Sep 222009

A year ago Cliff Fletcher as interim general manager of the Maple Leafs suggested that the Leafs had only one top 6 forward, that being Nik Antropov. With Antopov now gone there was ample discussion among the media and fans about how dismal the Leafs offense will be and despite the upgrades Brian Burke made on defense the Leafs lack of scoring will likely lead them to another missed playoff. Brian Burke has addressed that in a major way by acquiring what everyone will agree is a top 6 forward in Phil Kessel, but is Kessel enough? To answer that, we need to get a clearer understanding of what a top six forward actually is because there seems to be a misunderstanding.

The obvious answer is that a top 6 forward is a player who can play on your top two lines. Most people also seem to believe that to play on a teams top two lines you have to produce offensively. So for the purpose of this analysis let me assume that ‘top six’ really means ‘top six offensive forwards.’

Since there are 30 teams in the NHL to be considered a top six forward you could consider the top 180 offensive forwards in the NHL to be top six forwards. On a points per game basis for players with at least 41 games played the 180th player on the list was Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers with a points per game pace of 0.49 which equates to just 40 points over the course of an NHL season. Yup, score 40 points and you can be considered a top six player. Maple Leafs among the top 180 include Jason Blake (57th), Ponikarovsky (78th), Stajan (85), Hagman (114th), Grabovski (129rd), Stempniak (139th). Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore were also among the top 180 offensive players in the NHL.

Of course, a top six player on the New York Islanders is completely different than a top six forward on a cup contending team. The top teams in the NHL will surely have a better top six than the bottom teams. To find out, I looked at the top 96 offensive forwards on the 16 playoff teams from one year ago. The bottom players on this list were Markus Naslund and R.J. Umberger both of whom had 46 points in 82 games for a points per game pace of 0.56. So, to be considered a top six forward on a playoff team you have to be capable of producing at a pace of 0.56 points per game. Even with this higher cutoff Blake, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Hagman, Grabovski and Stempniak would still be considered top six forwards as was Antropov and Dominic Moore was right on the cutoff.

Heading into this season the Leafs still have Blake, Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Hagman, Grabovski and Stempniak on the roster and now with Phil Kessel (46th overall and 32nd on the playoff team list) in the mix they arguably have 7 top six forwards on their roster and that is without factoring in what youngsters like Kulemin, Tlusty, Bozak and others might do. I am sure many in the media are surprised by this but yeah, the Leafs have more than enough top six forwards to compete for a playoff spot.

Yeah, I know, the critics are going to come out and say ‘well, ok, but they don’t have any first line players’. Fine, let me address that too. The 48th leading point per game producer on a playoff team was Brian Gionta who produced 60 points in 81 games for a point per game pace of 0.74. Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky along with new addition Phil Kessel meet that threshold so all three can be considered first line players on a playoff team and Matt Stajan was just short of that threshold at 0.72 points per game pace.

I will grant critics the argument that the Leafs lack the true superstar like a Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Zetterberg or even someone like a Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane or Mike Richards. That was a fair argument, and to some extent may still be, but with the addition of Kessel that argument holds less weight. Yes, there is still some risk in Kessel in that he has only produced at an elite level for one year and he does have some detractors, but Kessel does have elite level talent and is more than capable of developing into a perennial 30+ goal, 80+ point player and be among the leagues elite.

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.

Sep 182009

There has been a lot of discussion over the last week or so on the rumoured trade offer that Brian Burke has made to the Boston Bruins for Phil Kessel and now that the trade seems very likely to go down, possibly within hours, we may as well take a look at it. (TSN is now reporting the deal is done and pending Kessel signing a contract with the Leafs which is probably not a significant hurdle issue).

The rumour is that Burke has offered two first round picks and a second round pick for Kessel and a third round pick (no word yet if this is the actual deal though). Howard Berger has argued that it makes no sense to trade two first round picks for Kessel because the Leafs are still rebuilding and the two first round picks could be far more valuable and he eluded to Schenn and Kadri as being an example why. Schenn and Kadri are the Leafs most recent two first round picks and he wouldn’t trade the pair of them for Kessel so why would he trade the Leafs next two picks for Kessel.

