Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nazem Kadri: The Time Is Now

Of all the players who have worn the Leafs' sweater since the lockout, nobody gets more of my sympathy than Nazem Kadri. 

Drafted 7th overall in 2009, Kadri had to bear the weight of some serious expectations.  The Leafs, you see, were a team with Phil Kessel and a revolving door of players up front, coupled with a system that really had no talented forwards to speak of -- unless you're willing to count Jiri Tlusty. 

In 2008, Luke Schenn was drafted 5th overall and made the team out of camp in his first season.  Schenn then went on to have a solid first year with the team and played the hard-nosed brand of defense that fans in Toronto love.  This was the immediate precedent set for Kadri.

Kadri was supposed to be our next offensive star.  Would he make the team out of camp as Schenn did?  Would he be in the conversation for the Calder at year's end?  These were the questions that Leaf fans were asking.

Well, the answer to both was 'no'.

Kadri did however go back to Junior and the London Knights, and put up 93 points in 56 games and was one of the top players in the OHL.  He may not have made the Maple Leafs, but it seemed he was developing well.  Maybe he could win the Calder the next year?

Again, the answer was 'no'. 

In 2010-11, Kadri split time between the Marlies (44 GP) and the Leafs (29 GP).  While with the Leafs, the coach and GM both publicly lamented some of his decision-making with the puck.  He'd gotten bigger but maybe not in a good way as he seemed to lose some of the evasiveness that had made him a standout in the OHL.  Still, at nearly a point-per-game in the AHL and with 12 points in 29 games with the Leafs, there were more than occasional glimpses of the offensive skillset that saw him drafted early in the first round.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It’s Quiet, too Quiet...

As Leaf fans, there are certain moments that are indelibly painted onto the landscape of our memories - you can recall down to the final detail where you were and who you were with when they happened: The Clark-Sundin trade, Gretzky’s high stick, Roenick's overtime winner, to name a few – and most recently, the Dion Phaneuf trade.

Through some divine miracle of either Brain Burke's genius or Darryl Sutter’s utter buffoonery we were able to package together all our spare parts and trade them in for one of the league's young, blue chip defensemen. Dion has his shortcomings to be sure, but with the benefit of hindsight we enjoy today, it’s impossible not to declare that trade a complete robbery for the Maple Leafs that would make Danny Ocean proud.

At the time of the deal there were no underground inklings of a Phaneuf to Toronto move, which made the announcement even more shocking. It was a quiet time for Leaf Nation in January of 2010, and in an instant out of the proverbial gates of left field, we acquired a bonafide star.

All signs point to a similar move in the future – Brian Burke has been uncharacteristically quiet of late, seemingly indifferent to the team’s fantastic and somewhat unexpected start to the season. Is he basking in the glow of his much maligned ‘master plan’ finally coming to fruition? Or is he so engrossed in trade talks with other GMs that there simply isn’t enough time in the day for media scrums? One of the first rules of general managing is to always deal from a position of strength. The Leafs are currently tied for 3rd in the Eastern Conference with 21 points and have shown great resilience and consistency in the early going, despite the loss of our number one goaltender.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Some Early Season Observations on the Toronto Maple Leafs

The first month of the season has been a wild ride.  The Toronto Maple Leafs came flying off the starting blocks, taking advantage of good goaltending from James Reimer, fantastic play from Phil Kessel, and a soft schedule to sit among the league leaders in the Eastern conference. 

Then Reimer took a shot to the head from Brian Gionta and hasn't played a game since.  Gustavsson and Scrivens have really been anything ranging from very good (Scrivens' performances against Columbus and St. Louis), to very average (Gustavsson against the Penguins and the Devils), to downright awful (Gustavsson against Florida, Scrivens against Boston).  There have been some real ups and downs since Reimer's injury, but the team has managed to maintain their spot among the Eastern Conference elite for now.

A lot has happened in the first month and much of it has been completely unexpected.  Here's a list of our observations on the Maple Leafs' season thus far.

1) When He Played, Reimer Was Sharp

A lot of fans came into the season uncertain of what kind of goaltending to expect from Reimer.  The NHL is littered with goaltenders who got it done for a season and then promptly faded into obscurity.  Before the start of the season, we had a look at what we should expect from Reimer based on his performance last season and his comparables.  So far, he's been solid which has been a huge relief.

2) When Reimer Hasn't Played, The Goaltending Has Been Spotty

When BCP put together its list of offseason needs for the Leafs, veteran goalie featured prominently on the list.  The brief time we've spent without Reimer seems to have supported this position.  Scrivens has stolen a pair of games for the Leafs, don't get me wrong, but the inconsistency has been trying.  Ron Wilson doesn't seem to have a lot of confidence in these guys and a reliable presence in goal would have been a nice luxury to have.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Sky Is Falling!! ... Or Is It?

