Way back in September and October as I was evaluating teams I had this to say about the Maple Leafs:

Toronto Maple Leafs, some deceptively good low level moves by Burke in the off season and late last year should see this team notably improved if they can get all the misfit toys to march in the same direction. Phaneuf, Kessel, Komisarek, Lupal all need to pull their weight this season for the team to succeed. Will bite at the heels of whoever is third in the division.

Which made the early third of the season very entertaining as Phil “Mr October” Kessel did his normal explosion out of the starting gate and Dion Phanuef held up his end of the bargain on the backend. The team was healthy, motivated and many players were competing for jobs. Then there were the injuries. Then the holes in their game got exposed as other teams got rolling. As November turned to December, the team as a whole began its slow backslide. December first they were one point behind Boston for the division lead, but their leaky goaltending and under skilled defense began to show. The scoring was fine, and has remained so, but through 25 games they allowed 80 goals. As of December 1st only two teams had allowed more goals.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have three fundamental issues no coach can fix.

  1. Bad, fragile goaltenders. Both physically and mentally the goaltending in Toronto is well below championship caliber. James Reimer is up and down, but is in no meaningful way a better goalie than Steve Mason, he is playing on a better team with slightly more capable defense, but that’s about it. Health issues and the name on the back of the jersey seem to be the only difference between Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson the only consistent thing about his play is that whatever mode he’s in lasts about a month.
  2. Youth. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the second youngest team in the NHL. On the current roster there are only three players over the age of thirty. This is particularly bad for defense as it really does take a good 200 games to figure out how to play defense (well) at the NHL level.  Coming into today Franson, Gunnarsson, Gardiner are all under that number.
  3. Weakness at center. If you look at the last four teams to win the Stanley Cup about the only thing they all had in common was strength at the center position. Aside from Grabovski who just doesn’t seem to mesh with Kessel and Lupul, I can’t think of another center who could legitimately be considered at least a strong #2 center. Connolly you can make a case for but with his health issues, I can see coaches shying away from trying to build their offense around him.

Until at least the goaltending and center position are shored up, hitting the playoffs is fighting well out of the teams weight class. It can get there with a hot streak, and playoff experience is good for young players but expecting to climb as high as sixth and avoid Boston or New York in the first round is a stretch with so few games remaining  Against those two team a moral victory could be declared if they play a fifth game. Ron Wilson was not the problem with this team. On the ice there are a couple players who just don’t get it, and some who don’t have NHL talent. Randy Carlyle may or may not prove to be a better coach for this team, but simply ousting Wilson isn’t a solution.

There are some players who are quite valuable to a team, and every time I take a look at their contract status I wonder who is responsible for them not being extended by now. Some are obvious, some not so, but all are key to their teams this season and in the future.

Zach Parise is the the clear cream of the crop among forwards and arguably over all other pending UFA’s. So what’s the holdup, he’s repeated so many times that he wants to stay in New Jersey that it’s (probably) gone beyond the point where we have to doubt it.

Josh Harding of the Wild is one of the three or four best backups in the NHL this season. He’s closing in on the same number of games he played last year with better numbers. If he isn’t extended by the Wild, I can’t imagine him not getting offers to start in four or five cities that will need goaltending next season.

Shawn Thornton, not only did he have a beautiful snipe in last nights game on a short handed penalty shot but he keeps his cool and doesn’t take stupid, selfish penalties which puts him ahead of certain Washington Capitals who have been the subject of trade rumors since the dawn of time.

Jason Garrison of the Florida Panthers is having a breakout season. his paring with Brian Campbell has been a huge key to the resurgence of the former Blackhawk and Sabre. If leading the NHL in goals by a defenseman isn’t reason enough to extend someone I don’t know what is.

Ray Whitney is aging, but not declining. The Coyotes left wing is on pace to bounce back over 60 points and with a hot streak break seventy. Not bad for a guy who’s thirty and a lot or on a team ranked 24th in goals for. Imagine where he’d be with a slightly better crew around him.