To me that is a shortsighted view of the situation. First off, Schenn has one years NHL experience and he performed relatively well so the ‘downside risk’ in Schenn has diminished somewhat while much of the upside potential remains. Kadri is still an unknown asset but he was a 7th overall pick which is likely higher than where the Leafs will pick in the next two drafts so he at least theoretically is likely more valuable than the Leafs than the Leafs first round pick in either the next two seasons (and Schenn was a 5th overall pick). So in short, Schenn and Kadri are measurably, possibly significantly, more valuable than the Leafs next two first round picks.

Finally, how good are those first round likely to be. Burke has every hope to make the playoffs this upcoming season and I am sure he would show some level of truculence to me if I suggested that the Leafs would miss the playoffs in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but lets assume a worst case scenario and they do and lets assume that both the draft picks end up in the 8th to 12th overall range. How might those draft picks turn out. Lets look at past drafts 8-12 picks.

1998: Mark Bell, Mike Rupp, Nik Antropov, Jeff Hereema, Alex Tanguay
1999: Taylor Pyatt, Jamie Lundmark, Bransilav Menzei, Oleg Saprykin, Denis Shvidki
2000: Nikita Alexeev, Brent Krahn, Mikhail Yakubov, Pavel Vorobiev, Alexei Smirnov
2001: Pascal Leclaire, Tuomo Ruutu, Dan Blackburn, Fredrik Sjostrom, Dan Hamhuis
2002: Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Petr Taticek, Eric Nystrom, Keith Ballard, Steve Eminger

So that is 5 years of drafts for a total of 25 players and maybe there are a couple of pairings in there among Tanguay, Leclaire, Bouchard, Ballard, Ruutu, Hamhuis and Antropov that might be worth more than Kessel but none of those players will make you regret making the trade, especially if you believe that Kessel can be a top level offensive player in the NHL capable of consistently getting 30-40 goals. And if the Leafs were better and made the playoffs in either or both of the next two seasons the likelihood of regretting the trade drops off even more. Yeah, I understand that every draft seems to produce a star player or two in the 12-25 overall range like Parise (17) and Getzlaf (19) in 2002 but those are rare and more often than not the drafted player turns out to be nothing more than a name on a sheet of paper.

Jun 302009

It seems that the majority of the Toronto hockey media seem to have the belief that the Maple Leafs are at least 3-4 years away from being a good team and that the best way to get there is to do nothing this summer and hope to get another high draft pick in next years draft. Howard Berger is a prime example as we can see from his latest article, as well as his comments on the radio today.

It’s the reason Burke has to do his utmost to resist temptation this week. A number of distinguished names will be available on the open market, but none will lift the Maple Leafs into the Promised Land. At least, not yet. Furthermore, signing expensive free agents will diminish the ice time required for the club’s growing list of youngsters to prove whether they belong in the NHL.

I understand Howard’s argument that you build success through the draft and player development and there is some truth to that. You can build your team by being bad for a number of years and stocking up high draft picks as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington have done. But more often than not, that doesn’t work. See Columbus. See Atlanta. See Florida. See Los Angeles. See Phoenix. Maybe someday these teams will be good, but honestly, can you see Columbus, who made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, compete for a Stanley Cup in the next few years? Not me. On the flip side, how many high draft picks has the Detroit Red Wings had over the past 10 or 15 years? Their highest pick in the past 15 years was in 2005 when they drafted Jakub Kindl 19th overall and more often than not, they don’t even draft in the first round.

