No Matter How Boring, Toronto’s Not Backtracking About Building Forward Depth

August 8, 2009

by Mark Makuch… Brian Burke seems to be done making changes to the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason. He’s upgraded the defense substantially, added a big time enforcer, and brought in a back up goalie that might give Toskala the push he needs to perform well—and if not, steal the No. 1 goalie spot.

But what about the forward situation? Despite the Leafs’ ability to put the puck in the net last year, many fans are decrying Burke’s reluctance—or inability—to parlay Kaberle into Kessel, or sign a Zherdev. What gives?

Its about building depth in the forward ranks. It’s boring, but it’s necessary. And it’s all about making a more serious run next year and the year after. Because, realistically, even if the Leafs sign or trade for a top six forward, they are not going to compete for the cup in any meaningful way—although they would most likely make the playoffs.

But more importantly, that top six forward would take time from a kid trying to develop; one who could make a huge difference in how the following years play out.

In today’s NHL, having one or two young kids develop to the point where they are solid contributors while earning modest salary is a huge benefit to the team. It adds depth at a reasonable price, and enables a team to land a top six forward with a more established supporting cast in place.

Because of that business reality, this year the most important story for the Leafs will be that at least one of Bozak, Tlusty, Hanson or Stalberg step up and shows he can consistently compete at the NHL level. My guess is that Tlusty and Bozak have the inside shot. They will need patience and ice time; loads of ice time. Time an established top sixer would take away.

But if one of them does find their game in the NHL, suddenly next year and the year after are looking a whole helluvalot lot better. There’s still the ability to add a top six forward, but you’ve got real depth.

The kind of depth that can make a real run.

Beefed-Up Leafs Will Help the Kids Play

But its not just about ice time. Burke has also created a situation where the kids will be protected instead of being intimidated. You’ve really got to hand it to Grabovski, who managed a very good rookie year with only Luke Schenn willing to challenge the oppositions heavyweights.

With bodyguards like Komisarek, Exelby, Orr, Schenn, and Primeau (instead of, um, Schenn, Mayers and Finger) this kid should develop into a 30-goal scorer. At the same time, Tlusty and Bozak can learn the NHL game without having to “pick their teeth out of the glass” on a regular basis.

Building depth at forward takes time, and it will unfortunately take away from the fans’ summer-time trade fun. It will also mean a few more in the loss column next year. But it’s essential if we want to really, and I mean really, compete for the Stanley Cup in the years to come.

In Praise of Alexei Ponikarovsky

April 30, 2009

By Mark Makuch… I have to admit that I used to bash Alexei Ponikarovsky. “Doesn’t use his size!” “Misses too many chances!” “Never able to elevate his game!” If there was anyone the Leafs should trade, if you asked me, it was him.

Until this year.

Let’s face it: Ponikarovsky will never be a star scoring machine. He’s basically a 20-plus goal scorer and has proven that the last four years, along with a consistent 12 percent shooting accuracy. He did come through with career numbers, driven by a big increase in assists (up to 38 from his next highest of 24 in 06-07).

But what was most impressive to me was how he emerged after the departure of Nik Antropov. Instead of wilting and fading, as many suspected he would, he rose to the occasion. In the remaining 18 games after the trade deadline, he had 22 points, with two four-point games. He ended the year as a six-plus player, the only Leaf forward to be a plus-player (call-ups notwithstanding) this season. He also provided critical leadership to his Russian line mates Grabovski and Kulemin, who became much better defensive players by the end of the year.

What emerged for me was a very smart two-way player, who was also capable of putting up some unexpectedly decent numbers, and who could be a leader, too.

As the Leafs turn the corner on their rebuilding phase, the Kulemin-Grabovski-Ponikarovsky line looks to be very much a keeper. He’s fast, smart, defensively capable, and has enough skill to hurt you. They are a bona fide NHL second line, and together cost less than Jason Blake’s salary. For a team that had no real top six forwards at the start of the year, that is huge progress. And much of the credit for that progress should be Ponikarovski’s.

Wilson and Burke still have their work cut out for them. Only a monster draft move by Burke or some crafty free-agent signings will get the Leafs a true top line. But the signs are there that this team is moving in the right direction, with Ponikarovski as a key driver. Once a classic underachiever, he is now a much more valuable player.

