by Jon Neely… What if?
That’s the question so often asked in the world of sports these days, and more especially, in the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Ever since the last Stanley Cup victory in 1967, the loyal fans of the Leafs have been asking that question with only a shoulder shrug in response. There is really nothing anyone can do about what could have been. The past is the past, but there are plenty of opinions on events that changed the course of the team’s future, and if the events had happened differently.
And there have been plenty of what-ifs for this team over the past 10 years or so; like what if they never traded away budding superstars like Brad Boyes or Tukka Rask? What if they had a first round pick in this year’s draft? But the latter is a question for another day.
There is one question, though, that has been asked many a time that takes Leaf fans back to a better time. A time where winning was the norm, and the playoffs were a time to get excited in Toronto, not to hang up your Leafs jersey for another year.
A time when Pat Quinn was the coach.
He was hired in 1998 after the Leafs had gone a dismal 30-43-9 with only 69 points the season before. His impact was immediate, quickly turning the team from a pretender to a contender.
The Leafs previous style was not working and Quinn, over the course of just one season, turned them from a struggling group of individuals to a team-first, scoring machine with a swagger that commanded respect.
They finished Quinn’s first season with a record of 45-30-7 and 97 points, fourth best in the Eastern Conference. A 28-point difference from the season before, but that was just in the regular season.
The real magic came when the playoffs began, as the Leafs played their way into the Eastern Conference Finals against the Buffalo Sabres. They lost the series in five games, but the one-year transformation was complete and Quinn was in full control of the team.
And he had the city in a frenzy of excitement.
He was a runner-up for the Jack Adams Trophy, and was rewarded by being named the general manager along with his coaching duties.
It was officially Quinn’s team now, and the city was already in love with the fiery teddy bear that was the Leafs coach now knew that he was in full control as the GM. His second season in Toronto was even better, as his team finished third in the East with 100 points.
They lost in the second-round of the playoffs to the New Jersey Devils, the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but Leaf Nation was alive with realistic dreams of a championship in Toronto once again after that successful 1999-2000 season.
At this point Quinn might as well have been the Mayor of Toronto.
In the next three seasons the team finished with 90, 100, and 98 points, making it to at least the second-round in two of those three years, including yet another trip to the Conference Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002, which they lost in a hard-fought, six-game classic.
In those first five seasons Quinn had a record of 214-139-57, two trips to the Conference Finals, and the entire city in the palm of his hand. He had a lineup of grizzled old men and up-and-coming rookies, fused with a solid veteran presence in the net, and a determination that was second to none.
Quinn just didn’t want to win. He expected it.
The Leafs were finally back to being one of the best teams in the NHL, year in and year out.
But after the 2002-03 season, Quinn was replaced as the GM by John Ferguson Jr. However, Quinn remained as the team’s head coach. The Leafs brass felt it was best that someone else came in and looked after the management of the team, while Quinn focused solely on the team on the ice.
That’s when things started to change.
Sure, the 2003-04 regular season was the Leafs best under Quinn, finishing with 103 points before losing in the second-round to the Philadelphia Flyers, but there were rumblings of a rift between Quinn and Ferguson about the decisions being made.
After the 2004-05 lockout season the Leafs and Quinn returned in 2005 looking to make it to the postseason for the seventh straight time.
It was a tough year for the team, as they lost Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, and Ed Belfour to season-ending injuries (all three signed the season before by Ferguson) and looked to be out of the playoff picture with 12 games remaining. But on the shoulders of the many young players that were drafted by Quinn, as well as Quinn’s trusty veterans, the Leafs went on a 9-2-1 run to finish the campaign and missed the playoffs by just two points.
It was a tough pill to swallow, as it was the first time under Quinn that they finished outside of the playoff picture, but the incredible run at the end that was done without the help of three key members kept the city hopeful for the following season.
There were rumors that Ferguson was going to fire Quinn, something that was figured to have been the plan ever since JFJ became the GM of the team due to the friction between the two, but many Leaf players, including Mats Sundin, publicly supported their coach.
The majority of Leaf fans agreed. One bad season after six great ones was not enough to fire a coach, especially one who was as successful as Quinn.
Or so they thought.
Immediately following the end of that season in 2006, even before the playoffs had begun, Quinn was fired.
He had led his team to the playoffs six out of seven seasons, appeared in two Conference Finals, and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy. He finished with a record of 300-196-78 and a 41-39 record in the playoffs.
His players loved him and the city adored him, but because of one season where the team missed the playoffs by a mere two points, Quinn was shown the door with a simple “thank you for your contributions to the team.”
He did absolutely everything you could ask for from a coach, earning the love and respect of everyone who crossed his path. He did what he was supposed to do and then some.
So what if Pat Quinn was never fired? What if Ferguson Jr. was never hired as GM? What if there was no friction between the two? What if Quinn was able to stay on with the team for even just one more season?
It’s almost impossible to say what would have been if Quinn was allowed to stay on as the coach of the Leafs. Sure, the team’s veteran players were only getting older and the salary cap meant that the Leafs could no longer afford any player at any time. Sure, the heart and soul players like Darcy Tucker, Curtis Joseph, and Mats Sundin who willed this team to so many wins are long gone.
And sure, the league was smack-dab in the middle of a boom of young talent coming in and taking over, but did Quinn really deserve to be let go? We all know the disaster of a job that Ferguson did as the GM of the team, trading away prospects and draft picks for older players that never really panned out.
So the question of whether bringing in Ferguson was the right move will always remain. He was the reason Quinn was fired; he fired him. He and the higher-ups on the Leafs wanted to put their own stamp on the club.
A stamp that since then has withered and been all but tossed in the trash.
His firing had no merit. Plain and simple.
It may not have made a difference whether Quinn stayed or not, but the Leafs haven’t made the playoffs since his departure. In fact, every season since his departure has gotten worse and worse as the team becomes gradually more of a laughing-stock.
He should have been given at least one more shot. After all he had done, one more season with the club was not too much to ask.
There are no more 90-point seasons now. There are no more chants of “we want the Cup” ringing from the crowd at the ACC. The playoffs are simply a dream these days. And though Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have come in and earned some admiration from Leaf fans in their short time as the current coach and GM, there hasn’t been anyone as loved and respected as Pat Quinn.
