropriate language for children, so parents and sensitive fans should be warned, particularly when accessing fan sites.
Considering that I follow the Leafs it is a testament to my self-restraint that this site does not contain anything remotely inappropriate. At all.

In other news, thanks to Zanstorm for giving Leaf fans everywhere another reason to love Rachel McAdams; she's a Leaf fan. I bet she was saying that O'Neill and Steen should be on Mats' wings. Talk about a complete package.

Here is the co-star of Wayne's World, Tia Carrere, in a Leafs jersey. And don't forget her co-star Mike Myers. The Leafs are like the Lakers of the NHL.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Leafs 4 v. Sabres 2: Graveyard No More

Game Recap

Trips to Buffalo have historically been trouble for the Leafs. There is no need to re-hash the team's sad record in the Aud and later Alphabet Arena (5-16-3 since it opened if you were curious) but needless to say it was not a destination of choice for the Leafs although it can be debated if Buffalo is a destination of choice for anyone at all. Even when the Leafs have had the superior team they have been hard-pressed to emerge victorious despite the large amounts of loyal bud fans that make the trip.

This year seemed like it would be a more dispiriting version of the past especially considering both team's respective places in the standings. This year, in two previous trips, the Leafs have gone 1-1 in two hard-fought games. Considering the injuries to the Leafs the string of good performances across the Peace Bridge seemed destined to end at two. However, the Leafs have a history of playing their best hockey when hobbled and with their backs against the wall and this game was no different.

The game was won on the backs of the indomitable Mats Sundin and his two resurgent wingers Alex Steen and Jeff O'Neill. The young Swedish protege struggled offensively this season while skating mostly with Michael Peca and Chad Kilger. He contributed a sterner defensive effort but after a summer in which JFJ refused to part with the sophomore in an attempt to attract Edmonton malcontent Chris Pronger fans expected numbers closer to the 18-27-45 that he put up in his rookie campaign. I was never a fan of the propoesd move and was glad to see JFJ sit on his hands on that one. I believed that Steen needed to play with more creative offensive players to allow his skill to emerge once again and, lo and behold, his numbers since joining the top line have supported that belief. He scored the winner last night to bring his stats to 7-4-11 and +3 in 8 games since being reunited with the captain.

His partner in renewal and on the wing, Jeff O'Neill, has also benefited from the increased ice-time that comes with riding shotgun for Mats. Last night's two goal effort marked the 13th game in the last 16 in which O'Neill had registered a point and brought his season totals to 15-18-33 and +5 in 45 GP after last season's 19-19-38 and -19 in 74 GP. The biggest changes is that he is second on the team in even strength goals after posting most of his points from the powerplay last year. He has the extra jump in his skating that was expected and has returned to playing the physical brand of hockey that brought him success in Carolina.

It's impossible to laud the sidekicks without mentioning the Captain. Mats Sundin is the straw that stirs the drink (to borrow a phrase) offensively for the Leafs. As much as Leaf-haters like to poke Leaf fans about Mats' place in history it is pretty clear that he is one of the rare players that makes his teammates much better. One need only look to Jonus Hoglund scoring 29 goals. He has put up 4-5-9 and a +2 since getting his new running mates while playing over 21 minutes per game including significant PK and PP time.

And I cannot forget Wade Belak. Encino Man took on Buffalo tough guy Andrew Peters after the Leafs scored the fourth goal and promptly beat him before ending the fight with a recreation of the Ragdoll Incident for good measure. The guys on AM640 pointed out the class with which Belak went about doing his job. Rather than taking the obvious opportunity to rub the victory in the face of a classless player he simply skated to the box, content that he had contributed to the Leafs victory. A short note on the debut of Travis Green, he was exactly what the Leafs expected. He killed penalties for 2:31, won 8 of 12 face-offs, and increased the Leafs 'grit'.

So the Leafs get a big win to start off their run of 9 games on the road out of the next 11. I will be at the game on Saturday against the Canucks so they better bring the same effort.

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Welcome Home Travis!

This is old news that somehow was at the top of the BoO site before TSN even had it on the front page. How are people supposed to complain about the Toronto Sports Network if they are slacking in giving any scrap of Leafs content top billing.