Burke’s Plan, Or, for the First Time Damien Cox Is Onto Something

April 19, 2009

By Mark Makuch… According to Damien Cox, the hyperbolic, sour grapes Leafs writer for the Toronto Star, Brian Burke has a plan.

In a recent article in the Star, Cox muses that there is reason behind Brian Burke’s apparent madness in which he publicly made known his desire for future No. 1 pick John Tavares.

The scenario goes something roughly like this:

Step 1: Burke uses his deep pockets and cap space to “help” Tampa out of a stifling contract. Apparently, the money situation is so bad, they just laid off their team mascot.

Cox suggests Grabovski and the No. 7 pick for No. 2 and Malone and his troublesome contract.

OK; that’s a good start. How do you then get Garth Snow to give up No. 1?

That’s where it gets interesting, and where Cox may actually be on to something.

By going public with his desire for Tavares, suddenly, the kid could make life miserable for Snow. Knowing how much Burke wants him, he could easily refuse to show up for the Islanders, a la Eric Lindros. Suddenly, Snow has a huge PR nightmare on his hands.

Would Snow opt to flip picks with Burke, or even draft Hedman first, knowing Tavares might be a no-show?

Suddenly, Burke’s overtly public musings look to be very craftily made after all. Knowing Burke’s history, he’ll give it, or something like it, a shot.

Even if he ends up with No.2, he’ll show he still has the draft magic he used to draft Pronger and the Sedin twins.

Questions remain: How desperate is Tampa? How much does Tavares dislike the idea of playing for the Islanders?

Oh yeah, and that Damien Cox guy? Maybe a better journalist than I’ve given him credit for.

Why 2008-09 Has Been a Success for the Toronto Maple Leafs

April 12, 2009

By Mark Makuch… As the 2008-09 season winds down for the Leafs, it’s time to take stock of this past year. Despite Burke’s angst about missing the playoffs, and how that makes the season a failure, the truth of the matter is that this season has been a huge success for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

From almost the top down, the Leafs are doing the things they need to turn the ship around and become a perennial contender.

The GM

The Leafs have finally figured out how to run a hockey organization. They hired one of the best GM’s in the business and are letting him run it without ownership getting in the way. While, to date, Burke has not made many major moves, you can be sure that they will be his moves, and not Richard Peddie’s moves.

Burke moved his two movable assets at the trade deadline for draft picks, and found a way to get another pick from Florida in a complex deal that showed his shrewdness. He then went out and signed two of the top US college prospects to entry level contracts.

Not only is Burke fully in charge—he is doing some exceptional work building up the young prospects of this team that had so few just a year ago. The Leafs also have a solid position with regard to the cap—something that will be needed as the cap fluctuates over the next few years.

The Coach

Love him or hate him, Ron Wilson is showing what a good coach can do. He is a coach who is unafraid of benching $5 million players, a coach who is committed to playing young players—the proof of which you can see in the development of the likes of Grabovski, Kulemin, and Mitchell. More proof was given in the signings of Hanson and Bozak. These kids could have gone anywhere.

In Toronto they found the two things they needed: playing time and a great coach.

The Team

Even with a great coach, the players need to do the work and actually play the games. Despite the goal-tending issues, the Leafs forged the beginnings of an identity: a fast, fore-checking, aggressive team.

They dominated the best in the league at times. Burke said it right: in those 10-15 minute spurts when the Leafs could be so dominant—there lies the future. Burke and Wilson need to get the team to be more consistent by continuing to develop its current players, as well as by adding more size and grit—to be able to respond when the opposition pushes back.

The Players

Hockey is a team game, no question, but who can’t be extraordinarily pleased with the development of Grabovski, Kulemin, Mitchell, Schenn, and in the minors, Tlusty? Grabovski, in particular, is a great story—a player who was given tons of ice time to become better defensively and at sharing the puck with his line mates.

Oreskovic and Sifers also look like they have potential. Blake rebounded in a huge way this year under Wilson, took his lumps, and played extremely well after getting benched early in the season. It’s too early to think about what Hanson and Bozak can do, but I think it’s safe to say at least one of them will emerge as a top six forward.

