Thursday, December 09, 2010

Is this the point of no return in Leafland?

MONTREAL - JUNE 26:  (L-R)  Toronto Maple Leafs President & GM Brian Burke, Special Advisor Cliff Fletcher, First Round Draft Pick Nazem Kadri, Senior VP of Hockey Operations Dave Nonis and Head Coach Ron Wilson stand on the stage during the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 26, 2009 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It’s beginning to look a lot like déjà-vu all over again for the Toronto Maple Leafs and their fans. Through 27 games, the Leafs have managed a total of ten wins and 24 points, good for 13th in the Eastern Conference, behind the storied Florida Panthers based solely on the fact they have fewer wins. It does mark an improvement from last season and Monday’s come-from-behind win against the Washington Capitals is encouraging; but it’s not the improvement many were hoping as it’s only a one point improvement from this same point last season. Not only that, but the Leafs- yet again- remain well out of the playoff picture, being nine whole points behind the 8th-place New York Rangers, a gap that can only widen during the season.

That’s not the real bombshell though. The real bombshell is a Toronto Star report that Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest media company, is prepared to buy the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan’s (OTPP) 60% share of the Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) for a reported $1.5 billion. The deal would give Rogers, who already own baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays, control of all of Toronto’s major sports assets, bringing in not just the Leafs but basketball’s Toronto Raptors and soccer’s Toronto FC, as well as the Leafs’ minor league affiliate the Toronto Marlies. Considering that Rogers is also gearing for a National Football League team in Toronto, the prospect of a pro sports monopoly in North America’s fifth largest market has the potential to set precedents in not just Canada but across North America as a whole, as whole cities could clamour for similar arrangements for their teams. Whether or not the monopoly is good for sports as a whole is a matter of debate- it could give cities greater control over their teams in battles with their leagues because now the teams are a unified front but it could also lead to managerial neglect simply because one can’t focus on too many divisions at once- but for the Leafs, that’s not such an immediate concern.

They just want to know where they’re going from here.

You see, back in November of 2008, Brian Burke was hired as the Leafs’ GM under the promise that Toronto’s days as a languishing outfit were over and that they were finally on their way to being legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. After all, not only did Burke win a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, bringing in important free agent Scott Niedermayer, he also built the Vancouver Canucks from the ground up, restoring to relevancy a franchise that, like the Leafs, was a doormat for too long (maybe the lowest point was when the Royal Canadian Air Farce did a sketch in 1999 where Roger Abbot portrayed El Niño doing a weather forecast and predicting the Canucks would lose “all the rest of their games (sic)”). Though the Canucks haven’t yet won the Stanley Cup, it was Burke that laid the groundwork for that revival, acquiring the pieces necessary for this year’s run, including the twins, Henrik and Daniel Sedin. There was hope that Burke could weave similar magic in Toronto, and, through two seasons, it looked like Burke was on his way, acquiring two of the game’s best young players in Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in separate trades last season that saw almost the entire Leaf roster overhauled. Though the Kessel trade itself was criticized- the Leafs had to depart with two first round draft picks, one of which turned into Tyler Seguin- there was a trust that Burke knew what he was doing, and that trust seemed to be paying off when the Leafs reeled off four straight wins to start the 2010-11 season, the fastest start of the season for the Leafs since the 1993-94 season when they won ten straight. That team went to the Conference Final, though it did have the incredible luck of drawing the expansionist San Jose Sharks in Round Two that year.

Now, who knows if that trust still there? I personally didn’t believe the Leafs had to qualify for the playoffs for Burke to keep his job, but they did have to compete for one. After all, the Canucks in Burke’s third season also missed the playoffs, but that Canucks team also was in first place for the first two months of the season and fought for a playoff spot all season long. The Leafs, however, don’t seem to be anything close to that right now, though Toronto is playing noticeably harder this season than they were last season. Having said that, it may be the only positive the Leafs have this season- all the other vital signs are practically dormant.

First of all, the offensive corps is a mess. Kessel may lead the team in goals, with ten, but he’s far from producing at an elite level, recording just six assists with those goals for an underwhelming 16 points in 27 games. Clarke MacArthur (yes, “who?”) leads the team in points with 21 off of nine goals and 12 assists. Those would be good totals if it wasn’t also pointed out that MacArthur had five of those goals in the first four games, meaning he’s just scored four times in the subsequent 23 games. Kris Versteeg, the Leafs’ big offseason acquisition, is performing to standards with 16 points in 27 games, but, like Kessel, he does look lost on an offence that is acting as if it hopes Nazem Kadri is a capable playmaker this early in his NHL career (short answer: no, he’s not). Further to the Leafs’ offensive woes is the regression of Tyler Bozak, who appeared to have potential to break out this season after tearing up the league at the end of last season but is mired in an awful slump this season, recording a paltry nine points in 27 games. Nikolai Kulemin remains the team’s only bright spot, looking poised to improve on his rookie season with a nine-goal effort so far, but it by no means gives Toronto the elite performance they’ve been lacking all season long. Worse, the team’s supposed strong suit- offence from the point- has failed to materialize, as the Leafs’ defence (featuring such names as Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf and Francois Beauchemin) has produced a grand total of four goals amongst them (Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek, Calle Gunnarsson and Luke Schenn each have one goal). To put that in perspective, 24 defencemen have that many goals by themselves, including players such as Marc Staal and Eric Brewer who are not typically known for their offensive prowess. What is worse about that statistic is that none of those defensive goals have come on the power play, the bread and butter of the modern NHL offence and a big reason why the Leafs’ offensive production is not where it should be.