It isn't hard to find a negative piece of writing on the Leafs these days. 

The team has lost two games in a row by a combined score of 12-1 and the win that preceded these losses was a game where they were horribly outshot by the last place Columbus Blue Jackets, so it shouldn't really be any surprise that so much ink has been spilled decrying the Buds.

Truth be told, it wasn't hard to find negative stuff while they were winning either.

I suppose we shouldn't be surprised by this.  The team has ranged from mediocre to abysmal since the lockout and has yet to make the playoffs, there weren't any prospects in the system that were expected to make significant contributions this season, and the offseason acquisitions were more akin to tinkering around the edges than re-creating a foundation.  Why shouldn't the fans and the media be skeptical of this team?

The Sky Is Falling

During our win streak, detractors pointed to a poor penalty kill as a reason the Leafs fast start wasn't sustainable.  The team often surrendered more shots than they created.  Phil Kessel is a streaky player and of course he'll go through one of his infamous slumps. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Curious Case of James Reimer

Our beloved Leafs have been outscored by a combined score of 12-1 in back to back trouncings by the Boston Bruins and, most recently, by the Florida Panthers. It’s clear that as a group the team may have some significant unresolved issues in the defensive zone.

While it’s not fair to hang the utter debacle of the last two games on our goaltending, neither Jonas Gustavsson nor Ben Scrivens have seized the enormous opportunity presented to them this past week. Gustavsson's win/loss record on the season is a respectable 4-4-1, however, a closer look at his skilled statistics reveals a 3.78 goals against average and a .878 save percentage. Perhaps even more disheartening is the Monster's increased propensity to allow at least one ‘ugly’ goal per outing.

Which brings us to the inevitable question: When will James Reimer return between the pipes?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Dion Phaneuf Revival

In 2005, Dion Phaneuf broke into the NHL like a wrecking ball.  Phaneuf made the Flames out of camp and played all 82 games, putting up 49 points and garnering a Calder trophy nomination.

Two years later, Phaneuf put up 60 points and was a Norris Trophy candidate.

Two years after that nomination, Phaneuf became a Toronto Maple Leaf.

Over a five year span, Phaneuf went from relative unknown to elite young defenseman to expendable.  Had you told a Flames fan in 2008 that Phaneuf would be traded to the Leafs for spare parts, you would have almost certainly elicited a derisive guffaw and yet two years later, that's precisely where we were.

Phaneuf had faltered in a big way and he was being paid as though he were one of the top 5 defensemen in the league.  His 47 points in 2008-09 weren't the problem, but his -11 was a real concern.  When he started slowly in 2009-10, the Flames panicked and Phaneuf was shipped.

The mood in Leaf Nation was one of tempered excitement.  Phaneuf was a name we knew, he had a history of elite performance, and he played the physical brand of hockey that we love out of our defensemen, but the holes in his game were apparent.  He needed to work on his in-zone coverage and defensive positioning if he was going to earn the money his contract was paying him.  If only, Leaf fans hoped, he could become the Dion of old.

So far this season, he's looked every bit of the defenseman that earned a Norris Trophy nomination.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Joe Colborne and Jake Gardiner: Forcing Management's Hand

Things sure have started moving quickly for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After years out of the playoffs and a minor league system that needed an infusion of talent, the Leafs currently find themselves in an unusual position.

For starters, the team sits among the leaders in the Eastern conference standings.  A fast start from their star players and a soft schedule has seen the Buds fly out of the gate with a 9-4-1 record.

The rapid development hasn't been limited to the standings.  Last season, Brian Burke dealt a pair of veteran defensemen in Tomas Kaberle and Francois Beauchemin near the trade deadline.  The return for these players included a pair of prospects, Jake Gardiner and Joe Colborne.

If asked, I don't believe the expectation from the organization would have been for them to be fulltime NHLers in the 2011-12 season and yet, 14 games into the Leafs' season, Gardiner has solidified his place on the team and Joe Colborne is leading the AHL in scoring with 19 points in 12 games.

The two year contract given to Tim Connolly is a pretty good indication that the team didn't think Colborne would be this good, this fast.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Neverending Story: Kessel & Seguin

A reading of the 10 Commandments reminds us that 'thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife'.

It’s an important commandment to be sure, as a man could drive himself mad if he allows adoration of his neighbour’s wife to consume him. It’s best to love the one you’re with – and be content with that.

However, I fear I’ve been guilty of breaking this rule the last several weeks as I’ve watched Bruins center Tyler Seguin blossom into one of the league’s most productive players. He’s shown consistency in all 3 zones of the ice, back checking effectively, making smart reads in the neutral zone, and burying his chances in the offensive zone. He no longer looks like the lost, undersized 18 year old of early 2010, as he’s delivering nightly the potential he flashed so emphatically in last year’s playoff run. Sporting a strong 14 points in 12 games it’s fair to say Seguin has “arrived” in the NHL as a front line player.