The only ugly spot for the Leafs this year was in net. Toskala played poorly due to a chronic injury and it showed. Gerber, Pogge, and Cujo were not nearly enough to make up for it.

I agree with Burke that goal-tending cost them a real shot at the playoffs. Look for a better backup next year, a better Toskala, and more time in the minors for Pogge.

Overall

It was billed as a year where the Leafs would take a step back, and some thought they would be so far back as to challenge for the Tavares sweepstakes. Instead, they’ve ended up pretty much a .500 club, and to me this is much higher than expected.

If Burke can add some finish and size, if the rookies from this year can make some more strides, and if the goal-tending can return to form, this team will make the playoffs next season, and be very well positioned for the years ahead.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Best Paid Players Lack Essential Character

January 13, 2009

by Mark Makuch…

We all knew this was going to be a tough season, but not for this reason.

Little did we know that the Leafs would actually be able to put the puck in the net.

Little did we know that the team could dominate games with terrific team speed.

Little did we know that players like Stajan and Moore could have career seasons, and that Grabovski and Schenn would emerge better than advertised.

Little did we know that it would be character that is the missing ingredient to the Leafs success.

Character, that intangible thing that enables players to motivate each other to play at just a slightly higher level than their opponents.

We’ve seen it—when the Leafs are motivated in the right way, they win races to the puck, win the battles on the boards, cause turnovers, generate tremendous numbers of scoring chances, and believe it or not, win games.

And for some reason, these Leafs don’t have what it takes to get motivated to play this way every night.

The problem facing Coach Wilson is that the players that should have this kind of character—the ones who have tasted some kind of success—simply don’t have it.

Kubina, winner of a Stanley Cup; Kaberle, regular All-Star; Blake, former 40-goal man—they simply don’t have it in their nature to inspire their teammates.

The rest are too young and inexperienced (Grabovski, Schenn) or have too long played for a losing team (Poni, Antropov, Stajan) to have it in them either.

This team has no Gary Roberts who can stand up in the dressing room and say what is needed to be said, and then lead by example. Blake, while showing signs of life in his own play, is not the answer.

Burke has brought in Brad May to start to rectify this situation—but as he himself admits, its a baby step. its the top-dollar players that need to bring more than skill to a team, and Burke’s next order of business will be to engineer trades for Kaberle, Kubina and Blake—the three best-paid players on the team.

Fortunately, there is no panic. Burke can wait for the right offer. And you know there will be some juicy offers for Kaberle as the trade deadline nears.

Another piece of good news is that the Leafs have some excellent building blocks in Schenn, Grabovski, Hagman, and Stajan. Antropov and Ponikarovski are proving their worth. Moore is a keeper. Finger, Van Ryn, Frogren, and White are solid.

And finally, its important to remember that character is the hardest ingredient to find. It is completely intangible. Sometimes it has more to do with how a certain group of players respond to one another.

Sometimes it emerges as part of a player’s maturation process. You’ve got to think that its there in Schenn just waiting to bust out as he gains experience.

Burke and Wilson seem to understand this. Wilson has deftly pushed the right buttons with players to see what kind of character he’s got on his team.

And really, with half the season done, the results are in.

Kaberle, Kubina, and Blake, while skilled, do not bring the extra dimension that their paychecks demand.

Toronto Maple Leafs Castoffs Prove Cliff Fletcher Right (Mostly)

January 3, 2009

by Mark Makuch… Over the summer, Cliff Fletcher did all he could to remove players from the Toronto Maple Leafs that had instilled a country-club atmosphere in the team.

After a season where hard work was a joke and talent unable to make up for it, several Leafs hit the road.

Looking at those players this year shows that Fletcher chose the right players to cut loose.

 

Darcy Tucker

Tucker was never a defensive force, nor was he ever close to being a speedster. He usually made up for those shortcomings by playing a hard-nosed and feisty game.

Last season, it seemed that age had caught up with him, and he could no longer contribute in that way.

This season, in Colorado, Tucker has lost 11 games to a knee injury, showing his fragility, and has only produced four goals and four assists, with a minus-five rating over the 25 games he has played.

Good move? You bet, even if it costs a million bucks a year.