And no one as deserving.
It’s a different team now and almost every player that was a member in Quinn’s days is long gone. It’s a new team now. A younger team. A worse team.
And say what you want about the new NHL, Quinn just had a way of making things work with the players on that team.
The Leafs only remaining game against a Western Conference team this season is against Quinn and his new team, the Edmonton Oilers—one of only two teams worse than the Leafs.
On March 13 he will make his first trip back to the Air Canada Center since standing behind the home team’s bench, chewing his gum ever so vigorously, and wearing his heart on his sleeve for the blue and white for seven fantastic seasons.
He will no doubt receive a standing ovation from the ACC crowd, a small gesture of thanks for everything he did during his tenure with the Leafs. He certainly deserves one, at the very least.
While the thousands of fans stand and salute the man that was so successful behind the bench in Toronto, there will no doubt be a video-montage playing back the memories of the days when this was Quinn’s team.
A time when fans cheered on a winning team. A time when Toronto was a tough place to play. A time when the mention of the Toronto Maple Leafs wasn’t followed with a sarcastic laugh.
The good old days.
What if indeed.
by Jon Neely… It’s about that time of year in Leaf land. The losses are less and less painful to watch as the numbness sets in on yet another disappointing season.
What makes it worse this season is that the Leafs in fact have a worse record than they did at this point last year. Frankly it’s depressing, but as another night ends with a loss in Toronto, we the fans get more and more used to it.
So let’s do our best to try and get over the fact that the Leafs don’t have a first round pick after this year, or that the team looks about as effective as a beached whale, and look at something positive about the team. Anything.
And that anything could come in the form of Tyler Bozak.
Much has been made about the “center for Kessel” campaign, and though Tuesday night against the Hurricanes was Bozak’s first game playing along side the Leafs prized sniper, he sure looked like he fit rather nicely.
He pitched in with one assist in his 15 minutes of ice time and was able to showcase a bit of that passing talent he has. Ron Wilson had him playing on a line with for the duration of the night in a losing effort.
That assist means that Bozak now has two points in his two career games; both coming this season.
He even had some time on the power play and looked as if he could be effective in that role in the future. The 23-year-old also won five of seven face offs, an area the Leafs need to improve in with Mikhail Grabovski and Wayne Primeau out with injury for the next few weeks.
Overall it was an excellent second game in the career of Bozak, who is most likely up with the big club (if you can even call them that anymore) for a while now. He has a shot to cement his spot on the team for future endeavors if he can prove to be the guy (at least for now) who can center Kessel effectively.
Because God knows it ain’t working out with anyone else on the team.
No word yet on whether Wilson plans on using the same Kessel-Bozak-Kulemin combination in the upcoming game against Philadelphia on Thursday night, but the three did combine for a plus one, three points, and seven shots in the 4-2 loss.
This isn’t your usual Toronto-style hype-job of the “savior” finally getting his chance to take the Leafs back to Stanley Cup glory, because we all know how that’s gone in the past decade or so; come out, come out where ever you are, Justin Pogge. This is a chance for a guy to show that he could be the missing link in the Kessel can’t score saga.
Most likely Bozak is not the future number one center for the Leafs, but as far as this season goes; he’s got as good a chance as anyone to be the interim number one and help this team finish out the final 35 games strong.
And if his first two games are any indication, it could be a successful second half of the season for Bozak
Whether or not that holds true for the Leafs, well, there’s still a glimmer of hope when it comes to the playoffs. Unfortunately hope might just be all we have at this point.
by Jon Neely… It’s bad enough when you’re the biggest underdog going into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. It’s worse when one of the four NHL players named to your team gets injured and won’t be able to play for the team.
But this is the case for Belarus and Mikhail Grabovski, who was looking forward to taking part in the Olympics on a team that will need all the help it can get.
Grabovski suffered a fractured wrist during the first period of Saturday night’s game in Calgary and is expected to be out six weeks. He was hit hard as he cut across the ice and immediately knew something was wrong as he left the ice.
He has had an up and down season with the Maple Leafs and is currently fifth in scoring on the team with 25 points. He has had difficulty finding his spot in the lineup, being tossed around different line combinations before finding himself on the fourth line in the past two weeks.
He seemed frustrated by his own play as well as by what Coach Ron Wilson had been saying about his play, but the coach was right in what he said; Grabo hasn’t been what he needs to be for the Leafs.
The Leafs will miss his face-off ability as he has been the best on the team this season, but his absence will most likely be a minor blip for the team. It will merely open the door for one of the younger players from the Marlies to get a chance with the big club.
As for Belarus, the news is like getting kicked while it’s down.
As a team with essentially no shot at winning a medal in Vancouver, Belarus basically just fills a spot in the tournament and becomes fodder for teams like Canada, Sweden and the U.S.
Losing one of its NHL players makes it even worse, if that’s possible, for a team that will struggle scoring a goal, never mind winning a game.
Grabovski was to join his two rivals from the Montreal Canadiens, Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, as well as Colorado Avalanche defenseman, Ruslan Salei, on Team Belarus, but he will have to let that opportunity pass.
The biggest story going into Vancouver for Belarus was going to be how the team would be able to deal with the rift between the Kostitsyn brothers and Grabovski, a story that no doubt would have been interesting to Leafs and Habs fans as well.
Unfortunately, it will never be able to develop.
Grabovski, who was a member of the Canadiens until he was traded to the Leafs last season, was said to have a major issue with the brothers while playing with them in Montreal, and it continued in each of the team’s meetings since then.
Some may say the injury fixes that problem for the team, but there is no way Belarus wants to sacrifice NHL talent over three players who don’t get along.
In the end, the injury will hardly affect where Belarus would have finished in the tournament, as one player for the team is nowhere near enough to compete with the juggernauts it’ll be playing against. For the fans of the game though, it’s tough to see a team that never really stood a chance go through such bad luck.
I wonder what the Kostitsyns are thinking right now.
Talk about “a penny for your thoughts.”
by Jon Neely… So many questions, so little time.