If anything, the NHL in the new salary cap era is probably less about drafting well because talented young players are getting big time money upon leaving their entry level contracts which is completely different from the pre-lockout environment when you could keep your young players relatively cheaply for much longer. The biggest difference in the new system is you can’t afford to make mistakes or over pay players for what they provide. This is what makes Burke a good General Manager. He is resolute in that he has a game plan and he will stick to it. In trades, he won’t over pay even if it is for someone he really wants (see moving up in the draft) and likewise in free agency he won’t pay more than he thinks a player is worth. But there is no reason why Burke shouldn’t try to sign a big name, big salaried free agent so long as he believes that the player is a player who can be a component of a winning team both now and in the future and so long as he isn’t over paying for that player.

The New York Rangers have made mistakes. Signing Gomez, Drury and Redden to such big contracts was a mistake, not because those are bad players, but because they are all making probably 1-2 million more per season than they should be. Had they been on more reasonable contracts the Rangers could very well afford another $4-5 million player which would make them a much more competitive team and might move them from a first round playoff exit to a contender to go deep into the playoffs. If Brian Burke can sign a big name free agent or two for a reasonable contract then I absolutely believe that he should, and I believe he will.

Burke wants Tavares

 Toronto Maple Leafs  Comments Off on Burke wants Tavares
Apr 142009

Although Brian Burke didn’t make many significant moves at the trade deadline as many suspected he may it seems apparent that he is wanting to make significant moves in the off season to bring in some young talent. So far he has already signed college free agents Christain Hanson and Tyler Bozak and is in the running to sign defenseman Matt Gilroy. He has also signed QMJHL forward Robert Slaney. Rumours are that Burke is also very interested in Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson who has a very good year as a 24 year old in the Swedish Elite league. We can have no idea how any of these guys will pan out at the NHL level (though Hanson has looked promising in his 5 games getting a goal and an assist) but Hanson, Bozak and Slaney and possibly Gilroy and Gustavsson give the Leafs some much needed organizational depth and give Burke some additional assets to make deals if he finds some of interest. One deal that Burke is interested in making is moving up in the draft in order to draft John Tavares.

I am not shocked by this news. Brian Burke wants to make a splash everywhere he goes. In Vancouver he traded for the draft picked needed to acquire the Sedin twins. In Anaheim he signed free agent defenseman Scott Niedermayer and then traded for Chris Pronger. His opportunity to make a statement move (or moves) for the Leafs is this summer starting with the draft and then into free agency season.

So, what will it take to acquire the first overall pick? Well, that will depend somewhat on who gets the pick but I would assume the asking price would start with the Leafs first round pick, likely 7th. The only teams that have a shot at the #1 overall pick are the Islanders (48.1%), Lightning (18.8%), Avalanche (14.2%), Thrashers (10.7%) and the Los Angeles Kings (8.1%). Each team would provide a different type of trading partner for the Leafs. If Brian Burke had a choice he might be hoping that Tampa wins the draft lottery because it is known that they would like to upgrade their defense and the Leafs have several defenseman who they could deal including Kaberle, former Lightning Kubina, Van Ryn and Ian White all of whom might interest the Lightning. Would Tampa go for something along the lines of the Leafs 7th overall pick and Kaberle for the top overall pick? Possibly. A similar analysis could be said for Colorado who have a top young center already in Paul Stastny and might put a priority on acquiring a defenseman.

But the most likely winner of the draft lottery is the New York Islanders and they pretty much need everything so what they would be looking for in return is a really good hockey trade, not any particular position. With Mark Streit already locked up long term as their offensive defenseman they may not be interested in acquiring the Leafs most valuable asset, Tomas Kaberle. They would probably love Luke Schenn, but would Burke be willing to trade the 7th overall pick and Schenn for the opportunity to draft Tavares? Probably not. In an ideal world I am sure Burke would love to build the Leafs around Tavares and Schenn, not just one of those two. Outside of Kaberle and Schenn, do the Leafs have the assets to acquire the top overall pick from the Islanders? It is not obvious that they do (Tlusty and DiDominico only hold so much value as prospects and it isn’t enough) so it may take some creative trading to accomplish that goal. They may need to seek a third team who will trade them some assets for Kaberle or Kubina that they could then flip to the Islanders for the top overall pick.