Bryan McCabe

Toronto’s favourite whipping boy has new digs in Florida, closer to his wife’s mommy and daddy, and out of the spotlight in Toronto.

Florida is only one point up on the Leafs right now, and while he’s a respectable plus-eight with six goals and nine assists in 26 games, it’s nowhere near his contract—and you have to think the Leafs are better off with Van Ryn, who, despite injuries, has nine points in 17 games.

While Toronto’s defense has been absolutely porous at times this season, I’m sure Bryan is happy he’s not in Toronto still—he knows everyone would be blaming him for all 133 goals against this season.

Kyle Wellwood

Kyle’s departure was hotly contested by some Maple Leaf fans. Many thought his talent overcame his lackadaisical approach to conditioning and work ethic. To make matters worse, he started off with a bang in Vancouver, scoring seven goals in 12 games.

Unfortunately for Wellie, that’s come down to six in his past 21 games, and his almost point-per game clip is now down to about half that. Hmm—could that old conditioning thing be catching up with him?

And really, isn’t Grabovski a much better replacement?

Andrew Raycroft

Looking at Colorado’s stats, you see the biggest surprise. Andrew Raycroft, second-favourite whipping boy in Toronto to Bryan McCabe, is 6-1-0 with a goals against average that’s actually under 3.00.

I’m sure there is not one single Leafs fan that wants the Rayzor back—a couple more wins by our back-up would have pushed the Leafs over .500.

Mats Sundin

While Mats is not really a castoff, it’s clear the Leafs were not in the mix for him. The more I see the Leafs turn into a really hard-working group, the more I realize that Sundin is not the leader we all thought he was.

Sure he was a great example, but how come that example didn’t rub off on others? That’s where leadership comes in, or doesn’t.

As far as his “passion for playing” returning? Who cares. I want passion for winning.

I’m sure he’ll do well in Vancouver, but I can’t say I’m going to miss him.

 

Unexpected Goals for Leafs

November 13, 2008

https://zone.artizans.com/images/previews/MAC1580.300.jpgby Mark Makuch… During the preseason, the Leafs were expected to be a low scoring team, but also, a team that would be tough to score against. With Ron Wilson’s defense-first coaching, a plethora of pretty solid defensemen, a top-notch goalie, a lack of a proven top line, heck top two lines, and you can see why those predictions made sense. But, here we are 15 games into the campaign, and the Leafs are tied with the New York Rangers for the most goals for in the East, with 47, and second only to the Thrashers in goals against, with a hefty 54.

What gives?

The Leafs started out the season as expected. Over the first 9 games they scored at a paltry 2.22 goals per game clip and gave up a petty stingy 2.55 a game to emerge with 3 wins, 2 losses and 3 over-time losses. They competed in almost every game and gave their die-hard fans something to cheer about. Here was a fast, hard-working team, and win or lose, they didn’t give up.

Over the past 6 games, however, the goals have come in buckets, both for and against. Their goals for over those games shot up to an astounding 4.5 per. Over that span the Leafs are a respectable 3-2-1, against some tough customers, including the Devils, Rangers, and Canadiens.

Since that 6-5 win against New Jersey, the Leafs have have played with increased offensive confidence. They have outshot their opponents consistently in that time period and the goals are starting to come, especially for what appear to be the leafs top two lines: Hagman - Grabovski - Kulemin, and Antropov - Stajan - Ponikarovski. Grabovski has emerged as a bonafide scorer with 6 goals and 8 points in his last 4 games, while Hagman has 7 of his 12 points in that time frame. Antropov and Ponikarovski have continue to show some solid play, while Stajan has shown some real spark with 2 goals and 6 assists since the Jersey game as well.

While the offensive production has been fun to watch, the Leafs also started giving up way more goals against. From 2.55 in the first 9 games to an unimpressive 4.33 over the last six.  As well, they began a disturbing trend of falling behind early and having to play catch up for the remainder of the game. At times it has worked out, for example, they roared back against the Rangers with 5 goals in just over 5 minutes, however, they reversed that showing by allowing Carolina to score 4 in 4 minutes their next game out. Their defensive stats over the last six games are not something a Ron Wilson team should be proud of.