Travis Green, formerly of the Western Conference Anaheim Ducks, is a known quantity in LeafLand as this will be his second tour of duty with the buds. Previously, he was one of the three musketeers, Corson and Tucker were the others, that played a big part in making the Leafs difficult to play against. He consistently brought a bit of sandpaper to the lineup, killed penalties, was a strong in the face-off circle, and added some timely scoring. According to Bill Watters on Sportsnet, he was a good influence in the dressing room and he should be able to impart some wisdom to the young and inexperienced forward corps.

Considering how tight the Leafs are against the cap, or at least how tight they would be if everyone was healthy, this is a good move by JFJ. Green is a known quantity and is an NHL veteran. Right away the Leafs will be better having him in the lineup instead of another AHLer. His grittiness helps to decrease the sandpaper deficit that Toronto was suffering. It's ironic that when I was watching the December 30th Ottawa game Green's name came up as a player that in the past would not have allowed the sens' shenanigans to go unchecked. He will also help fill Peca's shoes in the face off department and in killing penalties.

There is no doubt that this is a short-term solution but as far as that goes it is a strong move by JFJ. The next question will be how he will deal with Sundin and Tucker.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Leafs 1 v. Hurricanes 4: Too Many Marlies Not Enough Grit

Game Recap

This game featured some new reasons to feel a deep sense of despair along with some tried and true reasons.

  1. Faceoffs - The Leafs cannot win them. Matt Stajan played 20 minutes and won four of fifteen to follow up on a three of sixteen effort against the Sabres. I guess that is an improvement but faceoffs are crucial on the powerplay, where Matty is playing on the second unit, and to generate offence.

  2. Stone Hands - The AHL call-ups are doing a great job of playing hard and with energy, for the most part. However, their big failing has been an inability to finish their chances [aside from the Bruins beatdowns]. That is probably a big reason why those guys are in the AHL but watching so many gilt-edged chances go begging in the first period was clearly deflationary.


  1. Partial Efforts - A big strike against the Leafs has been that in too many games they have only played part of the game. Last night was no different. The Leafs were all over the Hurricanes in the first period and looked good value for their 1-0 lead courtesy of a Bryan McCabe goal on a setup by Alex Steen (who knew he had offensive skills? I did.). However, the second and most of the third period were a mishmash of lazy plays and poor forecheck. This terrible combo was exacerbated by some atrocious refereeing which left the Leafs shorthanded early and often in the second period.

  2. No Resolve - It has started to become apparent that these Leafs are not the Leafs of old. It was apparent against Ottawa and Wardo pinpointed the exact moment when the Leafs' aura of grit was shattered. They do not have the same sandpaper throughout their lineup as they used to possess. The Leafs used to roll four lines and three pairs of defenceman that lived Conn Smythe's famous axiom: If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice. That aspect of the Leafs has diminished. As with this year's December 30th matchup, last year I found myself and others mentioning that the Leafs under Quinn and before the lockout would never have allowed teams to beat them as they have in some games without having to earn it. This move towards the pack in terms of grit has been a factor in the Leafs' poor performance in many games over the past two season.

The loss drops the Leafs out of the 8th playoff spot and puts an extra measure of pressure on the team as they embark on nine games on the road out of their next twelve. This is gut check time for the Leafs as a poor record over these games will (barring the continued mediocrity of the contenders for 8th) drop them into a gap to large from which to escape. The upside of that is that JFJ will have to make some difficult decisions instead of just standing pat and hoping that things will work themselves out.

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Leafs 3 v. Sabres 4: Opportunities Lost

Game Recap

I was lucky enough to get a pair of tickets to see this game but unfortunately I forgot to take my camera so I couldn't get any pictures. The short version is that the Leafs should have won this game and wasted a chance to take two points from a strong team that played very poorly.

The Sabres entered the game having lost their last two games to the sens and Pens and were ripe for the picking. Throughout the game the Leafs' forechecking pressure led to a number of turnovers, odd-man rushes, and penalties. Unfortunately, a mixture of solid goaltending by Martin Biron and AHL-level finishing left the good guys on the short end of the end result. The Leafs were able to convert on two powerplay opportunities but failed to tally on a 5-on-3 early in the third period which came back to haunt them when John Pohl missed a yawning cage in the last 30 seconds.

