Apr 082010
 

If you polled hockey fans who the top contenders are for the Stanley Cup, four of the most frequent answers you will get will be Washington and Pittsburgh from the eastern conference and San Jose and Chicago from the western conference. What these teams have in common are very good groups of offensive forwards with multiple star players and some pretty good defensemen to go with them. But what they also have in common are question marks in goal that they will have to overcome if they are to go deep into the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks
We all know about the Sharks playoff failures of recent years and much of the blame has been placed on forwards like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov has been an excellent regular season goalie and been OK in the playoffs but he hasn’t stolen a series for the Sharks and his post Olympic play has to be a concern for Sharks fans. As you are all probably aware, Nabokov had a poor Olympics, and in particular, a really bad game against the Canadian team that cost the Russians a shot at a medal. Since the Olympics he hasn’t been any better having posted an 8-7-1 record with a 3.11 goals against average and a very mediocre .897 save percentage and in 16 post Olympic games he has given up 4 or more goals 7 times (including 5 goals Sunday against possible first round opponent Colorado). That isn’t going to cut it in the playoffs. We know Nabokov can play better, but will he turn his game around come playoff time?

Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks goaltending is an interesting case study into inconsistency. They lead the league in shutouts and are 6th in goals against average but are 7th worst in the league in save percentage. Cristobol Huet can go on stretches where he looks solid and reliable (in his first 21 starts this year he only gave up more than 3 goals once) but then for other stretches he can look downright awful. The end result though is that he is unreliable. Then you have youngster Anti Niemi who has been the better and more reliable goalie this year and has a respectable .913 save percentage but he too has been inconsistent. In 33 starts he has 7 shutouts which is pretty phenomenal (Brodeur leads the league with 9, but he started 73 games) but in those 33 starts he has also given up 4 or more goals 8 times which is not so good.

Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals are not unlike the Chicago Blackhawks as they too have a somewhat unreliable veteren (Theodore) and a quality young goalie (Varlamov) that may or may not be ready to carry the load. I have a little more confidence in the Capitals goaltending though as they have been a little more consistent. As a group they only have 3 shutouts, but they have fewer disaster games too and with the Capitals offensive capabilities that might be good enough but it still has to be a concern for Capitals fans.

Pittsburgh Penguins
There may be some that are surprised to see the Penguins make this list but lets look at the facts. As a team the Penguins have the worst goals against average of any playoff bound team and have the fourth worst save percentage in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury has a very mediocre .904 save percentage over the course of the season and a pretty bad .892 save percentage since the Olympics. Since February 1st he has started 20 games and given up at least three goals in 14 of them and four or more goals 6 times. We know Fleury can play well enough to win a Stanley Cup, but his performance this season, and over the past couple months in particular, has not been good enough. To make matters worst for Penguins fans, yesterday on TSN it was pointed out in 17 games against division leaders the Penguins have just 3 wins. Of the top four teams in the east, I think the Penguins are the one team most likely to face a first round playoff exit.

(cross posted at HockeyAnalysis.com)

Mar 052010
 

The Olympics are over and the trade deadline has come and gone without any hugely significant trades made on deadline day. With every teams rosters set I figured it was time to take a look at the remainder of the season and into the playoffs. Let’s start with the Eastern conference and next week I’ll tackle the west.

Washington Capitals – The Captials appear to be the class team in the east as they currently hold a 14 point edge on second place Penguins. They added some role playing depth up front and skilled Joe Corvo on defense. I thought they could have used more of a shut down defenseman but I guess that isn’t the style of game the Capitals play. They are definitely an offense first team and Corvo fits more into that role. The questions I have are, can that style of play win in the playoffs and can their goalies give them enough consistencty to win. The 2010 Capitals are much like the 1980’s Oilers.

Pittsburgh Penguins – I think the Penguins are clearly the second best team in the eastern conference and adding Ponikarovsky and Leopold only solidify that. They are probably a better defensive team than the Capitals and have more reliable goaltending but may not have the scoring from the wings that the Capitals have which is where Ponikarovsky should help.

