I think it is time that I come out and express my opinion on the Leafs season so far. The Leafs are currently sitting in 14th spot in the east with 44 points in 52 games thanks to a dismal 17-25-10 record. Now I know that many of you are loving that my prediction of the Leafs making the playoffs is going so wrong as now I have to eat crow and admit my bias, but let me point out two things many seem to forget.
1. I don’t think anyone predicted the Leafs would end the season with just 69 points, which is where they will end up if they keep on their current pace. Howard Berger, and others, love to talk about how bad the Leafs are and how we all knew that going into the season except for the most optimistic and unrealistic of fans. But of course, what Howard fails to mention that he didn’t predict the Leafs would end the season with 69 points, but rather he predicted the Leafs would end the season with 90 points and ending up 9th in the conference. Sorry Howard, but you’ll have to admit that you were awfully wrong about the Leafs this season too. And it isn’t just Howard. Almost everyone thought that the Leafs would be improved and likely end up just out of the playoffs. In fact, pretty much everyone predicted the Leafs would end up closer to my 95 point prediction than to the 69 points they are currently on pace for. So, if I am going to eat crow, you’ll all have to too.
2. A significant portion of my optimistic thinking was that I thought the combination of a healthy Toskala, a hopefully good Gustavsson, and a better 3rd goalie in MacDonald would result in much improved goaltending. Here is my exact quote:
Now I know a lot of people will scream bias at this prediction but I truly believe that 95 points is relatively easily obtainable if they even get average goaltending. Maybe I shouldn’t assume that but with a healthy Toskala, a promising prospect in Gustavsson and a more than decent third option in Joey MacDonald not to mention one of the best goalie coaches in the game in Francois Allaire getting average goaltending is certainly within reach. They also have a good and deep defense and a significant number of forwards capable of scoring 20-30 goals so they should produce enough offensively. Goaltending is key.
Well, none of that panned out. Toskala has been even worse than ever and Gustavsson has been good at times, bad at other times and overall just mediocre. The end result is a team save percentage of .885 which is exactly the same as last year. That goes a long way to explaining why the Leafs are so bad this year just as it does in explaining how bad the Hurricanes, Blue Jackets and Oilers are (those three teams are the 29th, 28th and 27th worst teams in save percentage.
So with that out of the way, let me address some specific issues with respect to the Leafs.
Goaltending going Forward
The goaltending is in complete disarray. Based on his play, Toskala has probably not even earned a roster spot in the ECHL, let along the NHL. Save for a game or two, he has been horrid. He has no future with the Leafs, and quite possibly no future in the NHL (though Raycroft still earns an NHL paycheck so anything is possible). But regardless, he won’t be with the Leafs next season. Furthermore, he isn’t likely to garner any attention come the trade deadline. He has been that bad. So the thought of showcasing him as potential trade bait, even for a 7th round pick, is pointless. I can’t think of a single reason why he should get another start this season. Since the Leafs don’t have their first round pick it doesn’t even make sense to play him just to lose more games. In short, Toskala serves no useful role and has no value to the Leafs whatsoever and so should be George Laracque’d and let go immediately. Play Gustavsson 80% of the remaining games and lets see if he can be a starter in the NHL and bring up MacDonald, who at least might have a chance at contributing to the Leafs organization in some capacity beyond this season. The Leafs need to find out what they have in Gustavsson because they simply cannot being another NHL season without some stability in goal. It’s killing the team and it will kill the confidence of the young players on the team and thus hurt their development.
A lot of people are wondering if Ron Wilson will, or should get fired. I personally don’t have any strong feelings one way or another towards Wilson. With the inconsistent goaltending the Leafs have had it is really difficult to evaluate him as a coach. But that said, he was supposed to be a defensive coach and bring a more defensive mindset to the Leafs and for the most part I don’t see that and there hasn’t been any improvement from Maurice to Wilson or from last year to this year so maybe that means he should be fired. That said, I’d give him another year if a top tier coach is not available this summer (i.e. should Ken Hitchcock not get fired in Columbus).
It seems like anyone and everyone wants to trade this guy with many people wondering why Burke is so insistent that he will not ask Kaberle to waive his no trade clause. First, I find it admirable that Burke is a man of his word and I think in the long run that bodes well for this franchise. Integrity is important, and I believe Burke has that. Second, I don’t understand the rush or desire to trade Kaberle. Yes, he is their most valuable asset, but he is their most valuable asset because he awfully good. Trading really good players shouldn’t just be something you do for the sake of trading them. It should be something you do after a lot of serious thought and then only if it lands you another really good player. Sorry guys, but Kaberle is worth much more than a late first round pick and a secondary prospect because there really aren’t many players with his skillset in the NHL. Personally, what I would do is wait until July when you can start contract negotiations and see what it would cost to lock him up for another 4 years. If the number is reasonable, I’d do it. If not, look to trade him then. He isn’t even 32 years yet so he still has a lot of quality hockey left in him and if you can sign him to another good value contract it makes perfect sense to do that instead of trading him.
Stalberg, Hanson, etc.
I have heard several people talk about Stalberg, Hanson and others and wonder why they aren’t on this team instead of guys like Blake, Stempniak, etc. who should have their contracts dumped in the AHL to free up salary cap space. Brian Burke’s response to that is he can’t send them down because they have earned the right to play through hard work. I am with Brian Burke again. I think it is absolutely wrong to give a player like Stalberg or Hanson a roster spot just because he is young and might have more of a future with this team than Blake or Stempniak. I believe, as Burke believes, you have to earn the right to play in the NHL and so far neither Hanson nor Stalberg have earned that right. In Stalberg’s case, his good pre-season earned him a spot but his 1 goal, 3 points and -5 in 17 games has shown that he isn’t ready for the NHL yet. He hasn’t performed as well as Blake or Stempniak and probably hasn’t out worked them either so there is no rational reason why Stalberg deserves a spot on this team. When he earns it, he’ll get it and that is the proper message Leaf management should be sending their young players, or any player for that matter.
Over at Pension Plan Puppets they have recently discussed Ian White and what his next contract should be. It is definitely worth the read though I think the undervalue White a little.
I can’t speak for White, White’s agents, or Burke. But I’m pretty positive that most GMs in the league would look at all the data I just did, and say that White is deserving of a contract worth at least $3M, probably closer to $3.5M. If Burke came in with an offer for 3 years and $10M, I think that everybody would be pretty happy, and Ian White would remain an important member of the Blue and White for the rest of his mid 20s.
I actually think his value is closer to $4-4.5 million. He can play big minutes, is solid defensively and has produced offensively too and at age 25 is probably still improving. He works hard and has done everything that the Leafs have asked of him, including playing as a winger after sitting out 11 straight games to start the season last year. He is exactly the kind of guy I want as the face of this franchise. If I were GM of the Leafs I would be talking to Ian White right now and get him locked up to a long term contract. Five years at $4 million per year sounds just fine to me and I’d probably seriously consider making him captain as well. Who else would you want to represent your franchise than a home grown player who earned a regular role with the team through patience and hard work, someone who plays all aspects of the game well, and someone who is just entering the prime of his career? The other options for caption all have their flaws. Beauchemin will only be here for a year or two. Kaberle doesn’t seem to be the vocal/leader type. Komisarek isn’t home grown. Schenn is too young. And none of the forwards likely have their futures with the Leafs secure enough at this point in time. As a Leaf fan, I can’t see any problems with White as captain, so long as he signs a long term contract to solidify his future with the team.