Much has been said since the Toronto Maple Leafs traded two first-round picks and a second-round pick for American sniper, Phil Kessel. Everyone chimed in with their opinion of whether or not he was worth that much, or if it was just another bad decision by a Leafs GM.
Well, he has played 15 games with the team now, and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that anymore questions need not be asked.
Kessel is proving he is worth far more than the team could have even imagined, and his impact so far may surprise you.
He sat out the team’s first 12 games, and they went a disastrous 1-7-4 without him, sitting dead-last in the NHL with only 15 even-strength goals in that time. The season looked grim right from the start, and many were starting to believe that even with Kessel inserted into the lineup, the Leafs had fallen too far out of the race.
But as soon as Kessel arrived on the scene, the team has not only played better, but they’ve been steadily fighting their way back into the pack, a mere six points out of a playoff spot as of Friday.
He has 10 goals and 15 points after 15 games and is showing no signs of slowing down. Kessel registered his third multi-goal game Thursday night in Columbus and is showing that he can score from anywhere on the ice.
With Kessel the Leafs have a record of 7-5-3 and improved their five-on-five play, scoring 37 even-strength goals, a major improvement compared to the first month of the season.
It is no shock that Kessel has come in and played well for a team that was in desperate need of some offensive help, but there were few who thought his great play would not only boost the play of those around him, but propel the Leafs back up the standings into contention.
The questions will always remain whether Brian Burke should have given up three draft picks for Kessel, but 15 games into the season he is proving to be worth every one of those picks.
Heck, who knows how those picks will pan out; Leafs could have pulled off a steal by the time this thing is all said and done.
Unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Things are fine and dandy in Leaf land right now, even though it was just announced that rookie goaltender, Jonas Gustavsson will have to go in for his second heart procedure in less than three months, but with the offense finally clicking, it may be a situation the team can deal with for the time being.
Tonight in Boston, Kessel will return to the place he left this summer, and the reception will be less than a welcoming one for sure. After scoring 36 goals through 70 games last season he departed with mixed feelings from his former team, reportedly with a poor relationship with more than one person on the club.
Nevertheless, the game should be a doozy, and you know Kessel will be all fired up for his return to the place his NHL career began.
The fans will no doubt boo him till the lights go out, but with Kessel playing at the top of his game and the Leafs closing in on the Bruins in the standings, those fans just might be wishing he never left.
In the back of their minds, at least.
Bostonians have been laughing at Torontonians since the trade happened, but a strong performance by the former Bruin might just turn the tables, and Leaf fans will finally be able to ask a question of a different nature.
Who’s laughing now?
by Jon Neely… The stage doesn’t get much bigger than CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada in Toronto on Saturday night. Add in a matchup against the game’s most explosive player, Alexander Ovechkin, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a nationally viewed disaster for a struggling team.
It’s one thing to be the player a coach asks to have the dubious duty of attempting to shut down Ovechkin.
It’s another thing to tell the coach you want to be on the ice every time Ovechkin is; to tell him that you can shut down the league’s best player.
A strong statement, indeed, and one that Francois Beauchemin of the Toronto Maple Leafs made last Saturday night prior to their game against the Washington Capitals.
The Leafs were struggling mightily, last place in the Eastern Conference and coming home after a heart-wrenching shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Not exactly a perfect start coming into a game against the best team in the East.
Before the puck dropped, before the cameras were rolling and the bright lights were shining, and before millions of eyes were focused directly on him, Beauchemin went to coach Ron Wilson and told him that he wanted to go head-to-head against Alex Ovechkin every single shift.
A wish that was granted by the coach, but one that may have been puzzling to fans and media alike had they heard about it before the game.
Coming into his first season with the Leafs, Beauchemin was regarded as a solid defender capable of shutting down opposing players, with a Stanley Cup ring to prove it. But much has been said about Beauchemin’s success largely coming from playing alongside Scott Niedermayer, the future Hall-of-Famer of the Anaheim Ducks.
It didn’t start out well for the 29-year-old, either. Through the first 20 games or so, Beauchemin looked out of place while seemingly trying too hard to make plays that Niedermayer himself wouldn’t even try.
The criticism came early and often and it looked as if the heat was getting to him. Fans feared the worst; could this be yet another overpaid player not able to perform up to expectations?
It certainly seemed that way, but that all changed Saturday night when Beauchemin decided to not only prove his worth to the team, but do it while attempting to shut down the best player in the league in a nationally televised game.
Ovechkin scored early in the game and it looked to be the same old story for the Leafs, who have repeatedly been unable to stop opposing teams’ best players.
Then something strange happened; it was if Ovechkin simply disappeared from the game. Sure, he was on the ice for over 26 minutes and recorded six shots on net, but watching the game you certainly wouldn’t know it.
Ovechkin had been struggling—by his standards—coming into the game, and that could have been a reason for the disappearing act, but when you check the tape you’ll see that it most certainly wasn’t simply an off-game.
Francois Beauchemin was shadowing the Great 8 so tightly you’d think the guy owed him money.
Not only did he keep him from breaking free and getting scoring chances around the net, but he rarely allowed Ovechkin to even gain possession of the puck. An extremely impressive performance by the new Leaf, and one the fans had been waiting for since the season began.
But Beauchemin’s shut-down play didn’t stop there; next up was the New York Islanders and their wonder kid, John Tavares. The coming-home party for the first overall pick in this year’s draft was hoping to impress, coming back to the place where his hockey career began.
But with over 50 friends and family members in the crowd, Tavares did not put on the display they were hoping for. In fact, the kid was essentially invisible for his 17:42 minutes of ice time, thanks to Beauchemin, who kept him in check all night. Tavares had one shot and spent most of his time on the ice in front of the net, as he was swarmed by the new-and-improved Leaf defender.
Then came Monday night in Tampa, against the star-studded cast of the Lightning; the best of which is last year’s first overall pick and budding superstar, Steve Stamkos.
Stamkos did register two assists in the game, but was matched stride-for-stride on each of his 28 shifts—by none other than Beauchemin, once again.