New Jersey Devils – New Jersey made the big spash before the Olympics by adding superstar Ilya Kovalchuk which will give them a much needed boost in the offensive zone. He and Parise give opposing teams two extremely skilled players to worry about which should open up more room for the Devils second tier forward. For me, the Devils defense is just average but they play such a good team defense that maybe that is good enough. The key for the Devils come playoff time is Martin Brodeur who is still a great goalie but has shown a bit of his age recently. Does he have enough left in the tank?

Ottawa Senators – Coach Cory Clouston has the Senators playing pretty good team hockey this year and it shows in the standings. I honestly don’t think they are this good and am still a little skeptical at their success but they haven’t fallen apart yet. They came close in November/December when they went through a lengthy slump and fell back into the playoff bubble crowd of teams but a superb January and early February led by stellar goaltending and a hot Spezza gave them a comfortable lead on the chase pack of teams. But, I am still not sold on their goaltending and we have seen how fragile that can be as Elliot and Leclaire have each been pulled in the Senators past 2 games. In my mind the Senators are an average team which if some things go right could pull a first round playoff win, but aren’t a true contender.

Buffalo Sabres – When it comes to the Sabres, success or failure usually begins and ends with Ryan Miller. So long as Miller is playing at the top of his game, the Sabres will have a shot at winning any game. Their offense is adequate as is their defense but there isn’t too much special there.

Philadelphia Flyers – The above 5 teams barring a significant slump are likely to be playoff teams. Starting with Philadelphia I think we are getting into bubble team status. As far as the Flyers are concerned, I think they have to be the big losers of the trade deadline because they didn’t address their most glaring need, goaltending. Now they didn’t really have the cap space to do so nor was there necessarily any quality goalies available but I just don’t think you can be that confident in having Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as your goalie tandem. Leighton has been great for the Flyers so far this year, but he is Michael Leighton. The Flyers should make the playoffs but I am not convinced they can be the serious contender they hoped they would be when they acquired Chris Pronger prior to the season.

Boston Bruins – I got a lot of flak before the season when I predicted the Bruins would take a significant step back from their 116 points and end up with just 98 this year. They are currently on pace for 88 so I may have underestimated their fall. Almost everything went right for them last season from stellar goaltending to far better than expected seasons from Krejci, Lucic and Wheeler. I figured that wouldn’t happen again and with the loss of Kessel it would hurt them significanty. All that and then some has come true and the Bruins have been downright dreadful offensively and Tim Thomas hasn’t been as good (though generally the Bruins have had very good goaltending). The Bruins are probably a playoff team, but that is far from a certainty with 20 games left.
Continue reading »

Feb 032010
 

We all know that Vesa Toskala had a bad season last year and is having an even worse season this year, but how bad is Toskala historically? The short answer is he is probably having the worse season by any goalie in recent history.

It is generally believed that the best simple statistic for evaluating how good a goalie is is save percentage because it factors out the quality of the team in front of the goalie more than any other simple goalie statistic (i.e. wins, goals against average). Save percentage still isn’t perfect because not all shots are created equal, but it is the best simple stat we have. So, in an attempt to put Toskala’s 2009-10 season into perspective I took a look at the past 10 seasons and which goalie had the worst save percentage in each of those seasons. Here is what you get:

Year Goalie W L T/OTL GAA Save%
1999-2000 Damian Rhodes 5 19 3 3.88 0.874
2000-01 Mike Vernon 12 23 5 3.23 0.883
2001-02 Manny Fernandez 12 24 5 3.05 0.892
2002-03 Arturs Irbe 7 24 2 3.18 0.877
2003-04 Sebastien Caron 9 24 5 3.74 0.883
2005-06 Andrew Raycroft 8 19 2 3.71 0.879
2006-07 Marc Denis 17 18 2 3.19 0.883
2007-08 Johan Holmqvist 21 16 6 3.04 0.889
2008-09 Manny Legace 13 9 2 3.18 0.885
2009-10 Vesa Toskala 7 12 3 3.66 0.874

Only Damien Rhodes, of the 1999-2000 expansion Atlanta Thrashers had an equally bad .874 save percentage as Toskala this season and I can guarantee you, as bad as you think the Leafs team is this season, they probably aren’t as bad as the expansion Thrashers which finished the season at 14-57-7. Aside from Rhodes, the only other two goalies with a save percentage under .880 are Arturs Irbe in 2002-03 and Andrew Raycroft in 2005-06.

