Monday, March 19, 2012

Quick Hits: Winning, Tanking, and Progress

What do we want?

Michael Langlois over at Vintage Leaf Memories tackled exactly this question on Sunday, asking if Leaf fans would rather have a lottery pick or a playoff berth.  Six short weeks ago, we were all excited at the prospect of playing meaningful hockey down the stretch and at certain points even looked to be in the driver's seat for playoff positioning.

A week ago, we found ourselves at the tail end of a fall so precipitous that a lottery pick was almost expected.  After reeling off back-to-back wins though, we find ourselves caught in the middle of two tolerable outcomes; hockey's dead-space. 

I've heard a lot of people say that no matter what the outcome is for the Leafs that we as fans will find a way to justify why it's a good thing.  The truth is, there are good things that can be pulled out of any scenario.  Making the playoffs in any capacity would be a clear positive for the franchise and would provide some much needed playoff experience to a young core of players.  Getting a lottery pick is an opportunity to add a true blue chip talent to our prospect pool.  Finishing the season strong while still missing the playoffs would be a sign of progress under the new coach and would provide some confidence for the team heading into next season.

Each of these scenarios also carries with it some negatives as well.  Tanking could mean a losing culture.  Getting crushed in the playoffs would mean a worse pick and possible confidence issues heading into the next season.  Finishing in the middle means a so-so pick and no playoff experience.

I suppose my point here is that no matter what happens, things aren't all bad.  Now that the playoffs are all but a mathematical impossibility, my preference would be to see the team land in the lottery but, while I feel this is the best of the two remaining outcomes, I also understand that it isn't without its risks.

Now for the hits;

1.  With the Sarnia - London game televised on Sportsnet Friday night, I'm sure I'm not the only Leaf fan who was concerned when Alex Galchenyuk went down with an apparent shoulder injury.  This kid seems like the guy that all of Leaf Nation has their collective eyes on barring the Leafs vaulting into a top-2 or 3 selection.

2.  I find myself torn between hoping that the Knights have a long playoff run or wanting to see them bounced early to have McKegg skate with the Marlies in the AHL playoffs.  Would love to see him get some PP time with Kadri before the latter makes the jump to the NHL.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Judging the Core: Do the Leafs Stack Up?

While working I’ll inevitably use the water cooler as my semi-random sampling source for polling Leaf fan confidence. It’s an effective method, since a variety of co-workers will invariably stop by throughout the day, and with a bit of eavesdropping I’ve got my free data.

Today one fan commented on the strength of Leafs core players, and noted that with some shrewd depth moves in the offseason the team could easily make the playoffs. While I agree that depth is certainly an area of need, his statement got me thinking about our elite players and how they compare to core pieces of other franchises.

Curt commented yesterday on the importance of proper cap management, and dividing the dollars appropriately between the different tiers of players. He demonstrated that many of the top teams investment in top tier players over indexes when compared to the Leafs at the same positions. I think, picking up where Curt left off, we can agree that it’s important to have a great core of players, upon which to add the veterans and depth (duh?).

Monday, March 12, 2012

What Does A Good Salary Structure Look Like?

I pull up the Leafs' Cap Geek page at least once a week.  It rarely changes and yet every time I see it, I find myself bewildered.

Intuitively, we all know that the Leafs are spending a lot on their defense and way too much on the bottom half of their depth chart. 

I decided to have a look at what the Leafs are spending on various sections of their lineup and to compare that against other teams that are capped out.

Our current cap structure is as follows:

Top-Six Forwards: $19.6M
Bottom-Six Forwards: $14.4M
Top-Four Defense: $13.15M
Bottom-Four Defense: $9.6M
Goalies: $3.15M
Darcy Tucker: $1M

Before I get into doing some comparisons between other teams, I'd like to make some observations on this breakdown on its own.

Here's your per-player spending at each slot:

Top-Six Forwards: $3.27M
Bottom-Six Forwards: $2.4M
Top-Four Defense: $3.29M
Bottom-Four Defense: $2.4M
Goalies: $1.58M

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Look, Mom, 12th Place!

Playing youth hockey throughout my childhood there is perhaps no greater honour an 8 year old can have bestowed upon him or her than being awarded the vaunted ‘Participation Ribbon’. Some kids, the cool kids, as they were called at my school, thought that sports, like life, was all about winning. Boy, were they mistaken. As we all know, the blue participation ribbon carries with it the weight of dozens of gold, silvers, and bronzes.

