Aug 172008
 

1 Montreal Canadiens
2 Pittsburgh Penguins
3 Washington Capitals
4 Philadelphia Flyers
5 Ottawa Senators
6 NY Rangers
7 New Jersey Devils
8 Carolina Hurricanes
9 Tampa Bay Lightning
10 Boston Bruins
11 Buffalo Sabres
12 Florida Panthers
13 Atlanta Thrashers
14 Toronto Maple Leafs
15 NY Islanders

Again, I’m going to have to disagree with THN over this. If the Pens had managed to keep Ryan Malone and/or Marian Hossa I’d be inclined to agree that they would finish atop their division, but they won’t. When you potentially have Miroslav Satan as your top scoring winger you’re not going to go anywhere fast. The rest of the team remains largely the same.

I have a hard time believing the Sens will finish ahead of the Rangers and Devils. Despite the fact that Wade Redden‘s game is in decline, losing him will hurt because they didn’t replace him. The Sens are still looking for ways to fill out the rest of their roster, but like so many other teams in the East, goaltending is their primary concern. If Martin Gerber doesn’t hold up, they’re slightly above average at best by virtue of their incredible top line.

The Bruins are going to make some noise this year, especially with a completely healed Patrice Bergeron. Michael Ryder will head into camp as the favourite to land the first line right winger slot, and considering the success Claude Julien had with Ryder, along with an elite playmaking centre in Marc Savard, he could be a very nice surprise. Once again, however, they head into training camp with a 1A-1B tandem of fan favourite Tim Thomas and the disgruntled Manny Fernandez.

The East is much more clear cut than the West because so many teams have holes. The Habs, arguably the best team in the East, also has a shaky goaltending situation considering how Carey Price fell apart last year. These goaltending problems also plague at least 3 of the playoff teams listed. It’ll be interesting to see how this season plays out – a lot of teams have areas to improve, and considering the mass exodus of players from the East heading West, this year could be rather different.

Aug 142008
 

As many as 5 different sources are saying that Bryan McCabe has waived his NMC to go to Florida. Long Island was rumoured to be the favoured destination, as McCabe’s wife is from the area, but it seems like sunny Florida sounded like a good spot too. It’s funny how Florida is always able to land or attract top players, but can never seem to quite put it together to ice a Cup-contending team. The Panthers reportedly got into talks with the Leafs after it was clear that Jay Bouwmeester would not be back next year. This does not mean that Bouwmeester would be headed to Toronto, but more likely a package with Mike Van Ryn as the centrepiece, on a crowded Panthers blueline. However, there are also sources that although acknowledge the Panthers’ interest, maintain that McCabe will not be moved prior to September 1. The Panthers have a little over $7m in cap space with Greg Campbell to re-sign. A lot of moves being discussed right now depends on where Mats Sundin will sign. Once that domino falls, the fates of Glen Murray and Mark Parrish will also be decided.

EDIT: It sounds like it’s a done deal – after McCabe collects his $2m signing bonus from Toronto on September 1st, of course. No mention of which Panthers will be headed north of the border.

Aug 132008
 

As Canada’s #1 sports network, and hockey obviously at the forefront, I’m a little disappointed and frustrated at times by their hockey coverage, especially those of their staff writers. They’ve recently coughed up a short article on the Canucks. (The Leafs and Habs have also been covered). You’d think that for a sports network as large as theirs they’d take a little more prudence when writing these things, but they don’t.

In the Canucks article, they noted that Jason Jaffray as a potential “youngster” that could be thrust into a scoring role should Mats Sundin not sign, but Jaffray is 27 years old – hardly considered a “youngster,” unless by “youngster,” they mean “inexperienced,” in which Jaffray has only 19 NHL games under his belt, all of them coming last year. Another thing that really bugs me is their lineup projections. Now these lines are based on personal opinion, but how can you misspell “Ryan Kesler?” Vancouver’s arguably most prized forward must deserve at least a spell-check. It’s not like we’re asking them to spell “Schwarzenegger.” I also think sitting Darcy Hordichuk in favour of Jeff Cowan is a little ridiculous.