Arturs Irbe’s 2002-03 season took place during the pre-lockout defense first era which likely means that he faced fewer tough shots than we would expect a goalie to face post-lockout when both scoring and power play opportunities have increased. In the 2002-03 season Carolina’s starting goalie was Kevin Weekes who posted a solid .912 save % which was significantly better than Irbe’s .877.

Andrew Raycroft’s dismal 2005-06 season came in the more offense oriented post-lockout era so we have to take that into account but it didn’t hurt Raycroft’s teammates all that much as Tim Thomas posted a .917 save percentage and Hannu Toivonen (what ever happene to him?) posted a nice .914 save percentage. We have since learned that Thomas is an awfully good goalie posting a league best save percentage last season but even so, Raycroft’s season looks awfully bad in comparison.

This season Toskala has shared dutied with Jonas Gustavsson who has generally been ordinary at best with a .899 save percentage But since Gustavsson is a rookie and we don’t really know how good he is it is difficult to evaluate exactly just how bad Toskala has been this season. I’ll be interested in seeing how Jean-Sebastien Giguere performs behind a Phaneuf-upgraded defense the remainder of this season as well as how well Toskala will do in Anaheim in what I expect will be a very small number of starts. This will help put Toskala’s season in perspective for us.

Another way to look at it is to look at how much each goalies save percentage is below the second worst goalie in the NHL in that particular year. Of the 10 goalies listed above, Toskala trails the second worst goalie by the greatest margin trailing Pascal Leclaire and Steve Mason by .016. Next is Sebastien Caron who trailed Mike Dunham by .013 and Damian Rhodes who trailed Dan Cloutier and Rob Tallas (who?) by .011. Next were Irbe and Vernon who trailed the second worst by .006 while everyone else trailed by .002 or .001.

It is almost impossible to perfectly compare goalies from season to season on different teams but when all things are considered, if Toskala isn’t having the worst season by a goalie in the past decade, he is awfully close.

Feb 012010
 

It seems everyone believes that the Leafs newest goalie, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, is being brought in to help ease Gustavsson’s transition into a starting NHL goalie and act as a veteran mentor and tutor for the remainder of this season and next. But should we really assume that both Giguere and Gustavsson will be Leafs next year?

Next season Giguere is set to make $7 million and will have a cap hit of $6 million. That is a lot of money to spend on a tutor and mentor. Today coach Ron Wilson said that Giguere will get the majority of the starts through the remainder of the year. If Gustavsson is the goalie of the future (and Burke yesterday said Gustavsson is still in the Leafs long term plans) then why give Giguere the majority of the starts? Wouldn’t a 50-50 split be more prudent if in fact Gustavsson is the long term answer to the Leafs goaltending woes?

My theory is that the Leafs management believes that Gustavsson hasn’t shown enough to be given the starting job (or even the majority of the starts) next season so they need a goalie capable of playing in around 50 or so games next year at a reasonably good level. That would give Gustavsson the opportunity to develop in a lower pressure situation than he has this year when Toskala just wasn’t getting the job done. But is Giguere that goalie? Is he good enough to give the Leafs average or preferably better than average, goaltending for 50 or so games next year? I don’t know and I am not certain the Leafs know either so that is why they intend on giving Giguere a lot of starts the remainder of the season.

The outcome of this third of a season stretch with Giguere as the Leafs starting goaltender will guide what the Leafs do with their goaltending in the off season. Based on this Giguere tryout I can envision three scenarios unfolding.