Mikhail Grabovski, if anyone knows what’s up here do tell. Based on his usual performances even on a team that had to aspire to average for the last half decade, it’s safe to say there are roughly 29 other teams who could find roster and cap space for him. Any GM who didn’t at least call his agent if he’s not signed before July 1 should be dismissed.

Jiri Hudler solid depth forward and with the Red Wings struggles to promote drafted prospects this guy should be a must sign.

Ryan Suter is the elephant in the room of UFA’s to be. If traded now or soon he could bring back virtually anything the Predators wanted. If he is retained and Weber is as well, they still have the best defensive one two punch in the NHL. If he walks in July with no return GM David Poile will be lucky if the organics that end up on his face are anything as innocuous as egg.

First the poll:

[poll id=”11″]

Tonight’s game is at the Boston Garden. The Bruins have so far massacred the Leafs home or away with only this weeks game being competitive. The goal totals are 19 Boston and 5 Toronto in the three games so far this season. As mentioned earlier this week, the games do have potential playoff implications. The season series does also present the opportunity for a good drinking game.

Some key points on the Bruins:

  • Bruins are 2nd in goals for
  • Bruins are 2nd in goals against
  • Bruins have the best goals differential in the NHL
  • top performing line is Brad Marchand at left, Patrice “Selke” Bergeron at center, and Tyler “Thank You Kessel” Seguin at right wing.
  • They have a winning record regardless of who scores first
  • have the fourth best winning percentage when trailing after 2.

Some key points on the Maple Leafs:

  • James Reimer will be making his return tonight
  • 2nd best powerplay in the NHL at over 23%
  • 27th in penalty killing.
  • have 30 goals for in the 3rd period, their strongest
  • have allowed 31 goals in the 3rd period fifth most in the NHL
  • Phil Kessel is averaging 20:11 of TOI per game
  • Mikhail Grabovski leads the team in takeaways
  • Clark MacArthur leads the team in goals on the road

Tonight’s tilt is at 7pm ET.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

Brian Burke pulled another one out his sleeve just hours before I wrote this by picking up one of the NHL’s faceoff from the cap constrained New Jersey Devils for a fourth round pick. Add this to picking up Cody Franson and John Michael-Liles in the off-season and there is reason to hope the teams late surge last year might be more than a mirage. If you toss University of Wisconsin alumni Jake Gardiner into the mix you’ve got half your blueline revamped in one short off season.

 

High Card:

Mikhail Grabovski has demonstrated that he’s the best forward on the team since arriving. Well rounded, aggressive and skilled. While no ones is going to pick him to win the Art Ross, he is quite likely to be the Toronto Maple Leafs MVP again. Kessel put up a few more points than Grabovski last season but was a turnover machine. Grabovski is much more of a Jordan Staal or Mikko Koivu type two way presence and is the type of guy who gets it.

Wild Card:

Is it real or is it beginners luck, that’s the question James Reimer has on his plate this season. A .921 2.60 20-10-0-5 line on a team that couldn’t collectively beat one of their wives previously is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately it was clear to anyone who could do math the Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t going to have their travel plans restricted by work in mid April by the time he arrived on the scene.  Will the pressure of potentially jumping into the post season be too much for what is probably the divisions fourth best team and their goalie?

Like most legitimate sports fans, All Star events at most inspire tepid interest and usually only to give me something to focus my scorn on while waiting for real games to be played again.  When the player draft was announced my lack of whelm for even the skills completion was dulled seriously.  Add in several of the leagues top players either not being able to be there, having bad seasons, or otherwise unable to participate and you had a recipe for blah that hindsight tells us almost had to be exceeded.

The fantasy draft was done live and having nothing better to do and the state of tv being what it is, there wasn’t even anything better to watch. Besides, like most people I wanted to see who would go last, which teammates would be split up and who if anyone would have a personality I hadn’t suspected revealed.  With twenty two first timers at the weekend, and guys like Brad Richards and the rookies there were a lot of faces even hardcore NHL fans had trouble placing.