These short articles are for die-hard hockey fans like us to pass a little time, but you’d think they’d take a little more prudence and give a little more thought to, or even proofread, what they write.

Aug 102008
 

For Garth Snow and the Islanders, their search for a new head coach to replace Ted Nolan has come down to three candidates: Bob Hartley, Paul Maurice, or the AHL’s Scott Gordon.

Hartley’s NHL coaching career started in 1998 in Colorado, whose strong QMJHL and AHL records had caught the eye of then-GM Pierre Lacroix. He enjoyed 4 very successful years in Denver, including a 52-16-10-4 record and a Stanley Cup win in 2001. He was fired the following season in 2002 after a slow start, and joined the Thrashers a month later. Although he had gone from a perennial contender to a basement dweller, it didn’t stop Hartley from winning. In 2007, the Thrashers set a franchise record with 41 wins and their first ever playoff birth. But once again, despite his success the previous season, his Thrashers were off to a cold start and he was fired by Don Waddell after going pointless in six straight games. Despite all this success, depending on who you ask, Hartley isn’t exactly an angel. In 2005, against the Lightning, Thrasher Eric Boulton elbowed Paul Ranger in the head, resulting in a concussion and a fractured jaw. Boulton was subsequently suspended for six games, but it didn’t stop John Tortorella from lambasting the enforcer, saying that “no one wants to see him on the ice.” After the suspension, Boulton pleaded innocence, and claimed that he was only doing what he was told to do, implying that a frustrated Hartley had told him to get out there and headhunt. After all, Boulton is an enforcer and that’s what he’s employed by NHL teams to do. It was never definite whether or not Hartley asked Boulton to headhunt, but Hartley was under fire for a short while and since then the Thrashers and Lightning have enjoyed quite the rivalry.

To be honest, I never liked Maurice. He did a great job in Carolina, but I thought from the beginning that he was a terrible choice for the Leafs. Despite his successes, it’s always been overlooked that he is a poor special teams tactician. Throughout his coaching career, Maurice’s teams have traditionally never been good at killing penalties. In 2001, the Hurricanes had the second-best PK% in the league, but it all went downhill from there. When the Hurricanes made the finals in 2002, they were tied with the Devils with the worst PK% for playoff-bound teams in the East, with 83.7%. In his next full years, Carolina would rank 24th on the PK. In his first season with the Leafs, they had a 17.7% PP (17th) and 78.5% PK (27th). This year, their PP was 17.8% (15th) and PK 78.1% (29th). It can be argued that Maurice didn’t have the right players to work with (Peter Laviolette hasn’t exactly gotten the Canes’ PK out of the basement yet either), but I don’t think it’s a valid excuse for a playoff contender to finish near dead last in the league. He was under a lot of scrutiny in Toronto, and perhaps a move to a less hockey-crazed city would be a good change of scenery and hopefully be able to repeat the successes he had while in Carolina.

Gordon is the least well-known of the three, but is apparently well-respected in hockey circles. The former netminder enjoyed three successful years at Boston College, and started his coaching career in the IHL before moving onto the ECHL then head coach for Providence in the AHL in 2003. The 45-year old was the winner of the Louis Pieri Memorial Award, annually given to the best coach in the AHL. Considering the recent success of promoting AHL coaches (ie. Bruce Boudreau), it could be a good idea to take Gordon over the other two.

Aug 072008
 

Everyone’s least favourite fictional hockey rumour blogger is back at it again. Yup, Eklund has yet another Mats Sundin rumour.

Did we stumble on what the holdup may be?

The source, who has MANY years experience in the NHL, told me this…”I just heard that Toronto wants Sundin back and Sundin wants back in Toronto. Toronto will sign him today as long as Mats is willing to NOT include a NO TRADE CLAUSE in the contract.. That is the hold up currently and ONLY that.”

Every day Eklund has some kind of Sundin rumour. The other day he had him on the verge of signing with the Canadiens and now he has him on the verge of signing with the Leafs, if only Fletcher would give him a no trade clause.

Guess what friends, Fletcher has offered Sundin a no trade clause and has publicly stated he has no issues with offering him such a clause.