The Leafs currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference, tied for 23rd in the entire league. I refuse to write a “Tank Nation” post just yet, holding out hope that there is some miracle playoff push somewhere over the horizon. But with our hopes fading quicker than our position in the standings, it’s become clear the team likely won’t be in the running for any major trophies this year. Alas, the President’s Trophy, Vezina, Art Ross, Lester B Pearson and other hardware will likely be cherished in cities devoid of giant CN Towers.

Fear not fellow Torontians! Even though we might not celebrate the more recognized awards from the NHL, we still have our participation – something no one should take for granted (ask Winnipeg). It is in the spirit of the many blue ribbons we all have tucked away in closets, garages, and under beds, that we hand out some pre-emptive awards to our boys in blue.

The players below may not appreciate the ribbons as much as actual awards from the league, but hey, I bet their Moms are still proud.

Friday, March 9, 2012

What League Average Goaltending Would Mean To The Leafs

It has been a long time since the Leafs have had a reliable goaltender for a full season.  For a while, this didn't seem like such a big deal as the team in front of the crease was pretty absymal as well, but now, goaltending has clearly become the biggest issue on the team.

Goaltending, it has been said, is 70% of the game, unless you don't have it, in which case it's 100%.  This seems to be exactly where the Leafs find themselves; with no goaltender they can rely on on a night-to-night basis.

Just how much of a difference would league average goaltending make for this team?  I think it may surprise a lot of you.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Does Toughness Matter? A Look at PIMs, Wins and Team Identity

Much has been made over the last 2 weeks of Randy Carlyle’s affinity for toughness; specifically, the truculence and pugnacity he expects his players to exude on the ice. This was one of the defining characteristics of his Stanley Cup winning team in Anaheim that was considered one of the most physically engaging in the league.

This style of play was something championed by Brain Burke 4 years ago upon taking over the team. However, during the last 2 seasons Ron Wilson began to move away from the grind it out, physical style of game, favouring instead a quicker, north-south strategy with smaller players. Resident tough guys Jay Rosehill and Colton Orr saw limited time (Orr due in part to a concussion), as the 3rd and 4th lines were comprised of more skilled players with greater offensive upside.

It's become evident from Carlyle’s first 3 games behind the bench that he intends to raise the Leafs compete level. He’s inserted Rosehill into the line-up, making it clear he’s not shy went it comes to fisticuffs.

What interests me is whether this style of play is actually beneficial in today’s NHL. While the clutching and grabbing, cross checking, and lazy hooking has slowly crept back into the game, it’s still a much faster and offense-oriented league when compared to pre-lockout.

The success of teams like Vancouver and Detroit has proven that the finesse, puck possession game can be effective. Contrast that however, with the dominance of the Boston Bruins over the past 2 seasons and it’s clear having a penchant for the rough stuff can still be beneficial.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quick Hits: 5 More Years Of Grabovski

This morning the news broke that Mikhail Grabovski had re-upped with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the next 5 years at $5.5M a season.

Reaction in Leafs Nation seems to be mixed with regard to the number.  I think the best summation of why I'm completely fine with the deal came from @67sound who said, "Here's the question no one can answer: If you let Grabbo walk, how do you replace him let alone upgrade other spots?"

There's no substitute on the open market for Grabovski (let alone one that would be more cost effective) and there's nobody in the organisation who can step into his role either.  Grabovski has become a player who will put up between 55 and 65 points with limited powerplay time and while driving possession at even strength.

1. For those who think that Joe Colborne is ready to be a second line center in the NHL, look at his second-half numbers with the Marlies.  He might be as good as Grabovski someday, but it wont happen any time soon.

2. Pursuant to that, Grabovski's ability to fill the second line center spot now gives the Leafs a much better chance of capitalizing on Kessel's very efficient $5.4M contract over the next two seasons.  Giving Colborne the baptism-by-fire would likely put an end to any hopes Leafs Nation has in that regard.

3. If you hate the Grabovski signing because the Leafs are running out of cap space, blame Colby Armstrong, Matthew Lombardi, Tim Connolly, and Mike Komisarek instead.  Grabovski might be an expensive second line center, but at least he's worth it.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tis the Season for Must Wins

It seems that every year, right around the beginning of March, hockey pundits from coast to coast become enamoured with the term “must win”. It’s an interesting phenomenon, since none of the games, taken in isolation, actually must be won. The only definitive “must win” is of course the game that mathematically eliminates your team from playoff contention.

The closing month-and-a-half of the NHL schedule will be rife with big games as inevitably hockey analysts will anoint each game the defining moment of the season. While that’s not the case, there will certainly be many games from which 2 points will be crucial, and the team’s performance in those key games will have a serious impact on their playoff chances.

Looking at the 6th through 10th seeds in the Eastern Conference last year we can see approximately how many points our needed to make the post season.