  1. Giguere plays great and shows he can be a top starting goalie in the NHL again. If this is the case, I can envision a scenario where the Leafs consider using Gustavsson as a tradable commodity to possibly acquire much needed help up front. Both San Jose and Dallas were highly interested in signing Gustavsson last year and both will potentially have goaltending issues to deal with this upcoming off season as both Turco (who won’t be re-signed) and Nabokov are set to be unrestricted free agents.
  2. Giguere plays well enough that Leaf management feels they can give him 50-55 starts next year and he’ll play well enough and consistent enough to give the Leafs a chance to win the majority of those games and in the process he can help tutor and mentor Gustavsson.
  3. Giguere doesn’t perform well and doesn’t look like he could even be a second tier starter in the NHL. In this scenario the Leafs might simply buy out Giguere’s contract for a cap hit of $1,333,333 next season and $2,333,333 in 2011-12. That would still present a significant savings over what Jason Blake’s cap hit ($4M in each of those seasons) or Jason Blake’s buyout cap hit ($2M in each of the next 2 seasons and $1M for the following 2 seasons) would have been so the trade still makes sense even in a buyout scenario. Alternatively they might hide his contract in the AHL (I believe he has a no trade clause, not a no movement clause) and have a full $6M in extra cap space out and find another goalie (Nabokov, Dan Ellis, Pekka Rinne, Turco, Biron, etc) to be the starter or a cheaper Gustavsson mentor.

Part of me really feels that scenario 2, where both Giguere and Gustavsson are Leafs next season, might in fact be the least likely scenario. It might cost $2-3 million per season to re-sign Gustavsson on a 2-3 year deal an does it really make sense to allocate $8-9 million in cap space to a pair of goalies where neither of them are really quality #1 goalies? No, it doesn’t, so I have my doubts it will happen. My belief is the Leafs might be hoping for scenario 1 but when they made the trade they were in fact expecting scenario 3 to be the likely outcome.

Update: You can read a Ducks fans thoughts on JS Giguere here and you can read my thoughts on the Calgary-Toronto trade in an interview I did with Chiller Instinct.

Jan 282010
 

The Leafs, Hurricanes and Oilers are the only teams in definitive selling mode as we approach the Olympic break and subsequent trade deadline and with the way things are going there may not be all that many other sellers out there. So for now, let’s stick with these three teams and Ilya Kovalchuk and make some predictions on whether the following players will be traded and what kind of return they could garner. My predictions will be in the comments.

Atlanta Thrashers
Ilya Kovalchuk

Toronto Maple Leafs
Tomas Kaberle – one more year at $4.25M cap hit and salary
Alexei Ponikarovsky
Matt Stajan
Niklas Hagman – 2 more years at $3M cap hit and salary
Lee Stempniak
Jamal Mayers
Garnett Exelby
Wayne Primeau
Vesa Toskala
Jason Blake – 2 more years at $4M cap hit, $3M actual salary
Jeff Finger – 2 more years at $3.5M cap hit and salary

Carolina Hurricanes
Ray Whitney
Matt Cullen
Stephane Yelle
Joe Corbo
Aaron Ward
Niclas Wallin
Manny Legace

Edmonton Oilers
Sheldon Souray – 2 more years at $5.4M cap hit, $4.5M actual salary
Steve Staios – 1 more year at $2.7M cap hit, $2.2M actual salary
Shawn Horcoff – 5 more years at $5.5M cap hit, 6.5M,6.5M,6.0M,4.0M,3.0M actual salary
Ethan Moreau – 1 more year at $2.0M cap hit, 1.75M actual salary
Fernando Pisani
Robert Nilsson – Another year at $2M cap hit, $2.5M actual salary.
Lubomir Visnovsky – Three more years at $5.6M cap hit, $6.0M, $5.0M, $3.0M actual salary.

Jan 272010
 

I have been picking on Howard Berger a lot recently, but I won’t say much here. I think his words speak for themselves.