From a CBC article

Sundin earned $5.5 million last season and refused to waive his no-trade clause prior to the trade deadline. Fletcher had indicated in early June that if the Leafs were to make an offer, they would have no qualms about giving Sundin a no-trade clause again.

“If Mats comes to me and says, ‘I will sign, but I have to have a no-trade contract,’ and it is a one-year contract, he has got it,” Fletcher said.

The only hold up in the Mats Sundin saga is Mats Sundin himself. Mats Sundin is unsure if he wants to play at all next year, let alone has he decided where is is going to play. This is nothing new. Last summer John Ferguson Jr. offered Mats a one, two, or three year deal with no trade clauses and Mats took the one year deal because he wasn’t sure he wanted to play more than one more season. He has said all summer, directly or through his agent, that he has not yet decided if he wants to play next season. He just got married and it is perfectly understandable if it is now that he decides to hang up the skates and retire. But it is also perfectly understandable if he wants to take his time to make that decision.

I have heard people compare the Sundin situation to the Brett Farvre situation but the situations are completely different. Farve had a contract, retired, and then came back leaving his team on the hook for his salary in a salary cap league. Mats Sundin has no contract, he is a free agent and he will leave no teams obligated to pay him a dime should he decide not to retire. If Sundin’s is holding up or messing up any teams plans for next season then only that team is to blame because they chose to wait for Sundin. They didn’t have to. The Favre situation is analagous to the Scott Niedermayer situation from a year ago when Niedermayer chose to return and put the Anaheim Ducks in a tough position of having to deal away Andy McDonald to make room for him.

Sundin is a private person. He doesn’t tell many people about his decision making process or which direction he is leaning. Even his agent isn’t sure of what he is going to do or which way he is leaning. My guess is the only person who knows really what he is thinking is Mats himself, and possible his new wife. Anyone who tries to portray the situation as any different is feeding you a load of nonsense. Anyone who is giving you daily updates of which team is in the lead for Sundin’s services next season is feeding you a line of fiction. It’s all bogus. It is a shame that fans get all hyped up about such nonsense.

Oh, and why aren’t we hearing a daily Joe Sakic watch?

Jul 102008
 

Greg Ballantine of The Puck Stops Here has more information on the Frogren mess.

The snag is that Frogren was drafted in 1998 by the Calgary Flames, but never given a contract offer. Under the pre-lockout CBA, such a player was classified as “defected” by the NHL if he later came to the NHL with a team other than his drafting team (which no longer held his rights). This classification is a poor name because it doesn’t actually have anything to do with a player defecting. It was agreed, in negotiating the expired IIHF player transfer agreement that it would be best to treat such cases the same way defecting players are treated. This language was left in the current CBA, probably without considering consequences. Defecting players, regardless of age, were to be required to sign entry level contracts.

Anyone who has browsed through the CBA will realize what a confusing mess it is as certain parts of it over rule others and unless you have read and understood every single aspect of it you really can’t say you understand any of it or how it applies in any particular situation. This seems to be what is happening here.

The problem arises because of the defected status stuff that essentially has been carried forward from the old CBA to the new one. I won’t go into the part of the CBA which defines what a defected status player is and why Frogren is such a player but assuming he is (which seems to be the case) here is what the new CBA outlines in regards to compensation and entry level contracts:

Defected Players. Any Player who met the qualifications of defected status as per the terms of, and as of the date of expiration of, the expired CBA shall remain defected for a defined period of time, following which the player shall becme free of the exclusive negotiating rights of his drafting club and shall be eligible to enter the league as an unrestricted free agent. The defected status of players selected in the 2002 entry draft, or prior, shall expire as of June 1, 2006… Any player who remains an unsigned draft choice at the time his defected status expires in accordance with this paragraph shall be subject to having to enter the league through the entry level system in accordance with the provisions of article 9 of the expired CBA, including without limitation, the salary scale set forth therein, following the application of the 24 percent roll back as provided for in Paragraph 1(a) above, provided, however, that such Players shall at a minimum be required to sign a one-year entry level SPC to enter the league, regardless of the players age at the time the SPC is signed and, provided further, the player may negotiate for performance bonuses only as permitted by the rules set forth in Article 9 and Exhibit 5 of this agreement governing entry level performance bonuses, and as allowed under Article 50 of this agreement.