In any event, this should prove to be a very interesting summer for the Leafs, starting with the draft in June.

Mar 092009

A recent blog post from Howard Berger suggests that because of that lack of moves by Brian Burke at the trade deadline we should take it is as an indication that Brian Burke is in no rush to make over the Toronto lineup, despite what everyone thought when Burke took over the team just over 3 months ago now. Well, everyone except me. Back when Burke was hired I wrote the following:

Other than Antropov, I really don’t think anyone is a sure bet to be traded. I don’t think Burke will come in and say ‘I have to trade players X, Y and Z for whatever draft picks I can get for them’ as many believe he should.

Except for Dominic Moore being traded, I was right. But enough about that, where does Howard see this team going heading into next season:

That’s because the Leafs are contractually bound to 16 players from the current team – or 69.6% of the 23-man roster. These players include forwards Jason Blake, Niklas Hagman, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan, Nikolai Kulemin, Jamal Mayers and John Mitchell; defensemen Pavel Kubina, Tomas Kaberle, Jeff Finger, Mike Van Ryn, Luke Schenn, Jonas Frogren and Ian White; and goalie Vesa Toskala. Does that club look familiar?

Not all of the aforementioned are in the upper echelon in salary, so Burke will have a sizeable amount of cap room to work with. But, teams can still only dress 20 players each night. As such, Burke has a key philosophical decision to make: Does he want the Leafs to stay the same, or to tail off for at least a year? Right now, there is no answer to the question. And it’s the most common thread among several-hundred e-mail submissions I received over the weekend for a Q & A blog I’ll get to in a couple of days… almost all of you wondering – as do I – what course Burke will follow in the off-season, and how that course will impact 2009-10.

The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster. This is partly because of the monumental effort required to do so [look, again, at the above list of signed players], but it also involves the intrinsic quality of a GM that has worked his way into one of the NHL’s hottest markets. Burke simply doesn’t like to lose hockey games. Missing the playoffs this season will be a radical departure for the GM that raised the Stanley Cup only two short years ago. Though he must understand the Leafs will endure more pain before they harvest any meaningful gain, such actions are easier spoken of than followed.

There are couple of interesting things Howard wrote in the above portion of his blog post. The first is, why does Burke only have the options “to stay the same” or “to tail off for at least a year?” Why isn’t there a third option of, “improve the club for 2009-10?” The second interesting point Howard made was “The early evidence suggests that Burke isn’t overly anxious to detonate the roster.” My response to that is, why must Burke detonate the roster?

I think I know why Howard wrote these two things. I think he wrote them because he, like so many of his fellow Toronto sports media friends, believe the only way to improve a team is to tear it down to next to nothing, be really bad for several seasons to get high draft picks, and then rebuild again. But why must this be the case? Is this how Boston turned their team around? Is this how Philadelphia turned their team around? Is this how Burke’s Anaheim Ducks were built? The answer to all three questions are No. Philadelphia and Boston were 13th and 15th in the eastern conference just two seasons ago. The only teams that do a complete tear down and rebuild are the small market franchises that partly do it to save money like the Penguins of the past and in recent years the Coyotes, Blues, Islanders and Kings. When was the last time San Jose, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Vancouver or Montreal did something like this?

The fact is, the Leafs have already made significant changes to their roster . Since Cliff Fletcher took over for John Ferguson Jr. Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Andrew Raycroft, Nik Antropov, Dominic Moore, Alexander Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo, Kyle Wellwood, Hal Gill, Chad Kilger, Wade Belak, Johnny Pohl, Andy Wozniewski, and Staffan Kronwall have left the club while Hagman, Grabovski, Kulemin, Stempniak, Mitchell, Finger, Van Ryn, Mayers, Frogren, Schenn, May and others have been brought in. That is quite a turn over already. A lot of young players have been given the opportunity to show their stuff this season and this will continue as physical defenseman Phil Oreskovic will get an opportunity to play tonight against the Senators.
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Feb 192009

The NHL trade deadline is less than 2 weeks away so it is time that we take a look at what trades might or might not happen between now and then. Here are some of the selling teams to watch as we approach the deadline.