As should the Leafs, I came away from the game disillusioned that they had lost two points. The first two goals were products of terrible giveaways which resulted in the Leafs being pinned in their zone and a pair of long, screened shots. The other two goals were momentum killers. Carlo scored on a long shot before the end of the first period on a flutterball from the point as the Leafs began to really pile on the pressure. Then some terrible defending on the rush allowed Danielle Briere to finish a tic-tac-toe passing play by rounding Raycroft. Alex Steen tallied on a 5-on-3 to bring the Leafs back to within one but a soft goal took the wind out of the Leafs' sails. Ales Kotalik was allowed to stop and fire off a good wrist shot by Tomas Kaberle and Andrew Raycroft went down early which allowed the shot to make it over his shoulder and under the bar. Of course, that one questionable goal ruined what was otherwise a strong effort by the Leafs' # 1.

The biggest thing that I noticed was that the Leafs were absolutely killed in the faceoff circle. Matt Stajan won only 3 of 16 faceoffs and it seemed to me that the Leafs lost almost every offensive zone faceoff including three in the last two minutes of the game. This deficiency played a huge part in the loss since the Leafs were constantly losing territorial advantages on the powerplay and at crucial times [I'd have looked like a genius if I had posted this on time considering today's pickup].

A bright spot in the game was that the Sabres held their diving in check for the most part except for one incident involving Maxine Afinogenov and Bryan McCabe. McCabe gave him a little tap in front of the net and Max went flying in the air before he stood up and proceeded to try to deliver a cross-check to the Leafs' face. I am not sure but that looked like intent to injure. Of course this is how Tom L at SabreRattling:
Max with the huge cross-check in retaliation for McCabe’s stupidity. Smart play by Max. We’re better 4 on 4 then on the PP.

So the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The irony is that the Leafs next game is against the Hurricanes who Sabres fans universally pan as the worst divers in the league. Glass houses and all that.

As has been the case in so many lossed the Leafs failed to capitalize on their chances and the little things killed them. A stronger presence in the faceoff circle would have helped the Leafs maintain the Sabres zone and a bit more composure from the backend could have saved the Leafs a couple of goals. I wish I could say it got better against the 'Canes...

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Leafs 10 v. Bruins 2: Not An Error

Game Recap

When the United States beat England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil 1-0 British papers assumed that the score that they received was a typo and they published the final score as 10-1 for the limeys. After this game Bruins fans would have killed to have an arrogant editor 'correct' the typo in the score. Unfortunately, that score is not a misprint. The Leafs, of whom there is never any shortage of "Where will the goals come from?" stories, scored TEN goals with Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Nik Antropov [a combined 100+ points] out of the lineup. From where indeed.

Since this was another LeafsTV blackout (2-0 so far in games that I cannot see) I only got to watch the highlights on YouTube. Apparently, the game was tight and the Bruins were the better team during the first period but Andrew 'All of TO hates me' Raycroft kept the score at 2-1 until the buds could explode for five goals in the second period including three in 42 seconds which is not even fast enough to be a club record. The Leafs sealed the game with four more in the third. I'd love to write more but a Bruins' fan wrote the best summary of the game.

The big story of the game was Alexander Steen who potted his first career hat-trick and added two assists to increase his points total by 50% in one game. Of course, I knew that his increased time with Sundin would help him to exploit his offensive skills:
As for Steen, he put up 18-27-45 last year and would be much closer to those numbers this year if he had played with Mats again instead of having to play defensively with Peca and Kilger for so long. Since he has returned to Mats' wing he has begun to show the offensive potential that made keeping him a good move.

That outburst gave him 5-2-7 in the five games since he was promoted to Sundin's wing along with Jeff O'Neill. That is the level of play that he will have to display until the cavalry can arrive. Next up is a live account of the Sabres game on Saturday from the Best Seats in The House (or right next to them).