Confused yet? I think I am. So, it seems that Frogren is subject to the salary scale outlined in the 1995 CBA, but the bonus scale outlined in the 2005 CBA. How odd is that? So, we need to refer to Article 9 of the expired CBA. According to the salary scale in Article 9 of the 1995 CBA, Frogren is entitled to a maximum of $975,000 less 24% or $741,000, up to 10% of which could be as a signing bonus.

Additionally, the maximum performance bonuses the Leafs could offer are:

$212,500 if he is in the top 4 defensemen in ice time
$212,500 if he scores 10 goals
$212,500 if he gets 25 assists
$212,500 if he gets 40 points
$212,500 if he gets 0.49 points per game
$212,500 if he is among the top 3 defense on Leafs in plus/minus
$212,500 if he is in the top 2 Leafs defensemen in blocked shots
$212,500 if he is on the all rookie team
$212,500 if he makes the NHL all-star game
$212,500 if he is the all star game MVP

There is a good chance that none of those will occur so putting in ‘easy’ bonuses to up his salary is likely out of the question.

The rumour was that Frogren would earn $450,000 (which is actually below league minimum so I question this number) this upcoming season and $900,000 in year 2 and a $700,000 signing bonus. If Frogren is limited to $741,000 plus likely unachievable bonuses as it seems the CBA outlines then Frogren will fall well short of the money he would have collected under the rumoured contract and one would then wonder if he would be able to buy out the final year on his Farjstad contract.

Ultimately this is a mystery that will take some time to unfold and we’ll have to wait and see if the NHLPA will file a grievance and under what reasoning they will do so.

Jul 102008
 

There are some strange happenings in regards to the Toronto Maple Leafs attempts to sign Jonas Frogren and one has to wonder if and why the NHL is standing in the way of the Leafs signing the Swedish defenseman. Yesterday was the day it was expected that the Leafs would finally announce the signing of Frogren but instead news came out that the league had nixed the deal stating that Frogren had to be signed to an entry level contract, not a standard contract.

Yesterday news came out that the NHL has rejected the Leafs contract with Jonas Frogren stating that his contract needs to be an entry level contract. Steve discussed the issue saying that the contract issues made no sense because the CBA states that a player age 28 isn’t required to sign an entry level contract and although Frogren is 27 now he will be 28 on August 28th so the Leafs just need to wait until then.

But it gets even stranger because in the same section of the CBA that states that a player aged 28 does not need to sign an entry level contract it also states the following:

9.2. Age of Players. As used in this Article, “age,” including “First SPC Signing Age” means a Players age on September 15 of the calendar year in which he signs an SPC, regardless of actual age on the date he signs such SPC.

Now I don’t give Gary Bettman and his gang a lot of credit but I will give them the benefit of doubt and assume that they are able to read. Now I believe my reading comprehension skills are not too shabby either and when I read the above it seems clear to me that Frogren’s age when he signs the contract is not an issue but rather his age on September 15th of the year he signs the contract. Now my understanding of the calendar is that August 28th is before September 15th and thus Frogren will be 28 on September 15th. Hmmm, maybe they can’t read all that well.

So you would think that Fletcher just had to call up Mr. Bettman and inform him of the rules and the contract would go through. But apparently that hasn’t happened, or at least Bettman didn’t accept Fletcher’s argument. Instead Frogren’s agent Don Meehan said “We are working with the NHL Players’ Association to resolve the matter.” So it appears that the NHLPA is going to have to file some sort of informal or formal grievance on behalf of Frogren to get the deal to be accepted.

So, what could be the issue? Well, as many of you are probably aware, the NHL and the European teams no longer have an IIHL transfer agreement in place. The transfer agreement allowed NHL teams to bring over their European prospects at a cost of $200,000. But now there is no agreement and thus NHL teams are technically free to bring over whoever they want, potentially even players signed to a contract with a European club with no compensation required. Essentially the NHL could grab any European player regardless of their contractual situation with no consequences. Conversely the European teams could do the same. In essense a contract signed in one league is not required to be honoured by other leagues.