New York Islanders

The Islanders are clearly the worst team in the NHL this season and they also have several players that they will likely trade. The two soon to be unrestricted free agent veterans that will likely draw the most attention are center Doug Weight and winger Bill Guerin. Despite the Islanders problems both are having decent seasons and will be able to provide some solid secondary scoring for any team looking to make a playoff run. Mike Comrie is another forward that is available but I am not sure there will be much interest. Andy Hilbert is also a pending UFA and could be a useful and cheap addition for some teams who don’t want to spend too much at the deadline.

Atlanta Thrashers

The Thrashers are likely the unanimous choice as the league’s second worst team and they have already made a couple moves, first by moving Jason Williams to Columbus a while back and more recently by sending Mathieu Schneider to the Canadiens. The next obvious candidate to be traded is pending UFA Niclas Havelid who could be a nice pickup for a team looking to add some depth on defense. There has been some talk that either Kari Lehtonen or Johan Hedberg could be traded but more likely a Lehtonen trade will occur in the off season.

Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the more interesting teams to watch will be the Maple Leafs because everyone is wondering what new GM Brian Burke will do. Many are expecting Burke to make a number of significant moves to turn over his lineup, but the reality is Burke is under no pressure (except fan and media pressure which he doesn’t care about) to do very much at all. The reason is, most of the Leaf roster is signed for next season. The only unrestricted free agents on the team are Nik Antropov , Dominic Moore and Brad May and all indications are that Burke would like to sign Moore to a contract extension if the dollars make sense. That means Antropov is the only player that Burke is almost 100% certain to trade and if he doesn’t get the right offers there is certainly a chance that that is all he will do. But if the right offers come along you can expect Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan, Jamal Mayers, and Mike Van Ryn to all be available. The public word from Burke is that he does not expect Tomas Kaberle to be traded as he is reluctant to give up someone of Kaberle’s skill set who is signed long term at a very reasonable contract. While this makes perfect sense one also has to wonder if he is attempting to push the price of Kaberle up. Before the season began many thought that goalie Vesa Toskala would be one of the Leafs most sought after players at the trade deadline but that seems unlikely due to Toskala’s poor play. Finally, do not be surprised if the Leafs become buyers of contracts at the deadline. By that I mean the Leafs have the cap space to take on contracts that other teams are looking to dump in order to free up cap space to make another trade and in doing so add a draft pick. For example, if the Penguins needed to free some salary cap space to make another trade, Burke may be willing to take on Miroslav Satan and the remainder of his $3.5 million salary if the Penguins also sent the Leafs a third round pick.

Tampa Bay Lightning

There has been a lot of talk about the Lightning considering trading Vincent Lecavalier but I doubt this happens at the trade deadline. This is more of an off season move if it were to happen. But the Lightning have a couple veterans that might interest contending teams that likely won’t cost too much. Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts. Marek Malik may also draw some attention as a depth defenseman.

Colorado Avalanche

Probably the only team that is a sure bet to be sellers in the western conference at the trade deadline are the Colorado Avalanche and they will have several players available for trade. Pending UFA’s that they are likely to trade are Ian Laperriere and Jordan Leopold. The other big name that is rumoured to be up for grabs is Ryan Smyth but with his contract for 3 more years for a total of $16.5 million that might be a tough sell. Only teams with ample salary cap room in the upcoming years will likely consider him.
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Feb 092009

The possibility certainly exists that 5 of the 6 post-lockout Stanley Cup finalists won’t make the playoffs this year.  Ottawa has all but been eliminated while Pittsburgh, Carolina, Edmonton and Anaheim all remain on the bubble.  Detroit is the only post-lockout conference winner to be securely in a playoff spot.  Is that a result of parity or mass mediocrity?