September 30th, 2009

My own sense is that the Leafs will improve, but not quite enough to sneak into the playoffs.

TORONTO… 90 pts (9th)

November 2nd, 2009

Exactly one month of the 2009-10 National Hockey League season has passed for the Maple Leafs and there’s already enough data to reasonably conclude that the franchise will extend its record absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring. That shouldn’t come as a bulletin to any rational person that has watched the club stumble through its first 12 games, but common sense rarely prevails in our rose-colored city.

December 21st, 2009

In a season that looked, early on, as if it would have few defining moments, tonight’s home date with the Buffalo Sabres will speak loudest about the Maple Leafs. There are no extenuating circumstances heading into the match — neither club played last night; both are relatively healthy [though Thomas Vanek is out] – and it represents the most significant hour of the Leafs’ season to this point. If they can follow Saturday’s shut-out conquest of the Bruins by knocking off their prime nemesis of the past calendar year, there will be no reason to think the Leafs cannot remain indefinitely in the playoff hunt.

January 24th, 2010

Though I took a lot of abuse from wishful fans of the Blue & White for suggesting that making the playoffs was a “pipe-dream” after only eight games [and a 0-7-1 start], at least the word “playoffs” was still remotely part of the discussion with 74 games left on the schedule. Now, it will take a blazing streak for the Leafs to merely finish 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Interesting how playoffs after 8 games was a pipe dream but on December 21st there was no reason to think that remaining in a playoff hunt indefinitely was not possible. But that’s Howard for you (though this kind of goofiness isn’t unique to Howard).

The only suggestion I have from all of this is for everyone to remember that the NHL season is a long season and every team has its ups and downs and jumping to conclusions based on 10 or 15 game segments is pointless, especially in a league where there are so few great teams and a whole lot of mediocrity.

Jan 222010
 

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.
Continue reading »

Jan 152010
 

One of the reasons I started this blog 4+ years ago was to dispel some of the myths and utter nonsense that the main stream media, and subsequently hockey fans, spew. Most specifically about the Maple Leafs, but about hockey in general as well. There are a number of other good bloggers that from time to time do the same and I have frequently exchanged e-mails with members of the media to attempt to inform them on reality but sadly, most of them still spew the same nonsense. With this post, Howard Berger will be my main target.

Now, I have exchanged many e-mails with Howard over the years and he often responds and seems like a nice enough guy, but his reporting, especially of late, has been utterly horrific. On Monday Howard wrote a blog post on the Wilson/Burke relationship and that the friendship would not stand in the way of Burke firing Wilson if it came down to that. That is all fine and dandy but at the end of that he talks about the Leafs tradable commodities and how they will not land anything of significance at the trade deadline.

The Leafs’ expendable parts do not possess any such pedigree. Even Kaberle – one of the most gifted passers in the NHL – has severe limitations as a defenseman. There is no physical component to his game; his early playoff record is thoroughly unremarkable, and he can be outmaneuvered by a clever opponent, as Sidney Crosby proved by undressing him at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.

For the record, only Nicklas Lidstrom has more points by a defenseman post lockout. Sure, maybe Kaberle isn’t a Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara but I don’t think anyone has ever accused Scott Niedermayer or Dan Boyle or Mike Green or even Nicklas Lidstrom of being overly physical players. And as for Sidney Crosby undressing Kaberle, well, it is not like Crosby isn’t capable of undressing any and every defenseman in the NHL. Yes, Kaberle is no Lidstrom, and isn’t a Chris Pronger or Zdeno Chara either, but is he as good as Dan Boyle? That’s probably a reasonable comparison and that makes Kaberle an all-star caliber defenseman. It is strange how so many in Leaf land, both media and fans, choose not to give credit where credit is deserved, even with Kaberle.

Howard then moved towards the remaining potential trade targets.

Unless a rival manager takes leave of his senses, he will not trade a top prospect or a draft choice in the first three rounds for any of the aforementioned.