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Leafs 5 v. Bruins 1: The Power of Bounces

Game Recap

During the Leafs descent the most discouraging aspect of most games was that the Leafs were not losing because of terrible efforts. There were games in which they were done from the opening face-off but there were enough games that saw the majority of the game played well only to see the team undone by a bad bounce, bad goal, bad call, or a missed opportunity. Frustration mounted as strong efforts were de-railed by the whims of fate. It was enough to make you want to swear off third periods.

If there was any team that the Leafs could use some bounces to beat it was the Bruins. Tim Thomas' insane goaltending and Boston's ability to find a way to beat the buds (four freaking times in a MONTH!) contributed to some, I guess despondent would be the word, posts. In the blue boys' opener of 2007 their hard work was rewarded by two goals that turned a game that was hanging in the balance into a comfortable win.

The game opened with both team's captains notching powerplay goals. Our old friend Chara knocked in a rebound as he assumed a familiar role in front of the Leafs' net. Mats replied by re-directing a great pass by Bryan McCabe past Thomas. Then came the bounces. First, some good forechecking resulted in a loose puck coming out to the point where Hal Gill's fluttering shot got past a perfect Chad Kilger screen to give the Leafs the lead. The third goal showed the value of a determined and hungry fourth line. Newbury, Ondrus, and Belak pinned the Bruins in their zone with a ferocious and unrelenting forecheck. Right before the goal Belak, sans helmet, took on and held off Chara before Newbury picked up the loose puck and fired it towards the goal. Luck intervened as Tim Thomas' attempt to redirect the puck away from danger ended up deflecting the puck into his own net.

Two good bounces as a result of some hard work and a 1-1 game becomes a 3-1 lead going into the third period where Mats Sundin proceded took over the game to ice the Leafs first victory in the new year. First, he took a Jeff O'Neill pass, went on a solo rush past a couple of Bruins, and rifled a shot past Thomas. Then on a powerplay he returned the favour by making a nice cross-crease pass on his backhand to set up a tap-in by O'Neill. With so many forwards out of the lineup the call-ups and Steen and O'Neill have to keep up this effort to help Mats Sundin ensure that the Leafs can remain in the playoff hunt.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Still Breathing

The holidays are obviously a ridiculous busy period for anyone and getting back to writing after an extended layoff turned out to be much harder than I anticipated. However, I have game recaps up for the Wild, Pens, and sens games and will have the Bruins games up (10-2? wow.) today.

For those that have been waiting for more content thanks for sticking around. I'll also have a fourth installment of the Results Comparison up (big surprise, the Leafs are behind), a simple look at the points needed to reach the playoffs, and a look at attendance and how the Leafs are a boon.

Welcome back!


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Leafs 2 v. senators 3: Rage Blackout

Game Recap

As I watched this game with a large group of friends the story of this game shifted frequently. After a first period that saw the Leafs absolute dominate the senators the frustratingly great play of Ray Emery was in the spotlight. As the game progressed, the dual brain cramps of Mssrs. Kaberle and McCabe came to the fore. The shorthanded goal that Ottawa scored was galling enough because it came while the Leafs had a chance to build on their slim lead. Toss in the fact that Kaberle gave up on the chase and ignored the goal scorer McAmmond and that McCabe not only did not take a man but was curling into the corner when the senators strike and any observers of our little gathering would have heard a stream of colourful expletives filling the room. Luckily only one young lady fell victim and she seemed to enjoy her exposure to the fanatical side of sports.

The game morphed into a tightly contested battle in which Raycroft matched Emery save for save as the game seemingly moved towards overtime. The story quickly became how Raycroft had, with a stunning glove save on Dany Heatley which was turned into a Boyd Devereaux goal by Bates Battaglia, stolen the game from the senators. After waiting so long since the third period of the 4-1 win over Buffalo earlier in the season Razor had finally stepped up with the sort of performance that would go a long way towards rebuilding the confidence that he showed prior to hurting his groin in November. Alas, a defensive play with two minutes remaining that can only be described by a word that starts with 'cluster' took the game to overtime. Of course, Chris Phillips, who I have spent so much time mocking over at BoO, fanned on a shot and wrong-footed Raycroft for the winning goal. It has since been labelled a 'soft' goal by the anti-Raycroft media. I guess he will learn not to snub reporters that ask stupid questions ever again.