Three straight games against three first overall picks all looking to punish a Leafs defense that has been weak all season, and instead it was like stick-handling in a match box thanks to a man who knew he needed to step up his game; and there’s no better way to test yourself than against the best players in the NHL.
He averaged over 28 minutes of ice time in those three games and was one of, if not the most integral part of the team’s success, and why they secured six of a possible eight points.
It could have failed miserably for Beauchemin and no one would have blinked an eye, because that’s how he’s been playing all season. But instead, the Quebec native challenged himself to be better and not only has he answered the call, but his teammates seem to be following him.
There are plenty of people who can lead in the dressing room, voice their opinion and say all the right things, but a true leader is one who leads by example every night; no matter who they’re up against.
For a man who’s name rolls of the tongue like a butterfly fluttering eloquently through the air, Francois Beauchemin has proved in the last three games that he is a legitimate shut-down defender.
It wasn’t the coach who demanded him to play better, but the player who demanded better play out of himself. That’s what makes a true leader, and that’s what this Leafs team needs if their improved play is to continue.
It’s now up to the rest of the team to take a look in the mirror, too.
by Jon Neely… It’s easy to switch up the lines when things aren’t going well for a hockey club, though for some of the players on the Toronto Maple Leafs, new linemates just aren’t working out.
It’s time they were given a stern message about their poor play; improve or you’re watching from the press box.
Certain players on the Leafs, of which will be named, have been almost invisible throughout the team’s recent games, and with Ron Wilson exhausting multiple line combinations to no avail, it may be time to send a shock through the team and call down to the Marlies.
Players like Matt Stajan, Rickard Wallin, and Jason Blake have played well at times, but have been overall major disappointments so far.
Through 16 games, Blake has just two goals, and with his shot total matching the number on his back, his shooting percentage is less than four percent. With Blake’s cap hit at $4 million this season, you can bet the men in suits are not happy, and neither are the fans.
Basically, the only beneficial thing Blake has done all season is boost opposing goalies’ save percentages—which I’m sure they appreciate.
Even playing alongside Phil Kessel, who has as many goals as Blake in four games, he doesn’t seem to be finding the back of the net any easier. In the team’s 5-2 loss to Minnesota earlier in the week, Blake was taken off the top line and replaced with Niklas Hagman for long stretches in the game. A direct message sent his way, but one that didn’t seem to work.
It hasn’t been working for Stajan, either, who has been relegated to fourth line duty and is averaging about 13 minutes a game over the last three. After a strong start from the 25-year-old, he has gone 12 games without a goal and is a minus eight.
Wilson has made his attempts at bringing Stajan’s game back to life, but playing alongside Colton Orr and Wayne Primeau don’t seem to be the answer. You could even argue it’s hurting the toughness factor of the line, seeing as the toughest thing Stajan’s ever done is switch from a regular toothbrush to an electric one; don’t hurt yourself, kid.
Then there is Mr. Wallin, the soft-spoken 29-year-old who looks more like a violinist than a hockey player. He finds himself creeping ever so close to being completely useless as a member of the team. Through 16 games he has two assists, or to put a different spin on how bad it’s been; in 2002 with the Wild he participated in four games and had more goals then.
He also has more games played (16) then shots on net (14) thus far, and I know he’s meant to be a defensive forward, but come on Rickard, it’s time to step it up or step aside.
Even on defense, where things are improving, Wilson should have his guys know that one more poor effort and he’ll be sitting players in the stands rather than at the end of the bench. Luke Schenn and Francois Beauchemin have had their struggles this season and it’s almost as if they feel they can get away with it because if they haven’t been scratched yet, why would they be now?
It’s time for Wilson to say goodbye to Mr. Nice Guy and get tough on his players. No more dodge ball at practice, he needs to have his players dodging questions from the media about why they’re wearing a suit and tie instead of being on the ice.
The Leafs have been far too inconsistent this season and it can’t go on any longer. If this team wants to play meaningful games late in the season, Wilson needs to start handing out healthy scratches like they’re going out of style.
And there is plenty of young talent on the Toronto Marlies just itching to get a chance back up with the big boys.
Christian Hanson has been the best player on the Marlies this season and would undoubtedly look good in a Leafs uniform right now. Through 12 games he has five goals and 13 points and is proving himself to be a leader of his team.
He played a short stint with the Leafs last season and looked good with room for improvement, but at this point it wouldn’t hurt to bring him up for a few games and see how he has progressed while playing heavy minutes in the AHL.
With the lack of goal-scoring from Blake this season, it would be a huge wakeup call if Wilson told him to watch the game from above, while Hanson stepped in to take his position.
Or how about Viktor Stalberg, who had a brilliant preseason, but after sustaining a concussion from a massive hit in a game against Ottawa, wasn’t able to get his scoring touch back and looked much slower.
It seems as if he has regained his touch while playing in the AHL, and has three goals and seven points in just four games. Yes, the NHL is a much tougher atmosphere to play in, but if you were to replace Wallin with a speedy Stalberg it certainly couldn’t be worse.
As for Stajan, if he wants to continue to be invisible on the ice, Wilson might as well just remove him altogether, because you know not a single person would argue if the team brought up Tyler Bozak—already a fan favourite.
Bozak has had a tough few weeks with reports suggesting he had caught the swine flu, but he has recovered and is back skating with the Marlies.
Bringing Bozak up could light a fire under him, as he was on a point-per-game pace when up with the Leafs—okay, so he got one assist in the one game he played—and you can bet that Stajan, if given the chance again, would come back knowing that his job isn’t safe.
Even on defense, where there have been times that most of the Leafs look uninterested, Wilson needs to be tougher and instead of publicly criticizing them, needs to physically move them off the ice.
23-year-old Carl Gunnarsson looked like he had been playing on NHL ice for years during the preseason. He even heard the praises from Brian Burke, who was impressed with his ability to stand out—in a positive way, unlike some of his Leaf teammates—and prove that he could play against anyone.
If it wasn’t for the log-jam that is Toronto’s defense core, he may well have made the team to begin with, and it may be time to try out the Gunnarrson experiment once again.