This is a potentially big issue for the NHL because of the cration of the new Russian super league. If the Russian Continental Hockey League is not required to honour NHL contracts there is no obligation by Continental League teams to wait for an NHL players contract to expire before the lure them over to Russia to play. The fear is that at some point down the road, maybe one year, maybe 5 years, some Russian team will offer Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin a $20 million a year contract that Ovechkin or Malkin can refuse and the NHL will lose one of their prime superstars. So, it is in the best interest of the NHL to not get into the habit of breaking existing contracts and set a precident.

And guess what? Jonas Frogren has an existing contract with Farjestad. The Hockey News Ryan Dixon has an interesting story on the Frogren contract and how he himself is going to buyout the final year of his Farjestad contract.

In the absence of a player transfer agreement between the NHL and IIHF, teams associated with both organizations have agreed not to go after players currently under contract on either side of the Atlantic.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from negotiating individual release fees with each other, but by giving Frogren the money directly by way of a salary – which will count against the cap – the Leafs found a way to get it done.

To get around those issues the Leafs are seemingly intending to give Frogren a hefty signing bonus which Frogren will use to personally buy out the contract he has with Farjestad. So if this is all true, could the NHL big wigs be looking at the hefty signing bonus and Frogren’s personal buyout as a workaround to the system and ultimately create a fear that this could be the first step down a downward slope to a near anarchy system where contracts on both sides of the ocean are not honoured as the NHL hopes they will be? Could this be the reason why this seemingly imminent announcement more than a week ago still has not been announced and is this the reason why the NHL is playing every possible card in the book to hold up the signing, including playing semantic games with CBA rules that are seeming perfectly clear to anyone able to read? It is the only possible motive for the NHL nixing the deal that I can see.

Feb 072008
 

It seems the common wisdom and general consensus amongst the Toronto media and fans is that Maurice is a decent to good coach and is not to blame in any significant way for the Leafs woes this season. But is Paul Maurice really a good coach? I personally don’t think so.

A lot of people point to how Maurice took the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals in 2001-02 as evidence of his good coaching ability. Certainly he has to be given some credit for that but on the flip side if we assume that the Leafs won’t make the playoffs this season Maurice coached teams will have missed the playoffs in 7 of 10 seasons. That isn’t a record to be proud of or one that I would consider evidence of good coaching ability. Add to that his 7-12-8-2 record in the year he was fired in Carolina and you could easily argue that his historical track record is quite horrible.

But let’s take a closer look at what he has done with the Leafs. In 2005-06 the Leafs were coached by Pat Quinn and finished the season with a 41-33-8 record narrowly missing the playoffs. This Pat Quinn team featured a defense that included Alexander Khavanov and Aki Berg neither of whom played another game in the NHL and who were essentially replaced by Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. Regardless of what you think of the contracts given to those two players you all have to agree that Kubina and Gill are vast upgrades over Berg and Khavanov. Also on the Pat Quinn team was Jason Allison and Tie Domi who haven’t played another game in the NHL and Eric Lindros, who had one more largely unsuccessful campaign in Dallas before retiring. In essence that Pat Quinn team that ended up with 92 points had 5 fringe players on the roster 4 of whom never played in the NHL again but Quinn managed to get them to 92 points.

But the following season Maruice took an improved team (on paper) from 92 points to 91 points and a 40-31-11 record. That was followed up with this season where Maurice essentially has the same team as last year with better goaltending (Toskala) and a 40 goal scorer (Blake) and turned the team into a team on pace for 76 points. Something doesn’t seem right.

But what may be more of a statement against Maurice is what he has done with the Leafs special teams. In 2005-06 under Quinn the Leafs power play was one of the best in the league with a 21.4% success rate while the PK% was 80%. In Maurice’s first season the power play dropped to 17.7% and the penalty kill to a near league worst 78.5%. This season the Leafs powerplay is a dreadful 13.9% (only the Blues are worse) and the Leafs penalty kill is 78.5% (only Carolina is worse). A huge part of the Leafs problems this season and last can be attributed to their bad special teams play. This is nothing new as Paul Maurice coached teams have rarely had good powerplay or penalty kill percentages. In the year he took Carolina to the Stanley Cup finals the Hurricanes were 20th in the league in PK% and 12th in the league in PP%.