Sadly, the senators win another regular season matchup (how's that playoff record?) and, in a rare state of affairs, they did not deserve to win. Ray Emery and mental errors stole the game from the Leafs but at least they picked up a point. Next up, the Bruins in Toronto in a pair of games that did not turn out as I had expected.

Update: In my haste to post this recap and get back on top of the games I forgot what caused the biggest buzz amongst the viewers at my buddy's apartment: a lack of Leafs retribution. Time and time again the senators crashed the net and barrelled into Raycroft without any sort of response from the boys in blue. To top it off Chris Neil was doing his typical post-whistle routine of slashing, pushing, and chirping while being 'held back' (read: protected) by the linesman. I appreciate the fact that the Leafs were in a tight game and some sort of retribution could have cost the team the game. However, I still would have liked to see Belak fly into Emery once to let the sens know that the Leafs were not going to accept the sens shenanigans.

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Leafs 1 v. Penguins 4: New 'Standard' of Refereeing Piles On

Game Recap

A lot has been written about the new standard of refereeing and it has covered the spectrum from Brendan Shahanan suggesting that it will take years to improve it to Stephen Walkom, Colin Campbell, and Gary Bettman lying through their teeth about how great it is to me saying that it can be ticky-tacky at best, though necessary, to atrocious at worst. Guess which one it was during this game?

As always, bad calls seem to deflate the Leafs rather than steeling it to the task at hand. Case in point: After McCabe took a stupid penalty (no, not a autotext insertion) at the end of the second, Mike Hasenfrantz or Dave Jackson gave Mats Sundin a penalty for hooking 16 seconds into the third period to hand the Penguins a two-man advantage. Nevermind the fact that the replays CLEARLY showed that Mats had put his shoulder in front of the Penguins player to get position in their race for the puck. It kind of looked from some angle (I mean it had to LOOK like a penalty from SOME angle for the ref to give the penalty right? no? didn't think so) that a stick was in the vicinity (read:the same zone as the other player) of the Pens player so the ref called it. Of course the Pens scored to break the tie.

Later, they managed to give Pavel Kubina a penalty for throwing the stick at the Penguins puck carrier. Nevermind that throwing a stick in the attacking zone is supposed to be a penalty shot but the replay again CLEARLY showed that there was no such foul. Kubina lost his stick making one of his diving pokechecks when his stick was kicked out of his hands by the Penguins player! Of course, a goal followed suit and any hopes of a comeback were gone as the fight slipped right out of the Leafs.

This game was just another demonstration of why it is so difficult to cheer for the Leafs. They were facing a team on a five game losing streak, had the game tied, and then they capitulated after they had an apparent go-ahead goal by Aleksander Suglobov disallowed because Marc-Andre Fleury knocked the net off its moorings. This was a perfect game to help the Leafs build some momentum into their game with Ottawa. Instead, they play a poor game before traveling to face their regular season nemesis (how about that playoff record?) at home. But it sure was nice of the Leafs to act as slumpbusters (no, not THOSE slumpbusters) for the Penguins in their last year in Pittsburgh.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Leafs 4 v. Wild 3: LeafsTV Blackout

Game Recap

Unfortunately, I do not have LeafsTV anymore and going to the Cineplex to watch it was not an option either so it was a night of refreshing the page for updates. The Leafs, for once, took advantage of their opponent's weakness, in this case a horrific road record, to escape with a win.

As has been the case, and will be in the future, getting the bounces and a tighter defensive effort were the keys to victory. The Leafs held the Wild to 21 shots and got lucky goals from Mats Sundin, who banked a cross-ice pass in off Manny Fernandez, and Alex Steen who banged home a puck that rebounded off the boards. The Swedes were reunited in this game and saw 14 minutes of ice-time including the PP and PK. [Note: This would have looked even more prescient if I had posted it at the time of the game but my unwavering belief in Steen was rewarded against Boston (in the future! from when I started writing this.) tonight, January 4th.]

With Ponikarovsky, Antropov, Wellwood, Peca, and Tucker, who blocked a shot and suffered some swelling/bruising that will cost him games, out the fourth liners and Steen, Stajan, Kilger, and O'Neill have to step up in the same way that they did in this game for the Leafs to remain in the playoff hunt.

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