I mean, the worst thing that happens is he comes in and makes a mistake which costs the team—something his Leaf teammates have made habit of doing so far—so needless to say, it wouldn’t hurt.
Coming into the season, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson said time and time again that they would not hesitate to sit any player, no matter who it was, if they were not performing on the ice.
This is where the saying, “less talk, more action” would apply.
Wilson needs to start sending real messages, not the kind where a player finds himself on a new line; that isn’t working. The Marlies are right around the corner and if it’s the phone bill they’re worried about they can just shout down to the AHL club.
You can bet there is a room full of Marlies who would jump at the chance to play in front of the bright lights of the NHL, and the time is now for Wilson to get tougher.
No more Mr. Nice Guy.
by Jon Neely… The more things change, the more they stay the same.
For the fourth straight game the Leafs were tied after 60-minutes and went into overtime and for the fourth straight time the Leafs lost in or after that extra frame.
But not all is lost; in fact things are looking up in Leaf land with points in five-straight games, and the addition of Phil Kessel who finally made his debut in the lineup Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.
He played exceptionally well, recording 10 shots and causing problems around the Tampa net all night. His speed and skill with the puck were on display every time he stepped on the ice, but he just couldn’t light the lamp as the Leafs fell 2-1 in overtime.
Needless to say, Kessel’s performance was better than you would expect for someone who hasn’t played a game in six months, not to mention for a brand new team. Ron Wilson suggested prior to the game that he would ease the 21-year old in to game action, but it turned out to be the complete opposite.
Kessel was on the ice for almost 24 minutes, two minutes longer than the next highest Leaf, Jason Blake. So he wasn’t exactly slowly introduced back into the heat of battle, but he sure looked good, even after taking a monstrous hit from Bolts blue-liner Mattias Ohlund on his third shift of the game.
Leaf fans, we finally got to see game one of the Kessel Era, and other than not getting on the score sheet, we saw him play an excellent game fitting in well with his new line mates.
So what did we learn, and what can we expect to see from here on in with Kessel as a member of the blue and white?
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Shots, shots, and more shots
And I’m not talking about Lil’ Jon’s annoying new song. No, I’m talking about constant rubber aimed at opposing goalies. The Leafs have eclipsed the 30-shot mark in eight-straight games, launching 41 against Tampa, and with the newest Leaf firing at will, you can bet the shots will keep on coming.
Between Kessel and his line mates, Stajan and Blake, they had a combined 16 shots and were buzzing around the net all game.
Once Kessel has completely rounded back into form and starts putting some of those shots into the net, because you know it’s going to happen soon, the Leafs can expect to be able to hang with most teams on most nights when it comes to the goal department.
More ice time for certain players
For almost 24 minutes, Kessel was out on the ice on Tuesday night, which means that someone has got to be playing with him. Whoever those players end up being, can expect to start receiving more time on the ice than they’ve been getting.
Both Stajan and Blake saw their ice-time increase, each playing more minutes than they have all year, while skating alongside Kessel for most of the night. Both players have struggled coming out of the gate (the two combining for only four goals and 14 points on the season so far) and will get all the opportunity in the world to come out of their slide.
If neither player sees much of an improvement while playing more minutes with a much more skilled player than their used to, you can bet that Wilson will do some line-juggling to find someone who is capable of stepping it up along side Kessel.
And less ice time for others
Of course, with Kessel coming in and playing big minutes, it means that someone else is forced to play less. Who that ends up being is yet to be seen, but it was clear who was most affected in Tuesday’s game.
Niklas Hagman was hovering around the 19 minute mark in most games coming into the matchup against Tampa Bay. He had been the Leafs most potent weapon so far in the young season, leading in goals with six through the first 12 games.
But once Kessel came in and played some serious minutes, Hagman saw his ice time decrease heavily. He only played 14:31 in a game that included a few minutes of overtime, clearly not seen by the coach as the go-to man now.
The Leafs had eight power plays in the game, and normally Hagman would find himself on the ice for the majority of that time, but spent less than four minutes on the ice while up a man.
Kessel played nine minutes on the PP.
It may not be Hagman who is impacted every night, but you can bet that if Kessel is heating up offensively, Leafs coaching staff won’t hesitate for a second to keep on throwing him out there for big minutes.
It’ll be up to the rest of the players to keep up if they want to see their fair share of game action as well.
Lethal power play potential
It didn’t result in a goal, but the Leafs power play with the addition of Kessel looked good.
With Kaberle and Stempniak on the point, and Blake and Stajan roaming around with him, Kessel came close a number of times with man-advantage and was repeatedly found open around the net, but couldn’t get the puck past Niittymaki on his numerous chances.
With Kaberle and Stempniak forming an excellent duo together on the point, and the addition of Kessel to the already sixth-ranked power play, the Leafs could be lethal when up a man.
If they can gel together as a line they could be one of the most dangerous teams on the power play.
One thing that was very obvious throughout the entire game was how the Leafs used their speed. Mikhail Grabovski and John Mitchell were noticeably quicker on the ice, and after watching Blake and Kessel blow by them down the ice on various occasions, you can imagine they were eager to impress as well.
With Kessel’s ability to break down the wing at a very quick pace, line mates will once again have to learn to catch up or get out of the way. The Leafs as a team seemed much quicker as a whole, and the addition of Kessel was a major reason for it.
Every time he got the puck and headed up the ice, the players around him bolted towards the net in hopes of gobbling up a rebound or receiving a pass.
In the NHL today speed can play a huge factor with the crack-down on clutching and grabbing. Kessel is fast, we know that, and now the rest of the team will need to pick up the pace as well.
With a team built on speed, well, you can expect the Leafs will be off to the races.
The game wasn’t perfect by any stretch, but Tuesday night at the Air Canada Center was livelier than it had been since opening night. The fans sense of hope was renewed and they once again had something to look forward to.
Kessel brings a ton to this Leaf team that is crying out for a savior, but he won’t be able to solve all the team’s woes on his own, he’s going to need some help. If help is what the players can give him, then fans in Toronto can anticipate this team to get back into the playoff hunt.