Brian Burke has a history of reacquiring players he knows well.  This is why he went after Brad May in a minor move and this is why I believe that there is a more than good chance that he’ll try to bring in the Sedin twins this summer if Vancouver fails to re-sign them.  But another player to look at is JS Giguere in Anaheim who has all but lost his job, at least in the short term, to Jonas Hiller, and the Ducks might be interested in shedding salary so they can fill in holes elsewhere in their lineup.  The only caveat is Giguere’s no trade clause but if he’ll likely waive it instead of being a backup.

Speaking of Leafs goaltending, Brian Burke and Ron Wilson put out the challenge to Vesa Toskala to improve his practice habits and in turn improve his game which has been mediocre at best this season.  How much has goaltending hurt the Leafs?  Well, they have the worst team save percentage this year at 87.5%.  If they could improve that to a measly 10th worst in the league, or 90.1%, the Leafs would have allowed 149 goals instead of 188 goals.  Combine that with their 155 goals for and they would have the same number of goals for and against as the Montreal Canadiens, who are sitting in 5th spot in the conference 15 points ahead of the Leafs.

Tampa couldn’t do it, Ottawa is failing at it, and Pittsburgh is on the verge of missing the playoffs because of it.  I am talking about spending a boat load of money on two or three mostly offensive oriented forwards.  Tampa spent a lot of money on Lecavalier, Richards and St. Louis and failed to obtain much success.  Ottawa has seen their defense decimated and goaltending faulter because they have spent too much on Spezza, Heatley, Alfredsson (and to a lesser extent Fisher).  In Pittsburgh they have spent some money on defense and goaltending in addition to their big two of Crosby and Malking, but that meant that Crosby and Malkin are pretty much playing on their own.

I have said this before but it deserves mentioning again, I think Dave Tippett of the Dallas Stars is one of the most under rated coaches in the NHL.  This team not that long ago was the worst team in the NHL but post Sean Avery they have an outstanding 18-8-3 record which has propelled them into 5th spot in the western conference.

One of the most under rated defenseman in the NHL has to be Dennis Wideman who is having an outstanding season in Boston.  He ranks 6th in points and tied for 5th in goals by defensemen adn his +31 ranking is second in the league for any player.  If he continues to play like this into next season he’ll deserve some consideration for the Canadian Olympic team.

When I scan down the list of top point producers in the NHL this year I see a lot of familiar names but no on ever mentions the outstanding year that David Krejci is having with 56 points and sitting 12th in league scoring.  He is a big reason for the Bruin’s success and ability to survive injuries to Bergeron and Sturm.

Has Jason Blake played well enough to make him tradeable, or has he played so well the Leafs won’t want to trade him.  He is on pace for 30 goals, 65 points and for a guy who kills penalties as well he is more than earning his $4 million salary cap hit this year.

It is hard to be optimistic about the New York Islanders future when their leading point producers up front are Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, Trent Hunter, Richard Park and Mike Comrie.  That is not a group of players to build a future around.

Nov 262008

For those that have been reading this blog for the past couple years know that I have been one of the harshest critics of the Leafs goaltending for a long time..

When Andrew Raycroft was setting records for wins by a Maple Leaf, I was contending that he was a bad goalie and benefited from a good team in front of him but far too many in the media and the Leaf fan base blamed the Leafs woes on their defense and lack of scoring punch (which was largely a myth). In the seasons since, Raycroft has proven to be a bad goalie at best.

Last year there were many calling Vesa Toskala very good goalie and the lone bright spot on the Leafs. Some were even calling him an elite level goalie. I on the other hand believed otherwise.

Most hockey analysts seem to believe that Vesa Toskala is a top tier goalie and that goaltending will be the least of the Leafs problems. I am not so sure. While Toskala looked good last year his numbers were still fairly unspectacular. His .904 save percentage was only good for 32nd in the league just behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Peter Budaj. Neither of those two goalies are anything to get excited about either.