The real eye opener, however, is on penalty killing, which is so bad it prompted The Globe and Mail’s Jeff Blair to write that it’s reason enough to terminate Ron Wilson as a coach. Said Blair, “it’s (all) about a team that is 29th out of 30 teams in one of the most coachable areas for a young squad full of guys trying to make their bones: killing penalties.” That part is true, and when you actually watch the Leafs’ penalty killing, you do watch a bunch of players moving around aimlessly without a clue about who exactly they’re supposed to cover. However, it is an aggressive penalty killing unit and does play hard, so it is a correctable error, and coach Wilson does have a trump card to play- even though his Leafs have been horrible at killing penalties, at least they’re not taking them, since Toronto is second in the league with the fewest minors, with just 86. That is also a “coachable” statistic since it means the Leafs are disciplined and provides hope that the dressing room is still giving its ear to Wilson.

See, the situation is pretty bleak, and it doesn’t look like it can get a whole lot better considering (as stated previously) Toronto doesn’t have its first round draft pick (again) this season; and the snap answer is to wield the axe to Wilson and Burke. However, that’s not the right move at this point in the season.

The positives- as few as they may be- are at least bright enough to suggest that Burke’s silly plan just may work. Let’s not forget he took a lot of heat for trading Bryan McCabe (when he was good) and Vancouver’s first round draft choice in 2000 (Pavel Vorobiev) for one of the draft picks that became the Sedin twins, an eerie coincidence to the heat he took for trading Kessel for the draft picks and look how that turned out (raise your hand if you’d trade one of the Sedins for McCabe and Vorobiev right now. Yeah, I thought so). Yes, Tyler Seguin is having a promising start to his NHL career, but there’s no guarantee he can maintain that pace, and the 2011 Draft doesn’t seem to quite have the same sizzle as drafts previously did (names like Sean Couturier, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Adam Larsson, the top three players in the 2011 Draft, aren’t exactly commanding the same attention Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, John Tavares, Seguin and Taylor Hall did in their junior days). At least with Kessel you did get a “proven” commodity, a player who has already shown at a young age to have immense ability (you don’t score 36 goals as a 22-year-old by accident) and still has acres of time to grow. His shot is already one of the league’s best and in time he’ll learn how to best create opportunities for himself on his own (like Ilya Kovalchuk can) and how to develop some consistency. He scored 30 goals by himself last season, so imagine what he could get if he had some support. Give him a centre and maybe we enter Mike Bossy territory...maybe.

Furthermore, this is the league’s youngest team, with an average age of just around 25 years of age. Only three players- Kaberle, goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Beauchemin- are 30 years old, and 15 players are under 26 years of age, so despite the lack of draft picks, there is still a lot of opportunity for improvement in this group. This is much different than the old team that underachieved in the years immediately after the lockout and in the mid-1990s in that at least the Leafs are presenting the prospect of hope. Granted, having young players isn’t enough if they are showing they are not capable of “growing” into their roles, but fortunately the Leafs do have quite a few blue chip prospects in the making. Kessel and Phaneuf need no introduction, both of whom being elite-level players still in the development cycle of their careers. Keith Aulie, acquired in the Phaneuf trade, is looking like he could become one of the league’s better defensive defencemen, performing yeoman work with aplomb. Kulemin, as stated previously, is poised to improve on his numbers from last season and, at times, looks like he could develop into a genuine first-line talent. MacArthur looks like he could be the steal of the season with his unexpected production, especially if he can find his way back to the scoreboard with greater consistency. Versteeg also appears to be taking his new role as a top-line player in stride, doing more to create plays than he did as a peripheral member of the Chicago Blackhawks. Then there’s Kadri, who might not be the elite-level playmaker the Leafs desperately need but still does show promise on the ice, regularly creating plays like Versteeg does. We still haven’t even gotten to Jonas Gustavsson, whose save percentage is at a respectable .902 clip and is showing that he’s capable of stealing games for the Leafs in the future. He reminds me a lot of another goaltender the Leafs currently have, someone who happens to be their starter and stole a lot of games in his younger know, Giguere? Let’s just hope Gustavsson doesn’t get riddled with injuries like “Giggy” did.

Yes, those two paragraphs of positives isn’t much of a positive to go on- as every Leaf fan already knows, “hope” doesn’t always pan out and this isn’t the first time Toronto fans were told they had a reason to “Be-Leaf”. However, I dare you to write that similar passage at any point of the Leafs’ history since 1967. You certainly couldn’t during the forgettable Harold Ballard years where mismanagement and constant meddling meant that player development and talent scouting was haphazard at best (hello Tom Kurvers...). You also couldn’t during the 1990s, where Cliff Fletcher essentially built the 1993 team based on one trade and thus got one shot, forcing him into high priced free agents as the decade waned. You also couldn’t to begin the 2000s, when Leaf management solely believed veterans were the way to go and forgetting to develop, meaning Toronto never could take that “next step”. Lastly, you sure couldn’t write that passage when John Ferguson Jr. was running the town, because his cluelessness in, well, just about every department saddled the team with a veteran-laced team that was past its prime and had no hope whatsoever. Yes, this may not be the most heralded batch of youngsters ever assembled, but at least it provides hope that something can actually pan out. Besides, Burke happens to be the first GM the Leafs have had that had previously won the Cup and is actually building with youth- Fletcher never did. That alone should give Burke a stronger chance to prove himself, and Wilson a decent shot at finishing his job, because, after all, we still don’t know if this team can actually pan out.

I will grant this much- if the Leafs tank and are again at the bottom of the standings this season, then it would be time to shake up the management. The impending Rogers deal means that this is it, if things don’t appear to turn around this season- even just slightly- then there’s no more time to wait to see if it does because after three seasons there should be some improvement, not stagnation. However, there’s still time for a rebound in this long season and if it happens it could be the harbinger of things to come. The Stanley Cup parade is still a long time coming, but, for once, maybe it isn’t just a dream anymore.


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