Eric Staal, captain of the host cities team was given huge cheers at every opportunity. Nicklas Lidstrom, six time winner of the Norris Trophy was his opposite number and received a lot of respect. The rising star of the weekend, and almost certainly the prize pick of the last draft was Jeff Skinner.

The draft was at least as interesting for watching the guys in the audience as it was for figuring out which team to cheer for, especially after teammates were split up. While the splitting of the Sedin twins was given the most attention, the other dynamic duo to go to different teams was Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, each of whom has won the top award for their position.  Seeing how many teammates and former teammates were taken by each captain was not in any way surprising.

While I’m hardly Phil Kessel’s biggest fan, I’m kinda shocked he wasn’t picked higher and used in the fastest skater competition.  Speaking of the fulcrum of the most spectacular trade within the Northeast/Adams Division in recent memory am I the only surprised that Kessel was chosen as the Maple Leaf’s All Star? He’s not leading the team in points, Clarke Macarthur holds that position. He’s also not leading the team in goals, that’s Mikhail Grabovski. He’s not leading the NHL in any stat, and in fact had the worst +/- of any participant I can think of. Even Elias who was his teams token representative has more points, and a +/- that betters Kessel’s by 13. Is this perhaps an indication by Brian Burke that Grabovski and Macarthur can count their stay in Toronto as winding down? Or is it just an attempt to deflect attention from Kessel’s cap glutting salary, limited utility, and what was given up (Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and a first in 2011) to acquire him? Who knows.

After watching the draft, and seeing the goalies, defense, and BlackHawks past and present assembled, it was to many a foregone conclusion that team Lidstrom was a better structured team. With the collection of talent there it wasn’t possible to have a bad team but one was clearly better. Yet when the skills competition was over Team Staal stood tall with a very respectable win. I wonder how many people adjusted their position on the teams at this point? The early first period of the actual game probably had more adjusting and even some complete reversals going on. In a real game a four goal lead early in the first would probably get ugly. In an All Star game…well, there’s no need or ability to get where you already are.  Team Lidstrom eventually won, and Tim Thomas continued his string of All Star game decisions by winning number three, the longest in NHL All Star history.

Overall their were only two big disappointments on the weekend; the game not counting as one since no one expects them to be good. The first was the lack of push given to some of the stars who are not named Crosby or Ovechkin. Stamkos is young, hugely talented, and I’ve not yet heard anyone cry at having to look at him. Jeff Skinner has a teen heart throb glow in public that probably gives security fits, not to mention he’s a dynamic talent himself. Both of them are in non-traditional hockey markets, and anything that can be done to boost their local and national exposure can’t hurt the game. Loui Eriksson is rising over the lonestar state, while Boston born Keith Yandle is the leader of the pack out in Phoenix. Both teams have experienced ownership questions and a fitting salute to those fan bases would have been reassuring and growth inducing.

The other disappointment was of course the National Anthem singing. The Canadian anthem is heard infrequently by most Americans and seems to have a vastly different flavor each time. For those of us who have a team from north of the border in their division, we’ve come to expect a certain level of verve and energy, I failed to find it. Worse was the American Anthem, far, far worse. Clay Aiken was truly, unbelievably bad. I’m not sure if he’s never actually heard The Star Spangled Banner sung, or if the person who did sing it for him was utterly tone deaf and had a range of three notes, none of them consecutive. Steven Tyler recently sang the anthem here in Boston and was lucky to avoid being booed. This performance was irretrievably worse, it was the national showcase for a league that has trouble getting respect from the media, and attention from fans of other sports.  By allowing someone so utterly unfit for the privilege granted them, the league signaled their lack of serious pursuit of creditability. Any number of singers, male or female could have turned in a better performance. Unquestionably there are at least a dozen American Idol participants who made it to Hollywood that could have done better. Here’s a tip; pick someone with an album that has songs with a lot of vocal range on it. They will probably do a great job. Alicia Keys, Faith Hill or Toni Braxton would have brought down the house, and their male counterparts like Toby Keith, Jamie Foxx, Chris Brown, or Enrique Iglesias would have done the song justice.

As for the Guardian Project, great drawing.