In summary, seven of ten Maurice coached teams missed the playoffs, Maurice coached teams have poor special teams play, and Maurice led a more talented Leaf team to fewer points than the less talented Pat Quinn team. Is Maurice a good coach? The evidence says certainly not.

Nov 282007
 

A couple days ago I wrote an article about the Leafs problems and mentioned that it is probably time for John Ferguson Jr. to be let go whether he deserves it or not. But after listening and reading media reports over the past coupld days I think firing John Ferguson Jr. would be a mistake, at least at this time. I have come to the conclusion that there are two problems with the Leafs.

1. Larry Tanenbaum

From all reports it is Larry Tanenbaum who most wants John Ferguson Jr. relieved of his duties as General Manager and it was Tanenbaum who pushed for the search for someone to ‘help’ JFJ last summer which Bowman, Muckler and possible others turned down because they thought it would be an unworkable relationship. And media reports now say that it is Tanenbaum that is approaching former NHLers like Glen Healey, Mark Messier and others about being a part of a GM by committee setup. These moves have undermined the authority of Richard Peddie, JFJ and in turn Paul Maurice. I know the saying ‘the players are professionals and should play hard and determined regardless’ but when you bosses today may not be your bosses tomorrow it is natural for humans to lose some moral and lose some sense of a ‘team’ atmosphere and in a highly competitive league even a small amount of moral drop can have an impact on the ice. It also should be stated that it was probably Larry Tanenbaum who pushed for the resigning of his close friend Tie Domi (which was a failure) and it was Tie Domi, possibly in conjunction with Tanenbaum, that pushed for the signing of Eric Lindros. Because of these situations I believe that Larry Tanenbaum is bad for the Leafs organization. Crazy as it sounds but we should all be pulling for Richard Peddie and the Teachers Pension Plan in this power struggle and the reason is, the Teachers Pension Plan is not going to meddle in hockey decisions like Tanenbaum apparently has and still is.

BTW, yesterday’s hiring JFJ was a mistake quote by Peddie, which was taken in the completely wrong way by the media (as usual), was really a shot at Tanenbaum and his plan to bring in a group of mostly inexperienced ex players by saying that Toronto is no place for rookie GMs.

2. Paul Maurice

Paul Maurice must go and last nights game is a perfect reason why. The Leafs lost 4-3 in the shootout while the powerplay went 0 for 4 and the penalty kill allowed 2 Montreal powerplay goals. There is no reason why the Leafs should be 29th in the NHL on the powerplay or 20th in the NHL on the penalty kill. I feel special teams are two aspects of the game that can be greatly impacted by good coaching and the Montreal Canadiens are a perfect example. Based on talent and 5 on 5 play there is no reason to expect the Canadiens would be the best power play team in the league but they play a smart system that exposes opposing teams weakness of being a man down. The same can be said for the penalty kill but what really really irks me about Maurice is the Leafs failures in the shootout. The Leafs have a dreadful shootout record having gone 4-10 under Maurice. It would be fine if the Leafs just weren’t good in the shootout but if you are not good and you don’t practice it, that is unforgiveable. After a recent shootout loss Mats Sundin had the following to say:

“We finished one point out of the playoffs last year so each one of these is so important. What do you say? Maybe we have to work on it more in practice.”

to which Paul Maurice commented:

Hey, if the players want it, then we’ll do it on a daily basis

Last time I checked Paul Maurice is the coach and Paul Maurice should be the once deciding what is important to practice and what should not be. His ‘Ah, whatever they want’ attitude is not good enough and in my mind is enough to get him fired.

Now I really don’t know what Maurice does in practice but if one half of every practice is not devoted to improving special teams and shootouts then he isn’t doing enough. The NHL is in many ways special teams league now and good special teams is often the difference between winning and losing. Just look at last night. Maurice should be fired for not taking special teams and shootouts seriously enough.