And even though it ended in a loss, fans left the ACC after the game Tuesday night a little happier than they normally would after losing. The potential to be great is there; all this team needs to do now is work together and learn how to win again.
Forget Terrell Owens, there’s a new number 81 playing in Toronto this season.
And if the first game was any indication, he won’t be dropping the ball.
by Jon Neely… Thomas Kaberle has never been one to complain during his career in Toronto. He’s been here through the bad times, and the really bad times, and has simply stuck to his game.
He has been rumored in dozens of trades over the past three seasons, criticized for his lack of physicality, and constantly heckled for not shooting the puck enough.
Fans cried for him to be shipped out of town for the past two seasons, and on various occasions, he was all-but-gone. Yet the Leafs were never able to see a trade through.
He has never been given the respect that he deserves and is regularly blamed as having a role in the Leafs downfall.
And through all that, he shows up every night and is consistently the most important defender on the team.
Well, this season we’re starting to see that he might just be the most important defender in the league for his team. Without Kaberle leading the way, the Leafs terrible start to the season might just be down right indescribable.
His 17 points (2 G, 15 A) not only leads the Leafs in points, but puts him on top of the list of defenseman scoring. The next closest player to him is San Jose’s Dan Boyle, who has 13 points, but has played 15 games; three more than Kaberle.
On their recent five-game road trip, Kaberle had a mind-blowing 13 points; five of them coming in the teams only win against Anaheim. He is averaging 24 minutes each game and along with Ian White, has been the best defenseman on the team, without a doubt.
Plenty of blue-liners have come and gone in Toronto during Kaberle’s stay here and since 1998 (his rookie season) he has played 750 games for the club, scoring 450 points.
Never complaining once.
It’s about time Thomas Kaberle was given the respect he deserves. It’s about time he was named captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Now, more than ever, the Leafs need a leader, and so far in this young season the 31-year-old has shown by example that he can lead this team.
At the beginning of the season, three players were given an ‘A’ on their chest as Assistant Captains; Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, and Kaberle. If the battle for the captaincy was between those three, Kaberle is already running away with it.
It’s a no contest at this point.
He has been on the team the longest and he understands more than any other player the struggles the Leafs and their fans have gone through in years gone by. It wouldn’t be right to hand the ‘C’ over to a player who just arrived this season, like Komisarek or Beauchemin, and continuing without a captain for much longer isn’t right either.
Kaberle deserves it more than anyone on the team, and there is no better player to replace Mats Sundin as the leader. He has lead by example in every game this season and his confidence has been rubbing off on his teammates as their play improves game by game.
Kaberle has always been an important player on the team, whether fans will admit it or not, but now he is emerging as the cornerstone of the Leafs, and vital to their success; the most important member of the Leafs.
Now more than ever, Kaberle deserves to be the captain.
by Jon Neely… It’s been a scary beginning of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs to say the least.
Their record is something out of a nightmare. They now have a monster in the crease, and plenty of people in the Air Canada Center have been saying “boo.” Yes, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Halloween in Leaf Nation.
Dressing up for this sacred holiday is always great fun, and sometimes a costume can tell you a lot about a person.
Take Leafs fans, for example, who lately have been appearing at home games with the always fashionable paper bags covering their face to hide their distraught looks after the dreadful record to start the new season.
The costumes of the Leafs bagged believers tell you all you need to know about the fans, but what about the players on this team of terror? No doubt they have a few good ideas of their own, but a costume says a lot about a person.
Here are some great suggestions of devilish disguises the players should wear to the Maple Leafs Halloween Bash 2009.
The young defenseman has become the next victim of the classic sophomore jinx that can affect even the best players in their second year.
As Luke Schenn has struggled through his first three weeks of the season, there is one thing that has become a common theme in his play. He is sure in a giving mood right now.
Since this is the case, it is only fitting that he show up to the party dressed as the Maple Leafs mascot, Carlton the Bear, who is guilty of free give-a-ways consistently.
As each game passes, Schenn gives more and more pucks away to the opposition in his own end, and it looks like the end is nowhere in sight.
If he’s going to be in such a giving mood, he might as well throw on the white bear outfit and toss in a back flip, or the always entertaining jump through a fire-lit hoop.
Replace his stick with t-shirt cannon, load up some of the latest Leafs attire, and let them fly to the adoring fans above.
The longtime Leafs teddy bear better watch out if the second-year defender keeps it up, he might be looking for other work in the ACC.
Next through the doors of the Leafs Halloween bash is Mike Komisarek, one of the new additions to the team who is going through his fair share of struggles as well.
His costume may confuse at first, but soon those around will realize just who he is trying to be come Hallows Eve.
The red shirt may suggest that he’s come as a member of his old team, the Montreal Canadiens, but that’s not it at all.
Along with a black hat and pants, golf bag slung on his back, and Nike ‘swooshes’ spread out accordingly, this Leafs blue liner will come as none other than the billionaire himself, Tiger Woods, on the final day of a tournament.
Due to each man’s unbelievable ability to register the best minus score in the heat of competition, it is only fitting that Komisarek play best golfer in the world for a night.
And if he continues to subtract from his already plummeting plus/minus, you can expect the Leafs coaching staff to put a putter in his hands, and send him on his way.
This speedy forward’s costume will take some serious work and creativity to pull off, but if done right it could stand out as one of the best at the gathering.
Jason Blake needs to come dressed fully, from head to toe, as a convertible of his choice. That’s right, he needs to arrive dressed as a car. The reasoning is quite simple.
Like a convertible in Toronto, Blake is fast and flashy, but very expensive and a terrible underperformer during hockey season.
Yes, he occasionally will have a great game and add his name to the score sheet. For the amount the Leafs are paying him annually, however, he ought to be bulging the twine at a much higher pace than he currently is.
And like that flamboyant ride you’re unable to drive in the snow, Blake has Leaf fans frequently wondering what the point of him being here was.
Yet another Leafs blue liner who’s had a frequent case of the “oopsies.” Francois Beauchemin’s costume might have some cringing, but will no doubt get a laugh from his teammates.
You know that aunt of yours that lives far away and you hardly ever see, but when you do she just can’t help but pinch your cheeks, even when you’re far too old and it’s completely unnecessary? Well, Beauchemin and your aunt happen to have a lot in common.