Despite the bloated goals against, the Leafs are proving to be a fun team to watch. They are fast, aggressive, and they never seem to give up. They’ve beaten some exceptional teams. They usually outwork their opponents 5 on 5, and thankfully don’t take a lot of penalties, given that their penalty kill is dead last in the league at 72%. You have to think that an improvement on the PK would push more games into the win column for the team, now that the scorers are scoring.

The next goal is something no one should really even be talking about yet. Yes, it is the dreaded “P ” word. I’m not even going to write it. The Leafs will have to keep playing well for another few months and shore up defensively before that word should even enter our vocabulary. If we can realistically start discussing that topic - say in February or March - well, that will be the most unexpected goal of all.

Leafs-Senators: Hard Work Nets Toronto Solid Win over Ottawa

October 26, 2008

by Mark Makuch… Back in grade school, we played hockey for gym class in the winter. We made up teams each session, and one day, by the luck of the draw, the team I was on somehow ended up with all the talented players.

The other side looked destined for a big loss. We thought the win was inevitable and were congratulating ourselves before the puck was even dropped. Then, while my team mailed it in, the other team worked their tails off, and ended up kicking our butts.

Last night the Leafs showed again that hard work can win games.

Facing the ever-talented Sens, who, despite their slow start, can be explosive any given night, the Leafs came out and simply out-worked and out-hustled their opponent to come away with a hard-earned 3-2 victory.

Perhaps due to playing the second of back-to-back games, the Sens failed to look interested in this game, save for a few stretches in the first two periods, and then in the final frame, when they had an undeserved chance to tie up the contest.

The Leafs started strong, forcing the play and skating hard. Minutes into the contest Luke Schenn took issue with Chris Neil’s knee-on-knee hit on Matt Stajan and took on a tough customer in his first NHL bout.

The fight was pretty much a draw, except that it was the Leafs who were the ones that came away energized. They forced the Sens into three penalties and ended up with 21 shots in the first period alone.

That they came away with only a one-goal lead shows how this team lacks finish. They seem, however, to refuse to let that fact get them down.

In the second period it was more of the same, with the Leafs winning battles along the boards with regularity, winning races to the puck, winning face-offs, and taking the body. Some great work behind the net from Hagman and a slick pass to Grabovski out front resulted in the Belarusian’s first goal of the year for a 2-0 lead.

It was a beautiful wrist shot into the top corner and finally got the monkey off his back, although his back luck seemed destined to continue after hitting the cross bar on a breakaway in the first. The Leafs will need more production from this talented player if they are to win with any regularity.

In the third the Sens started to look interested, but Ponikarovski netted the winner on a pass from Antropov, who continued to play a strong game for the Leafs.

With time winding down and the Leafs on the power play, Dean McAmmond was able to score on a drive when his centering pass luckily caromed in off the Leaf defender’s skate. With seconds to play and up by one, Toskala stood strong and the Leafs were able to put the Sens on ice.

For the Leafs, this game is similar to the win over Boston, and shows that an identity is forming for this young club. Playing the Western Conference style of coach Ron Wilson, the Leafs are proving to be a very difficult team to play against.

They are fast, feisty and, despite not possessing exceptional scoring talent, have not been out of many games this year. They may have only three wins, but they also have only two losses in regulation time.

For the Sens, one gets the sense that they expect things to be way easier than they are in today’s NHL. Alfredsson in particular was almost invisible, and one wonders how the team can continue to struggle with the talent they have.

Judging by the results tonight, hard work will beat skill if the skilled team isn’t working for it. Just like in grade school gym class.

Toronto Maple Leafs’ Game Stats Mostly Positive in 7-4 Win over Buffalo

September 23, 2008

by Mark Makuch…

Positives:

23 blocked shots (11 for Buffalo).

Four blocked shots by Jeff Finger (that’s what he’s here for, people!).

One giveaway not by a goalie.

Five hits by Ryan Hollweg.

Three hits by Jason Blake, who was also a plus-three on the night—this guy needs to be feisty to be effective.

No goals allowed on 15 shots in the second by Justin Pogge.

One short-handed goal by Dominic Moore, who also won 73 percent on face offs.

Five even-strength goals.

Negatives:

Kulemin was a minus-one and took no shots

Stajan only won 38 percent of his faceoffs.

Only three for seven on the PK.