The past two seasons have seen the Leafs have finished 4th last and second last in team save percentage and this season they sit in second last with a downright dismal 86.9% save percentage. That is measurably worse than last year. Toskala has been extremely bad, and Joseph has been worse.

Over the years media and fans seemingly often defended the Leafs goaltending by saying ‘but look at how bad that defense is, no goalie would be very good in the Leafs net.’ But the team in front of the Leafs has changed dramatically from last season, including bginging in new defensemen Van Ryn, Finger, Schenn, and Frogren as well as bringing in a more defensive minded coach. But the only thing that seemingly happened was that goaltending got worse. The Leafs defense actually gives up relatively few shots on goal, as it has the past several seasons. They were probably an average defensive team and yet they gave up a lot of goals.

As we approach the quarter pole of the 2008-09 season people are starting to take note of how sub-par the Leafs goaltending is. James Mirtle has written a couple of stories on it (here and here) and there have been several other stories (i.e. Leafs Toskala continues to Struggle, Toskala an early season Disappointment, etc.) and Coach Ron Wilson has publicly stated that Toskala needs to be better. I am fairly certain that he can be better, but can he be good enough to be worthy of a starting role on a playoff contender? That I am not so sure about and will be one of the key questions Burke needs to answer when he takes over as General Manager. As a Leaf fan I can only hope he sees Toskala as inadequite and puts finding a prime time goalie as his top priority.

Oct 062008

Today the Leafs placed Mark Bell on waivers and also announced that rookie defenseman Luke Schenn will start the season with the Leafs and will be reevaluated around the end of October to determine whether they want to keep him around for the full season or send him back to Junior. The decision is likely to be a tough one made tougher by the fact that the Leafs are deep on defense.

Mark Bell came to the Leafs as a part of the Vesa Toskala trade and did relatively little in his time with the Leafs last season and seemingly managed to do even less this preseason. With the additions of Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg, Mark Bell and his $2 million salary just aren’t necessary.

Predicting what the Leafs will do and where in the standings they will end up is exceptionally difficult because it is highly likely that several of the players currently on the team won’t finish the season with the Leafs and with all the new players and a new coach you just don’t know how the players will mesh together. Generally forecasters believe the Leafs will be more sound defensively this season with Ron Wilson as coach but will struggle mightily to score goals without very much top end talent among the group of forwards. The forecasters may be right in the Leafs not having much top end talent but that doesn’t mean they will automatically be among the worst offensive teams in the league. Nor does not scoring necessarily mean they will be a bad team.

The Leafs were 11th in scoring last season with their top 10 point producers being Sundin, Antropov, Kaberle, Blake, Steen, Kubina, Ponikarovsky, Tucker, Stajan and McCabe. Of those 10 players, 7 are retuning this season. Sundin, Tucker and McCabe are not. Tucker’s 18 goals and 34 points will be more than made up by Niklas Hagman who had 27 goals and 41 points last year and has looked very good in the pre-season. McCabe only played 54 games last year and generally didn’t play that well compared to previous seasons scoring only 5 goals and 23 points. There is no reason not to believe that Jeff Finger (8 goals, 19 points) and/or a healthy Colaiacovo can make up much of that difference.

The big loss is Mats Sundin so unless Grabovsky can really exceed expectations you can assume that the Leafs offensive performance will drop. If the Leafs score 10% fewer goals this year they will end up with 205 goals, equal to that of the NY Rangers last year and ahead of the Devils and Ducks, all three of whom were playoff teams.

Speaking of Grabovsky, I think Leaf fans should be cautiously optimistic knowing that he scored 5 goals in the preseason and looked better and better every game out. He and Hagman looked to be developing some good chemistry as training camp went on. I am also encouraged by how well Jason Blake performed on a line with Antropov and Ponikarovsky and believe that he might improve on his 15 goals of a season ago and get back to the 25 goal guy he has been much of his career.