He too has the disturbing habit of pinching, even when it’s completely unnecessary.
Therefore he needs to arrive dressed in an old dress and pantyhose while carrying a cigarette and talking in a raspy voice. Yes, that aunt.
Until he learns not to, he can remain in this costume since he all too often sees an opportunity to make a play, and then lets that opportunity pass before deciding to slide in ever so slowly to the opposition’s zone, lose the battle, and look back to witness the two-on-one taking place towards his own net.
And the fans, just like the little boy greeting his aunt, can usually see the pinch coming. Unfortunately, the only option one has is to cringe and wait for the pain to subside.
Not much negative to say about his play this season, as he’s been a pleasant surprise—one of the few—on the team this season. His costume is inspired because of an impressive skill the budding defender has, and it will surprise no one when a cheer erupts from the crowd when he enters the room.
Since Ian White has facial hair that rivals that of the Geico caveman, it would only be natural that he shows up dressed in a retro Leafs jersey, old-fashioned helmet, and a massive grin on his face.
Oh, and we can’t forget the gigantic moustache bustling out from under his nose.
That’s right, for one night this defenseman will throw back to the old days and come to the party dressed as the one and only Lanny McDonald. The preparation wouldn’t be difficult for White either, who is rumored to be able to grow a full-blown moustache in mere hours.
He could even sling a Stanley Cup over his head in jubilation, but to be historically correct, he’d have to be wearing a Calgary Flames jersey. That costume may not be as appreciated.
Not much of a change for White, though, since he and the Leafs legend not only share the ability to grow a beautiful duster, but they even wear the same number.
Some things are just meant to be.
The 23-year-old Russian is a quiet, soft-spoken player who prefers to let his play do the talking rather than his mouth. Not the type of person you’d expect to go all out on a Halloween costume, but he might surprise some on this night.
I may be the only person on this fine planet who thinks this way, but there is only one natural costume Nikolai Kulemin can possibly wear. You guessed it, dressed as a member of the Jamaican Bobsled Team from the classic 1993 film Cool Runnings.
Now, before you question my sanity, let me explain why this would make perfect sense. His name is pronounced Kool-Uh-Mon, and as citizens of North America we are used to hearing that name in a North-American accent.
If you slightly change the tone in your voice when you pronounce it, however, you’ll notice something quite enjoyable.
If you simply speak in the lowest possible tone you can dive down to, while articulating Nikolai’s last name, you’ll see where the Jamaican idea comes from.
Say it with me now, deepest voice you got.
See what I mean?
And if you don’t, and I’m merely insane, then picture the silent sniper walking into the room, donning green and yellow tights, with a helmet in hand, reciting popular quotes from the hit film. It would get a laugh.
The veteran winger born in Scarborough, Ontario, 33 years ago finally got a chance to play for his hometown team this season, and win or lose, you’ve got to imagine he’s enjoying every second of it.
He probably won’t enjoy the night of the Oct. 31 though. The veteran winger will carefully put together his giant sign reading, “Finally, Wayne comes to Toronto!” to proudly display at the Toronto event, but won’t ever show up.
You see, Wayne Primeau has had some injury problems in his career, mainly concussions, or in NHL playoff talk, “upper-body injuries.” Between him and his brother, Keith, they’ve had their fair share of bumps to the head.
If concussions were goals, then these two combined would lead the league this season…until March.
So needless to say, because of the repeated head trauma this poor man has faced in his career, he will forget where his destination is that night, and spend it on his couch, rocking back-and-forth, sucking his thumb.
Vesa Toskala will have the easiest costume to make compared to the rest of his teammates, because all he will have to wear is his goalie equipment.
The only change would be replacing his mask for a baseball cap, and bringing a bench to the party to sit on off to the side.
Thanks to his ghastly play early on, and the emergence of Jonas Gustavsson, Toskala will be wearing that baseball cap on the bench an awful lot this season, as the backup net minder.
There you have it, a night filled with ghouls, ghosts, and awkward karaoke moments for the Toronto Maple Leafs. From the costumes alone, it sounds like it’s going to be a rocking good time this Halloween after the Leafs take on the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night.
Oh, and of course we can’t forget about the candy, which will be handed out at the front door by GM Brian Burke himself, dressed in his usual suit and tie.
Fun is not a word in the man’s vocabulary, and getting a smile out of him on the joyous night will be hard enough, let alone getting him into a costume.
But you can bet that when the media scrum comes a knocking, begging for details on the night’s events, Burke will step out and address them like he always does.
He will completely avoid the question and mumble something about truculence, pugnacity, or the Sedin twins.
In what has been a terrifying October for the Toronto Maple Leafs, you can bet that the entire team will be overjoyed on Halloween night.
Not only because they’ll get to see Ron Wilson do the limbo, but because as the night turns to morning, and the month turns to November, the team can forget about their poor play in the first month of the season, and look forward to the improved ones to come.
It’s been a scary season so far, but the collective hope of Leaf Nation is that after the night is done and the costumes have been put away, the only fear that is felt around this team from now on is by the opposing team as they look down the ice and stare into the eyes of a real monster.
by Jon Neely… If I were to ask who needed to step up their game to get the Toronto Maple Leafs out of this terrible slump, the answer might be laughable. You could say that so far, every single member of the team has played far below their potential.
You certainly could make a case.
But things haven’t exactly been as bad as it would seem for every member of the team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this team isn’t in a terrible situation, because they most assuredly are, but there are a few positives that can be brought out of these dreary days in Toronto.
Sure, the goaltending has struggled mightily, but things may not be as bad as they seem in net. Joey Macdonald played well in a 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night, and Jonas Gustavsson has only played 97 minutes this season due to injury. You can bet when “The Monster” gets back into games this week he’ll be at his best, knowing that if he plays well, the starting job is his.
The Leafs have been weak when it comes to scoring goals. Dismal, in fact. They’ve only scored 15 goals in the eight games played. This has them ranked dead last in the league in that department. There are a few, and I mean a few, bright spots.