2010-2011 Eastern Conference Standings
7th Buffalo – 96 Pts
8th NY Rangers – 93 Pts
9th Carolina – 91 Pts
10th Toronto – 85 Pts

It looks as though the threshold will be a bit lower this season but let’s err on the side of caution and say the Leafs will need 90 points to make the playoffs. Sitting with 67 points, 12th in the conference, they’ll need 12 wins in the final 17 games. While it seems unlikely (12 wins would be a winning percentage of  71%) it’s certainly not an impossible feat.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Keep It In Perspective

Saturday night was a much needed breath of fresh air for fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  

After a long string of losses which ultimately cost Ron Wilson his job, the Leafs finally put in a dominating performance against the Montreal Canadiens.  Hell, even Glen Healy had a tough time finding anything wrong with the Leafs' effort on Saturday.

Ink will be undoubtedly be spilt on how Carlyle lit a spark under the team, or how the team responded to the coaching change with an improved effort, and the more optimistic among us will hope that this is the spark that will propel the team into the 8th seed, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here.

The Leafs looked fantastic on Saturday.  They had nearly twice as many shots as the Habs and were it not for Carey Price, the score would have been considerably more lopsided.  Let's not forget though that we were playing the Canadiens.

Montreal is a bad team and they're a banged up team right now.  With no Gionta, and no Moen, and Blake Geoffrion in the lineup rather than Hal Gill, this was a pretty depleted team.  Injuries and substitutions notwithstanding, the Habs are also the last place team in the Eastern Conference.

Now don't get me wrong, any win against the Habs is a satisfying one.  Watching our top two lines roll over the Habs defense made for a great Saturday night but let's be careful in attributing it to the Carlyle-effect or a change in attitude.  Saturday's win was little more than the Leafs beating up on a horrible team.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A 7 Point Plan to the Playoffs

These are trying times for our boys in the centre of the hockey Universe. Leaf fans haven`t been this upset since... well we`ve pretty much been this upset around this time every year for each of the last eight seasons. We need change in net, a change behind the bench, and some even want the big Irishman out of the GMs office.

Most urgently, we want to make a run. Currently the Leafs sit 10th in the Eastern Conference with 65 points, 4 back of 8th place Washington. The playoffs, while quickly fading into the far-off sunset are still a real possibility. It`s going to take a magical run down the final 18 games if we are going to have a legitimate chance of catching the Capitals and keeping pace with the suddenly dangerous Winnipeg Jets.

To show that we here at BCP haven`t yet given up hope on the 2011-12 season, we`ve laid out a relatively simple 7 step plan which, if followed closely, could land our boys a table at the big post season dance.

1. Fire Ron Wilson. The man has coached over 1,400 games in the NHL and is, by all accounts, a quality bench-boss. However, after 4 years in Toronto it appears he`s not getting the most out of his players. We need a Hitchcock-ian type revelation, similar to the one enjoyed by St.Louis fans earlier this season. The time is now.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Now's The Time For a Rebuild On The Fly

When Brian Burke took over the Maple Leafs, he stated emphatically that he didn't have the patience for a five year rebuild and yet, here we are.

Four years under Ron Wilson and what looks as though it will be a fourth season outside the playoffs, it's safe to say that the 'rebuild on the fly' may have been ill-conceived.

Granted, a lot of things went wrong which have caused the rebuild to fail.  After a half-season of solid goaltending from Vesa Toskala, it would have been a stretch to expect him to be the worst goalie in the NHL the following season.  Add to this Mike Komisarek's precipitous fall from grace and the inability to find an adequate goaltender to replace Toskala following his abysmal performance and you've got a pretty big handicap to overcome -- and one that was difficult to foresee without the benefit of hindsight.  All of this says nothing of the worst-in-the-league penaltykill that we've been forced to endure over the last four years.

For the record, I'm not against the idea of rebuilding on the fly.  The Oilers have shown us that even with top-tier entry level deals, it's still possible to flounder for years if your goaltending and defense isn't getting the job done.  I'm not the type to advocate selling every player on your roster over the age of 24 -- good players are hard to replace in today's NHL.

The timing of Burke's speed-rebuild would be the thing that I would take umbrage with.  There weren't a lot of assets here when he took over the team and that meant that he brought in a bunch of overpaid, below-average free agents to insulate Kessel and to try to keep the Bruins from drafting in the lottery.

When turning over the roster, Burke was able to acquire little more than 2nd round picks and Luca Caputi, early on before finally shipping a package of marginal players for Dion Phaneuf.  Ultimately, our entire core from the JFJ era was traded for one roster player and given what that group has done since being shipped out, Burke did well to get that much.