Otherwise, Burke has third and fourth-line commodities to offer up at the deadline. A fellow like Stajan could provide an opposing club durability, depth and character at the key center-ice position, but he will not be an impact player. Neither will Ponikarovsky, Blake, Stempniak, Finger or Toskala – several of whom Burke couldn’t give away.

The above nonsense is some of the most idiotic analysis I see and it isn’t restricted to Howard Berger. Today Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail spewed similar nonsense.

Frankly, I also have little difficulty with Burke’s trade for Phil Kessel: he inherited a club that – let’s face it – didn’t even have a second-line forward on a good team let a lone a first-line forward.

Essentially what they are saying is the Leafs, outside of Kessel, don’t have a top 6 forward, or at least anyone that would be a top six forward on a good team. Let’s start with Stajan. He had 55 points last year and is on pace for 61 points this year. I’ll assume that both Berger and Blair believe that the Washington Capitals are a good team. They are, in fact, the highest scoring team in the NHL, by a significant margin. They are, also, a team that for the most part employs Brendan Morrison as their second line center. Brendan had 31 points last year and is on pace for just 50 points this year. Are you telling me that Stajan would not fit in as a second line center for the Capitals? The Pittsburgh Penguins are deep down the center but they have exactly 2, yes 2, players with more points than Stajan. They also only have one player, and no wingers, with more goals than Ponikarovsky or Hagman. Mike Rupp and Pascal Dupuis are second and third in goals scored by a Pittsburgh winger with 11 goals each. Are Berger and Blair trying to tell me that Hagman, with 16 goals, and Ponikarovsky, with 15 goals (both very reliable defensively as well) aren’t good enough to play on the Penguins top two lines? Sorry, I am not buying it and I do believe that both Blair and Berger believe that the Penguins are a good team. Go down the list of good teams and you will find a number of spots on the top two lines for a number of Leaf players.
Continue reading »

Dec 132009
 

Fist off, I was recently interviewed by Robin Keith Thompson of Chiller Instinct (and also a long time contributor to and friend of HockeyAnalysis.com, currently in the Phoenix blog). In the interview we discuss mostly the Blackhawks and the value of their quality third line of Madden, Brouwer and Ladd. Check it out.

Now on to the Leafs. About a month and a half ago on October 24th the Leafs were 0-7-1 and almost everyone had written off the Leafs. Before the season I made a bold prediction that the Leafs would make the playoffs and a number of people called me out on that prediction calling me biased. When the Leafs started the season 0-7-1 those same people came back and asked if I wanted to eat crow now and that I was an idiot for making that prediction as the Leafs had no chance of making the playoffs. I consistently defended my prediction with ‘come talk to me in January when we have played a meaningful number of games’. The Leafs then went on a stretch of 7 games getting a point in every game by going 3-0-4 and were generally playing better. Everyone stopped feeling the need to criticize me and my prediction at this point. Then the Leafs fell back into some of their problems they experienced in the first 8 games and lost four straight in regulation to Minnesota, Chicago, Calgary and Ottawa and then blew a big lead to lose to Carolina in overtime. At this point everyone came back and criticized me again. It has been pretty quiet recently because the Leafs have been playing well but it is now my turn to stand up and gloat a little as the Leafs are currently sitting 4 points behind 8th place Montreal with a game in hand having just beaten maybe the best team in the eastern conference. But it gets better than that.

Before the season many people suggested that with the acquisition of Komisarek and Beauchemin on defense and the hopefully better play of a healthy Toskala and/or a strong rookie season from Gustavsson that the Leafs will cut down their goals against, but who is going to score? Then they traded for Kessel and many criticized giving up two first round picks and a second round picks and question whether the trade made any sense considering the Leafs had no play making center like Marc Sarvard to feed Kessel the puck. They questioned whether the Kessel could score at near the rate he did in Boston without such a center and without a play making center it made no sense to go out and pick up a pure goal scorer. I constantly defended the trade saying the two first round picks were not too much to give up for someone with the skill of Kessel because most first round picks outside of say the top 5 picks don’t turn out to be half the player that Kessel is. In short, the gamble was worth it.