Alexei Ponikarovsky has managed a plus/minus rating of five, leading the team. He has also added three goals and looked good for the most part. Niklas Hagman, who was benched just a few games ago (and unfairly by some people’s standards), has stood out in almost every game he’s played.
His speed and excellent puck control in the offensive zone has lead to many chances, including his three goals and five points. Both of which lead the team.
On defense, it’s two Leafs who have been here for a while who are playing the best. Ian White has stood out as the best defender on the team, being a rare skater not on the minus side of things. Thomas Kaberle is in a tie for the team lead in points and has looked like his usual confident-with-the-puck self.
Yes, the good things for the Toronto Maple Leafs have been few and far between this season. Plenty of hard work is needed for this team to right the ship. A large majority of the team has been inconsistent, or consistently terrible. Many of the players who were counted on coming into the campaign to lead the team have not shown up.
Here are the players who must step up and play better for the Leafs or else they’ll be feeling the consequences sooner than later.
Through his first two seasons with the Leafs, Jason Blake has garnered a reputation of a player who gets a lot of shots, but not a lot of goals. He had 634 shots in those two years, scoring only 40 times, a meager six percent. This season he once again leads the team in shots with 28 but only has managed one goal.
Simply not good enough.
If there was ever a season for Blake to take over the team, this would be it. He’s been given every opportunity by Ron Wilson to put up points. He’s playing on the first line and seeing significant power play time, but he just hasn’t been able to produce.
He also is a minus seven, worst on the team. You could say he’s been the worst of the worst.
With the addition of newly acquired Phil Kessel (who is expected to be in the lineup in a few weeks), Blake will have a solid running mate to play with and will hopefully benefit from his fellow American sniper.
If that doesn’t work and Blake continues to struggle, Brian Burke will do whatever he can to see that Blake is on the first flight out of Toronto. We hear he could use a draft pick or two.
John Mitchell, where art thou? With talk coming into the season that he would center the first or second line, Mitchell has not only disappointed in a major way, he has all but disappeared. Most of his time is spent on the fourth line. Not the way you want to start a season.
The 24-year old scored 12 goals and had 29 points last season. He was expected to play a larger role in the offense this year, but so far the only thing he has shown is an ability to turn over the puck in the offensive zone.
With no goals to date, his nose for the net that the Leafs were counting on has not been there, as he only has 11 shots. Or to put it in a different way, he has only two more shots than Luke Schenn and is tied with him in points. Told you it was bad.
Talent-wise, he should be one of the top two centers on the team. His disappearing act lately has forced Wilson to play him less and less as the struggles continue.
With a coach and GM who are never afraid of sitting players, or sending them down, Mitchell better be careful that his two-way contract isn’t exercised. He may find himself with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL.
It might be too early to threaten him with that, but as the losses continue to pile up you can only imagine what the coaching staff will do to send a message.
It could get ugly.
With your sophomore season comes expectations, and Luke Schenn is not living up to them. He has looked out of place at times, panicky when in possession of the puck, and too soft in his own end.
There have been rumblings in the media that the coaching staff were planning on benching him for last weekend’s game. They didn’t, but his lack of toughness was publicly criticized.
That led to slightly improved play against Vancouver, where he got into a fight. But he knows that fighting isn’t the type of toughness they’re talking about.
You’ve got to feel for the kid. Only in his second year and caught in the media mess that is Toronto, where poor play is magnified 20-fold. If you’re not playing the way you should be, and Schenn is clearly not, the media and fan reaction can be brutal. How he responds to it will say a lot about the type of player he is.
If the poor play continues you can bet those benching rumors will become a reality for the youngster.
Where it goes from here is entirely up to him.
Wake up Francois; you’re not in Anaheim anymore.
Gone are the days of lining up beside future hall-of-famers Scott Neidermeyer and Chris Pronger. Welcome to Toronto.
The first three weeks of his time in Leaf-land have not gone the way anyone anticipated. He has made a variety of questionable plays. He is often caught pinching at the wrong time and attempting near-impossible passes up the ice.
His shot is as lethal as advertised, but we’ve rarely seen it. Surprising, because of the passes on a pillow he repeatedly receives from Kaberle on the power play. He does have one goal this season and leads all Leafs defense in shots with 19, but before he can worry about his offensive game coming together, his own end of the ice should be his main concern.
Too many times is he seen skating off the ice with his head down, while the opposition celebrates a goal.
There are no superstar blue liners on this team to rely on, so if things are going to change in Toronto, Beauchemin has got to be a big reason why.
Coming over from the hated Montreal Canadiens in the offseason, Mike Komisarek was expected to be the cornerstone of the Leafs’ defensive core.
Oh, he’s been a stone alright, it just happens to be kind that doesn’t do much and is rather useless in a hockey game. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he has been the worst player on the team this year, not talking goalies of course, and the biggest disappointment.
He came over to Toronto as a slightly over-rated and over-paid defender. Let’s be honest, if it wasn’t for Montreal fans he would not have been voted an All-Star, nor talked about as much as he was. He is going to be relied on heavily to turn this ship around before it sinks completely. If he doesn’t improve his game immensely, this team will go nowhere.
He’s been an incredibly tough player all throughout his career. This season he hasn’t been able to control his emotions and has taken far too many stupid penalties. He’s second on the team in PIM’s with 23 (Colton Orr has 26) and far too many times has the puck ended up in the net with him sitting in the box.
To put it bluntly, it’s unacceptable.
If he can cool down his temper and think less about the big hit and more about the smart play, the Leafs will be in good shape. But if he continues his wild, out of position type play, well, you can stick a fork in this one, folks.
There are plenty of other members of this team who might well deserve to be on this list, but for now these five deserve the most criticism.
I would have added sort-of-rookie Rickard Wallin to this group, but he has literally been a ghost so far. He hasn’t done enough good or bad to even get talked about, he’s just been completely unnoticeable. Get out your “Where’s Wallin?” signs, because as a Leaf he’s managed to blend in to a crowd better than any player I’ve ever seen.
Eight games in and not a single win. If the Leafs plan on stepping up in the standings, then it’s these five players that need to step up their game before anything positive will happen.
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