A Small Ray of Hope

In order to not be completely negative I thought I would toss in a small ray of hope for Leaf fans. Yesterday I wrote about the importance of goaltending and the good news is that Toskala is showing some positive signs with respect to being at least an average starter in the NHL and average goaltending would be a huge improvement over what Raycroft brings. Over Toskala’s last 6 outings (5 starts and one relief of Raycroft early in the Phoenix game) Toskala has a .918 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average which is more than respectable.

Nov 262007
 

The Leafs have lost 4 of their last 5 games, are 3-6-2 in November, and 8-11-5 on the season. At times they have showed some signs of life like their pair of shutout 3-0 wins over division rivals Buffalo and Ottawa where they played a smart team defensive game while at other times they look disinterested and a bunch of individuals playing for themselves and not the team. If there were signs of improving consistency you could probably argue that it is worth waiting a little longer to see of the current crew can work it out but they looked weak against Dallas and dreadful against Phoenix on the weekend. Improvement is not what we are seeing with this team and the inconsistency has been going on for 100+ games now dating to last season.

I still believe that this group of players is capable of much better things but it is also apparent that such better things aren’t going to happen without changes being made. The first change has to start with the coach. I have a real hard time identifying what positives coach Paul Maurice has brought to the Leafs. When you watch every other top tier team their players have well defined roles. You have defensive players whose role is to stop opposing forwards. You have offensive players whose main objective is to produce goals. You have penalty killing specialist and power play specialists. The Leafs do not have that. It seems that every game coach Paul Maurice is grabbing at straws by changing his line up and his lines all the time. How can a player learn a system or a role or learn the tendencies of a line mate if he has different line mates every game, if not every period. Paul Maurice has to go and a real systems coach needs to be brought in and the players need to be taught how to play as a team in a system.

But the coach cannot be blamed for everything. The players deserve some blame too and while I know some people will target the defence first, the first thing that needs fixing is the goaltending. This is the primary problem with the Leafs and the primary failure in my mind of GM John Ferguson Jr. While both Raycroft and Toskala have had a good game or two more often than not they have been mediocre to bad. The Leafs sit second last in the NHL (surprising the Flames are last but I can’t seem them staying there all season) in save % and there is no way you can be a competitive team with that kind of goaltending. It is time that the Andrew Raycroft experiment dies a quick and painless death by putting him on waivers in hopes of finding a taker or if not sent to the Toronto Marlies to backup Justin Pogge. Two years ago Raycroft had a .879 save percentage, last year he was at .894 and this year he is at .882. None of those are even mediocre save percentages and not even good enough to qualify as a backup on most teams. As far as I am concerned his NHL career should be done and the Leafs should bring up Clemensen to back up Toskala. As far as Toskala is concerned he hasn’t shown me that he deserved that 2 year $8 million extension but the Leafs have made the bet that he can be a solid starter and so the remainder of this season should be devoted to seeing if he can be that guy or whether goaltending needs to be addresses yet again next summer.

I think if you added the right coach who was able to get the team to play a smart defence-first system you will solve 80% of the Leafs problems because there is no way you can convince me that the group of defensemen and forwards that the Blue Jackets or Islanders or several other teams have are better than the Leafs but those teams have managed to be reasonably successful this season. But that doesn’t mean all the defensemen and forwards should be considered safe. Even with good coaching and goaltending they aren’t going to be serious Stanley Cup threats (just like the Islanders and Blue Jackets aren’t) so ultimately management needs to look to next season and beyond. While there can be no untouchables on this roster the players I would aim to build the team around are:

Tomas Kaberle: One of the best puckhandling defensemen in the league and isn’t making huge bucks.
Hal Gill: He has been the best Leaf defenseman since he got here and needs I would look to make him half of a shutdown tandem.
Mats Sundin: Still one of the best players in the game and he should remain a Leaf so long as he wants to be here.
Jason Blake: He hasn’t produced goals like the Leafs would have liked but he has still produced and is capable of being a front line winger.
Kyle Wellwood: Probably the most talented forward outside of Sundin and would be an ideal second line center.
Nik Antropov: Can score goals, kill penalties, is big and strong and doesn’t hurt you defensively.
Matt Stajan and Alex Steen: I would look to these two as being two-thirds of a defensive shutdown line and PK specialists. They both have good speed, defensively responsible, and can also chip in offensively too. These two could be a Leaf version of Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly in Ottawa. I’d even try to sign Kelly as a UFA next summer to join this duo. That could form a nice shutdown line capable of forcing mistakes and capitalizing on them.