In short, I am cautiously optimistic that the Leafs offense, while unspectacular, will be decent enough. What Leaf fans need to watch for is their goaltending and defense. Most hockey analysts seem to believe that Vesa Toskala is a top tier goalie and that goaltending will be the least of the Leafs problems. I am not so sure. While Toskala looked good last year his numbers were still fairly unspectacular. His .904 save percentage was only good for 32nd in the league just behind Cam Ward and just ahead of Peter Budaj. Neither of those two goalies are anything to get excited about either. Beyond Toskala we have Curtis Joseph who was just OK in 9 games, just 5 starts, with Calgary last year after being pretty awful in Phoenix the year before. In his pre-season appearances he showed nothing to indicate that he has anything left in his tank or that he will be all that much better than the downright horrible Andrew Raycroft (.876 save percentage) last year.

On defense I am more optimistic that the Leafs will be an improved team not only because I think Ron Wilson is a better coach than Paul Maurice and will get the Leafs to play a smarter team game and defensive style, but because I think the Leafs will have a better mix of offensive and defensive minded defensemen. Added to the Leafs defense crew are defense first players such as Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren as well as Luke Schenn should he stick around for the season. Van Ryn isn’t too bad defensively either. All these factors, plus guys like Hagman and Mayers, should mean the Leafs should have a much improved penalty kill which was dead last in the NHL last year.

All things considered, there are definitely some positives for Leafs fans this upcoming season and I think the Leafs could surprise many of the doom and gloom forecasters. The keys to watch for are whether Toskala can pick up his game a bit more, whether forwards like Grabovsky, Steen and others can provide consistent offense, and most importantly, do the Leafs buy into Wilson’s defensive game and does that in turn improve their penalty kill measurably.

The other person to watch this season is Cliff Fletcher as I believe that several of the current Leafs will not be on this team come next summer. Likely candidates for trade are Mike Van Ryn, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Vesa Toskala, Ian White, and possibly Tomas Kaberle if the deal is right and Kaberle waives his no trade clause. If and when those trades are made will have a dramatic effect on where the Leafs might end up in the standings.

Sep 182008

If the Leafs are serious about rebuilding for the future, the Leafs should acquire Mathieu Schneider from the Anaheim Ducks. Ok, that sounds quite odd considering Schneider is old and expensive and set to be a UFA next summer. But after you read this it will make total sense.

The Anaheim Ducks are desperate to shed salary so they can get under the cap and sign Teemu Selanne. They have some forwards that they could possibly get rid of but non would free up all that much salary. Schneider is the guy they really want to get rid of. A few years ago the New Jersey Devils were desperate to shed salary to get under the cap as well. To do so the Devils traded Malakhov and a first round pick for a couple of fringe players. So, what the Leafs should do is offer Ian White to the Ducks for Schneider and a first round pick. Fletcher doesn’t seem all that interested in White long term, but is more than capable of playing on the third defense pair for the Ducks. The Ducks free up Schneider’s salary and the Leafs get a good pick to use in next summers draft.

But it doesn’t end there. Schneider is still a good defenseman and come trade deadline there will be teams looking for a defenseman with his skills and experience. At that time the Leafs could trade Schneider again for another good draft pick.

In the end the Leafs could end up with a couple of very good draft picks at a cost of Ian White, who may not make the team anyway, and the $4-4.5 million they would have to pay Schneider between now and the trade deadline. But as you know, the Leafs have ample money and ample cap room so that isn’t really an issue if they are truly serious about rebuilding. They are one of the few teams that could make such a move. The Canucks and Kings could probably do this as well but the Canucks seem intent on holding out for Sundin or would prefer a forward and the Kings are Anaheim’s cross city rival so Anaheim may prefer not to deal with them if they didn’t have to. The Leafs, if they were smart, could be Anaheim’s answer to their problem.

Oh, and Burke will be helping the team he will soon be GM of (if you listen to the media) so it works out perfectly.