Before the season I defended the Leafs offense and despite not having a true elite level forward I thought that they would at lease be OK offensively.

To summarize, too many people have a false view of what kind of offense a top 6 forward will produce. Most top 6 forwards aren’t 30 goal, 70 point guys. The majority of them are 20-25 goal, 50-60 point guys and in that regard the Leafs are just fine. Are the Leafs going to be an elite offensive team in the NHL? No. Can they be a good one, as they have been for several years now? You bet.

Fast forward to today and we find the Leafs offense is currently sitting in 9th spot in goals for average and that is pretty good considering they were near the bottom of the league before Kessel returned. We have also learned that Kessel doesn’t need a play making center to score goals, he can do it on his own. It is also worth pointing out that only the Washington Capitals, the leagues top scoring team, has more 10+ goal scorers than the Leafs. The Capitals have 5 10+ goal scorers while the Leafs are tied with the Canucks, Blue Jackets, and Ducks with four. Media hypes all the time about Chicago’s great young offensive stars but they have zero, yes zero, players with 10 goals right now. Nobody should really be surprised by any of this because the Leafs have for the most part consistently been in the top 10-12 teams in terms of offense the past dozen years or so, including the years post lockout. It’s unfortunate that so many fail to realize that.

The Leafs are not out of the woods yet but the edge of the woods is within sight and a playoff spot is just a few short steps beyond that. They are, for the most part, playing good hockey (8-3-1 in last 12 games), and for the most part, are now getting acceptable to good goaltending (no longer last in goals against average or save percentage). The goaltending is still the key for me. If it continues as it has recently by Toskala and how Gustavsson has been for much of the season, making the playoffs should be a very strong possiblity.

To summarize, the message of the story is that we all should stop drawing conclusions from 8 or 12 or even 20 games. The NHL season is a long one and a dozen games is not enough to draw any conclusions from.

Nov 252009
 

It has been a pretty dismal season for Maple Leaf fans so far. At times they have played downright awful, and lost, and at times they have played quite well, and still lost. They probably deserve to have a better record than they do, but not a lot has gone right for them this season. There have been a few bright spots though and one is Ian White. Which of the following is not like the other?

Ian White +6
Tomas Kaberle -6
Luke Schenn -6
Garnet Exelby -7
Jeff Finger -8
Mike Komisarek -9
Francois Beauchemin -11

That list above has to be one of the strangest lists I have ever seen in hockey. I can hardly believe such a set of stats is even possible. How is it possible that six Leaf defensemen have a -6 rating or worse while White is at +6. White has to be playing with one of them every time he is on the ice so it seems really really odd that he could manage a +6 rating. Even if White was the best defenseman in the world that they rest should be pulling down his +/- rating.

There are only 18 defensemen in the NHL this year with a better +/- than White. There are only 17 defensemen in the NHL this year with more points than White’s 13. There are only 10 defensemen who have a +6 rating or better and at least 13 points. That is pretty impressive for a defenseman on the team with the worst record in hockey and one of the lowest scoring teams.

This isn’t completely new for White either. Last year he led the Leafs (tied with Ponikarovsky) with a +6 rating. Van Ryn, in just 27 games, was a +2 while all other Leaf defensemen were even at best. Kubina was -25, Schenn was -12, Kaberle was -8, and Finger was -7. Part timers Frogren and Stralman were even and -2 respectively.

Ian White was arguably the Leafs best defenseman last year once he was given the opportunity and he is certainly the Leafs best defenseman this year. He is one of the hardest workers on the team and while he doesn’t have great size he doesn’t back down from or is intimidated by physical play and will even drop the gloves from time to time. He plays well in his own zone, moves the puck well and contributes to offense. He can play in any situation, on the power play, on the penalty kill, in crucial situations late in the game. He has developed into a complete player.

Ian White is a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Brian Burke needs to do everything he can to get White locked up on a long term contract.