Please don’t get me wrong here – I’m happy. I like Phil Kessel as a hockey player, I really do. Quite possibly the best wrist shot this side of Jarome Iginla – blazing speed - and an increased affinity to make the smart pass at the right moment. He’s delivered 30, and 32 goals respectively in his first 2 full seasons with the Leafs, and with 21 points through the first 14 games of 2011-12 he appears primed to have the best year of his career.

Still I find myself wondering about Seguin – like that girl in high school you wish you’d taken a chance on (you know the one). Then you attend the 10 year high school reunion to find out she’s a successful lawyer who did some modelling work in her early 20s.

What will the 2020 newspaper articles (although I’m sure newspapers will be fully extinct by then) conclude about the Kessel trade? 10 years from now will we still yearn to see Tyler in our beloved blue and white?

Perhaps we’ll always wonder, perhaps we’re doomed to compare Kessel and Seguin at every step of their careers. Scrutinizing every goal, every award, every playoff success and disappointment. I’m ready to be done with the whole thing. Was it a great trade for the Toronto Maple Leafs – no. Was it a horrible trade – no. We as Leaf fans need to embrace the fact that this trade is officially a thing of the past, relegated to the history books of Leaf Nation. Let’s focus on the future. Let’s write articles about Kulemin's outstanding 2-way play, or Lupuls emergence as a legitimate first line winger. I don’t know who will have the more successful career between Kessel and Seguin – but I know we’ll have plenty of time to debate it once they’ve retired and the dust has officially settled.

Moving forward in our future together I want Phil to know that I truly believe in him – I really do – he’s shown me a side of himself through the early going of this season I didn’t know existed. But if I’m pulling into the driveway at home after a long day at work, and sneak a peek across to the neighbour’s lawn at Tyler Seguin working in the garden, can you blame me?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Joffrey Lupul And The Toronto Maple Leafs: The Right Player for the Right Team

If you're a Toronto Maple Leaf fan, the chances are that you've got a friend who's an Oilers fan.  Ask anyone to explain this phenomena and they'll be unable to do so but, for some reason, we just get along.  It's particularly evident in the blogging community where the relationship between the two fanbases is one of mutual intellectual respect.

In my case, one of my best friends is an enormous Oilers fan and he's probably the guy I spend the most time talking hockey with.  For this reason, when Joffrey Lupul was traded to the Maple Leafs, my first reaction was to hope that Jake Gardiner was a very, very good prospect.

Joffrey Lupul was the key Oilers' acquisition in the deal that sent a disgruntled but extremely effective Chris Pronger from Edmonton to Anaheim. After one abysmal season in Edmonton, Lupul and Jason Smith were traded to Philadelphia for Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson, and a third rounder.

Now as a Leaf fan, your Oiler fan friends were probably laughing that you'd traded a solid defenseman for Lupul and an unknown quantity.  Lupul still had two more years at $4.25M, he's lazy, he's injury-prone, and he never came close to living up to the 30 goal potential he showed in 2005-06 as a 22 year-old in Anaheim.  Simply put, Oiler fans hate this guy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When Do Elite Players Become Elite? A Look At Later Picks, Kulemin, Grabovski, and MacArthur

Building on the analysis we started last week with elite players and when they tend to reach the upper echelon of point production in the NHL, I’ve had a look at some of our more veteran-types to see if there’s any opportunity for these guys to take their game to another level.

The players I focused on were Nikolai Kulemin (currently 25 and a former 44th overall pick), Clarke MacArthur (currently 26 and a former 74th overall pick), and Mikhail Grabovski (currently 27 and a former 150th overall pick).

I think now would be a good time to have a quick refresher on our data-set.  What we’ve done is pulled all players who scored 70 or more points at least once during the past 3 seasons.  We’ve sorted these guys by their draft position and captured the ages at which they reached critical milestones for points or games played.  The idea is to be able to determine when stars breakout or when it may be too late to start expecting a guy to take another step.  Again, this is not about calling guys ‘busts’; it’s about seeing who has potential to be elite.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Keeping Myself Honest: My Pre-season Predictions Through Month One

Prior to the beginning of the regular season, I decided to try my hand at some pre-season predictions for our Toronto Maple Leafs. 

As fans, we always head into the season with an idea of how things will go for our team and we all know people that are quick to shout out 'I told you this would happen' at the drop of a hat.  Fair enough --  what good are predictions if you can't gloat a little bit -- but you'd better be prepared to take your lumps when you're wrong too.

In this spirit, here were my pre-season predictions and how they look so far.

1) Phil Kessel will have his best goals-per-game ratio of his career

Well, it's early but things are looking pretty good here.  Kessel's previous best was a goal every .514 games.  So far this year?  .909.  Kessel is lighting it up and making me look good.