Everyone else should be made available for trade between now and the trade deadline with the primary goal being adding youth and adding financial flexibility to sign a big name free agent or two next summer. Some names to consider trading include:

Bryan McCabe: He has a no movement clause in his contract but if he can be convinced to waive it he needs to be traded. Not because McCabe is a bad player, because he is not, but because he has become the scapegoat for the fans and media (not completely warranted either) and that Leafs would be better off without that negativity around the team.
Pavel Kubina: I like Kubina and think he was starting to really fit into this team before he got injured a couple weeks ago. If the Leafs could manage to trade McCabe I would consider keeping Kubina but I think the Leafs really need to free themselves of at least one of these two defensemen salaries so they can address other concerns.
Darcy Tucker: Under Paul Maurice Tucker has been given the lowly role of fourth liner and power play specialist. While he excels on the power play if that is his primary and only role I say look to find him a new home and use his $3 million per season elsewhere. Whether he should get moved or not should depend somewhat on how any new coach might use him.
Vesa Toskala: He has shown nothing to me that he is capable of being a #1 goalie or that he deserves his $4 million salary next season and the one after. I doubt you can find any takers but if you could get someone to take his salary off the books take the offer without even blinking.

So, assuming you can free up some salary cap space the primary targets for next summer should be:

1. A defensive defenseman capable of forming a shutdown tandem with Hal Gill. I’d love to see the Leafs sign Marek Malik from the Rangers.
2. A defensive forward to play with Stajan and Steen. I’d absolutely love to see Chris Kelly on that line to form a solid defensive line with some offensive punch and lots of speed and some feistiness as well.
3. Another reliable scoring winger. Marian Hossa is probably out of their budget (even if they rid themselves of McCabes and Tucker’s contracts) but Cory Stillman would be an awesome addition or Markus Naslund if the price was right.

So I have discussed the coach and the players and I am sure some of you may be wondering what I think about John Ferguson Jr. Well, it appears it really doesn’t matter because it seems almost certain that he won’t return. It is not a matter of if he will be fired but when. I’ll have mixed emotions when he gets fired because I think on many levels he has done some smart moves. Some haven’t worked out but he had the guts to make some bold moves and I think that is needed to be GM in Toronto. I also don’t think he has been given a fair shake by the owners, the media or the fans. He was brought into a tough situation replacing Pat Quinn as GM while Quinn remained on as coach and he was never given a chance by the media because he had no proven track record as a GM. So when JFJ gets fired I really hope that he finds another job as GM where he will be given a fair chance by those involved with the team.

Now there are a lot of rumours going around right now that they might replace JFJ by committee which may include former players Glenn Healey, Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour and others. There are also rumours they will try to bring in a big name GM with a proven track record like Scotty Bowman, Ken Holland or even Brian Burke. Personally I think the committee solution is doomed to failure in Toronto despite it being somewhat successful with the Islanders who are led by former goalie Garth Snow. I just don’t think the media would give that kind of set up a fair chance and the negativity around the team would continue to be a distraction for everyone involved. One might hope that the Toronto media would give Mark Messier or Ron Francis a fair chance but I have little hope of that. Just look how they ripped the Brett Hull promotion to co-GM.

What I would really love to see happen is Brian Burke be given the job. Now I am not a huge fan of Brian Burke because I think he is opinionated, outspoken and maybe a bit stubborn (probably not unlike myself though) but I think that those are the perfect attributes for a GM of the Leafs. I would absolutely love to see Steve Simmons write some of his ridiculous anti-Leaf articles about Brian Burke because I can’t wait to see Brian Burke publicly rip Steve Simmons to shreds and put him and his nonsensical newspaper articles in their place (at the bottom of everyone’s bird cages hopefully). Brian Burke has the personality and credibility to defend his coach and players that JFJ doesn’t seem to have and that would allow the coach and players to do what they do best, coach and play.